Dear Maria,

I was raised that the only difference between white people and black people was the color of their skin. That black people were just like me, only darker. I never thought any different and always treated them with the same respect as I do everyone else. I was also raised to love everyone just like God has loved me. Lately I am finding this harder and harder to do. All of the killing lately is really striking a nerve. Black people are so mad at white policemen for killing black people. I have not heard much in the fact that the black person is committing a crime and the police are protecting themselves and others by the shooting. The slogan “Black lives Matter” also strikes a nerve with me. I feel that black people are now more racist that white people ever have been. I feel any racism that our county has overcome is now rearing its ugly head in people, people like me who treated them the same as everyone. These feelings are building up in me and I don’t like it.

Signed,

No Longer Colorblind

Dear No Longer Colorblind,

Thank you for your brave questions. Racism is a heated issue, and many people are reluctant to talk about it. I appreciate your confusion over recent events. In addition to your confusion, I suspect there’s also sadness, fear, and anger. Feelings like these are boiling over for many people. Your letter shows that you’d like to sort them out. Here are a few of my thoughts.

I was raised in a similar manner. What I have come to see over the last two years is that skin color carries with it perceptions, history, privilege, assumptions, experiences…it is not simply an issue of different pigment. Broadly speaking, the experience of being white in America and being black in America are profoundly different. All of us are trying to make our way in systems—economic, legal, political, cultural, educational, and religious—that do not treat all participants equally. (Here’s an excellent opinion piece from the St. Louis Post Dispatch that helped me understand the economic side of this issue.) There’s the ideal of America, which reflects the equality you speak of, and the reality of America, which, sadly, does not.

I cannot understand what it is like to be a person of color in this country. But I can acknowledge that I have benefited, albeit unwittingly, in systems that favor people who share my skin color. As a woman, I can relate to what it’s like to be judged on my appearance, have my opinions dismissed by (male) colleagues, and get talked-over and ignored at public events, from civic meetings to my children’s sporting events. None of these, however, threatened my ability to feed my family, pay the rent, obtain healthcare, feel safe, or vote. The stress of poverty is real, and those of us who never dealt with it simply don’t understand.

The media is saturated with images of racist and violent behavior, initiated by people of all colors. (My Facebook feed is also full of posts that witness to our better selves.) Social media has exposed our country’s injustices in ways that previous news channels did not. The racism was there all along—we’re just seeing it plainly now. This upheaval calls us to revisit our assumptions about our systems, and each other. As I prepared to answer your question, I heard this terrific interview on the radio about a program called Showing Up for Racial Justice. (Coincidence? I think not!)  I invite you to listen to it. All parties need opportunities to talk about their feelings, perceptions, and concerns. Talking, and really listening, are the answer—not violence. In addition to the SURJ program, the Diversity Awareness Partnership is facilitating these conversations. Real healing begins with folks like you who are willing to share their confusion and pain. Thanks again.

 

Editor’s note: This edition of Maria Rodgers O’Rourke’s advice column was originally published in the summer of 2016.