One of the few good things about 2020 was that Black Lives Matter officially became a thing. It had been a thing for years, but it seemed in 2020 that White Americans finally decided it should be a thing they cared about. Many of us showed up for Black Lives Matter protests. We helped put a somewhat White face on a problem that ordinarily attracts mostly protestors of color.
2020 was also something of a wakeup call for me. Like most White Americans, I kind of slept through my own White privilege. Over sixty plus years, I think I’ve been pulled over by a cop four times. Once I got a ticket for not fully stopping at a red light. Once I was gently warned that my headlights weren’t on after I pulled out of an underground theater parking lot. Once I was ordered to pull over because I didn’t know that in my state if a cop car is on the shoulder you have to move to the left lane (they were just running an outreach campaign). And once I was told, almost apologetically, that I had a brake light out. In that instance no ticket was written. I never went to jail and at most I paid $75 for a ticket. I’m sure this contrasts dramatically with non-White Americans out there for whom having a police car with its lights on pulling them over is more routine than not.
Most of us don’t want to be racists, and even most racists will claim they are not racists. But most of us White Americans probably are at least subconsciously racist to some extent. I grew up with no memory of even seeing a Black American until I was in my teens. I’d like to say I exhibited no racism when I finally started to interact with Black people, but the truth was I felt awkward feeling awkward. I was the same way with a gay cousin who liked to hit on me. I didn’t know how to react so I reacted awkwardly and warily. It is this newness of being in what appears to be a new and uncertain environment that I think is the cause of implicit racism and homophobia too.
Thankfully, life broadened me. It brought me to the Washington D.C. area. When you are inundated with people of color every day, soon you become wholly inured to it. You realize quickly that there’s very little different about you and them. One of the weirdest things about moving in retirement was to return to a place that was much whiter than the place I left. I didn’t think about it at the time. Despite living in a liberal area, it’s hardly diverse and is about 85% white. Still, in the five years we’ve been here it’s hard not to notice that the place is coloring up.
I’ve come to acknowledge that I carry some implicit racial bias. The question is whether I choose to do something more than attend occasional Black Lives Matter rallies and maybe put a BLM sign on my yard. My life is still pretty insular. Most of my friends are White. Most of the people I see and interact with are White too. How does a White guy like me make friends with more people of color? If I truly care about addressing racism, how can I tangibly make a difference? Showing up at a rally is nice, but I’m just one in crowd.
A couple ideas have come to mind. First, use what I know to help people of color. What I know is IT: Information Technology. I’d like to say it made me rich, but I’m not rich in the conventional sense, just rich in a general sense. And being retired, I’ve got time on my hands. There should be people of color around here with a bent toward IT that could use some mentorship. So I have in mind to reach out to the school system and see if I can find pockets of these people and make myself available, likely after the pandemic is behind us. A lot of what I do to make money probably won’t interest a lot of these people, once they see what it involves. But it may interest some of them and it may help them generate the skills and confidence to nurture their talents.
Another one hit me recently: I could be a White guy who volunteers to walk with people of color when they are dealing with power situations. Power is usually controlled by White people. For example, you won’t find too many Black landlords, because fewer Blacks have the assets to acquire property and rent it out. I could simply volunteer to stand next to them when they are in these situations, and use the power of my Whiteness to see if it makes a difference. I have come to believe that this is a real thing. If I stand with a person of color when they petition a landlord or plea for public housing, it is likely that merely standing with them and advocating for them will affect the power dynamic. I’m retired so I have the time. I also have a car so if necessary I could pick them up and take them back to home or work. I can use the implicit power of my skin color so that, at the very least, they are likelier to be treated as kindly as I generally was as I navigated through life.
Perhaps this could become a thing that could go national. Create a website, say bringawhitey.org. It would allow people of color to connect with Whites who want to use our inherent power to mitigate racism. I imagine like any other social media site it would need some reputation management system, so people of color could feel assured their volunteer White person was genuinely antiracist. People could be matched based on location, need and availability. We White people might need some professional training first. We’d probably have to learn how to use our power correctly and be up on what was and wasn’t allowed. There would need to be clear boundaries by all parties. But I am willing to bet that if I walked up to an apartment rental office with a person of color and said, “My friend Brian here is looking to rent an apartment,” it would get a whole different response than if Brian went in by himself. And if I detected some implicit bias and gently called it out, I’m betting it would have a whole lot more effect than if I wasn’t there. There might be an implicit assumption that because I am assumed to be Brian’s friend, that he’s safe somehow.
Some of this is doubtless a gnawing feeling of my unearned privilege that now that I’m fully aware of it I feel needs some redress by me. As a teen I was aware of my implicit racism simply from my feeling of discomfort being around people of color. Even then I was ashamed of it.
Now though I am both aware of it and have spent so much time around people of color that racism makes me viscerally angry. Perhaps steps like these would allow me to move beyond anger and into doing something productive with this anger. It’s likely I’d expand my pool of friends of color in the process.