I grew up in Newport, PA, a backwoods town where I maybe knew of two African-American men, and at that, I only knew one of them as a friend (and was in his wedding no less). My white-washed town didn’t really know much about the outside world, and stories about the nearest city (Harrisburg) weren’t exactly positive. Even today, talk about being outside in the city limits after dark invokes shudders in most people, and comments about the likelihood of getting mugged fly very quickly. I wouldn’t call them well founded by any means; most of them are based on one particular incident that happened to a coworker thirty years ago, but that’s the picture they have of a city far larger than their own small town life.
What’s this got to do with racism? I learned through these stories (and through a number of other avenues) to identify the criminal as black.
Though I did encounter overt racism growing up there (and responded with proper shock and anger), there were little things that people said reinforcing the stereotype in my mind, like pointing out that the majority of people in the prison system are black, or that crime rates are highest in the ghettos of cities. These statements might be factual, but were interpreted to mean that being around black people was dangerous. I learned to be afraid of places with people of any color, though on the surface I learned that racism is wrong.
Fast forward to today, and I’m finding that I’m not alone. Studies show that people of all colors have learned to identify African-Americans as criminals, whether through upbringing, through TV shows like Cops, or even just through watching the evening news. How did this happen in a society that’s supposed to be post-racist? In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander points to an unexpected culprit: colorblindness. In our efforts to “not care” about the color of someone’s skin, we’ve actually just learned to justify our own racism. Criminals choose their way of life; there’s no racism present in the judicial and penal systems because all of the men and women in jail were found guilty for their crimes. The fact that the majority of them are black or brown is merely a coincidence.
While my point here is tied to the issue of mass incarceration, we’ll save that for another post. My point is that, through trying to be “colorblind,” I blinded myself to my own racism and its sources, and it made me afraid to even discuss matters of race. If I admitted that my fears were racially driven, then that made me a racist, and racism is evil. So I just didn’t talk about it. Ever.
And that’s what I do to perpetuate racism: I don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about it. Ever. We’re so scared of being called a racist that we ignore the fact that we are merely ignoring the problem. It didn’t go away; it just grew while we turned our back to it.
I’m done ignoring the problem, done letting snide comments about a black woman’s name, or slightly racist jokes, or misinterpreted data slide. It’s time we started paying attention again.