Race in America

President Obama on race
President Obama speaks on race in response to the Trayvon Martin verdict against George Zimmerman: not guilty.

I started this post a few days ago. And, I sat on it. But, on the heals of President Obama’s remarks, it seems àpropos to admit an uncomfortable thing.

Hello, my name is Michelle Lasley, and I am a racist. I first became aware of my tendency to judge people by the color of their skin when I was about 18 years old. I was in the grocery store, in line at the check stand, behind a black man. He was clean-shaven, wore glasses, and was dressed casually, yet neat. And, I felt a pang of fear. Immediately, I realized the irrationality of that fear, but the fear was there.

And, Obama spoke to that fear, from the other end of the spectrum. A vantage point with which I am wholly unfamiliar.

There are, frankly, very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often. And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.

My friend Rory challenged us white folks to admit it. He challenged us to admit where we sit on the spectrum with this post on Tuesday:

What if people of privilege and pallor were to begin statements with “I’m a racist and…” rather than “I’m not a racist but…” in much the same way that AA introductions begin with one’s name “… and I’m an alcoholic?”

Have been spending time explaining about racism since Zimmerman’s acquittal and have the insight that much of the problem may the way that so many people feel trapped by the word “racist” as if it were an eternal badge of shame rather than a clear system and accident of history, and thinking about alternative ways to frame the issue. In particular I am considering Alcoholics Anonymous, and the many ways it helped reframed an issue of shame and moral defect through different language.

Anyone entering into a conversation about race in the United States is in a fertile place where great healing can happen, but only with a conscious commitment. Various twelve-step programs use the mantra “progress, not perfection” and they provide a helpful structure toward addressing a social and environmental issue which can be ameliorated but never solved. What can we learn from them?

Admit that we are to some extent powerless to change our culture immediately or solve problems overnight. Recognize that there might be a better way that can help us navigate that fact. Examine our past errors with the help of a more experienced “sponsor” and begin a fearless moral inventory with a possibility for amends so that we can move forward in a better way and help others to do the same. No one asks to be born into a racist system or alcoholic, but here we are. What can we do with it?

Privileged white folk need to stop confusing poor conditioning with evil, and ditch the shame to address their guilt and do better going forward.

I don’t like admitting that things aren’t fair. I don’t like admitting that I have these tendencies towards irrational judgement. I find it conflicting and odd… how can I be in a seat of power, as a woman, as a mother, as someone who grew up poor, as someone who is a whose parents didn’t graduate college? The “risk factors” are on both sides. I am of Central European decent without much Native American ancestry, as such, I am white. And, with that veil of white, I must admit that I am prejudiced, but I work to overcome.

3 Replies to “Race in America”

  1. Michelle, I really like your writing- you’re hitting some tough topics with courage. Keep it up, these are the discussions that need to happen!

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