February 27, 2012
By George Land
Last year, the board of trustees created an ad hoc committee to discuss race and whether or not the ACLU should develop a board program on the issue with another organization.
The subject of race is a very personal topic that can elicit strong reactions. As we opened up to each other on different topics related to race, I believe each member of our group learned far more about each other than we had likely considered we would. That was a very good result, allowing us to disarm ourselves and to trust each other more, which then permitted us to get to the very heart of certain matters, such as defining “racism” and the idea of “white privilege.” We spoke truthfully and shared deep, personal experiences and convictions. As is the case with divisive subjects, especially those pertaining to race, the ability to discuss candidly is the only time progress can be made.
Our discussions reiterated my notion that our personal experiences can be our primary limiting factor as we examine our feelings on race. I felt assured that everyone on our committee is committed to examining solutions for various issues that fall under the organization’s objectives related to racial discrimination and insensitivity.
Yet, we had a number of intense debates about concepts, definitions, and cause and effect philosophies, mostly from what I would call “a difference in perspective based on experiences.” This reaffirmed the fact that it is extremely difficult to truly understand the mentality of a racial group that is different from one’s own, and equally difficult to understand the effects of pervasive racial issues and how those racial issues manifest in people differently based on their own personal experiences.
As an African-American who has been a full participant in both the black world (residences, education, social) and white world (education, job, social), I believe I have a somewhat unique perspective on race relations, and I must confess that I find the topic and manifestations of race fascinating. From my view, not much ¬has changed in decades from the standpoint that the majority of people of color still do not typically share many of their experiences and the ills of racism in any depth with whites because there is the very real possibility that their feelings might be minimized.
And when you have experienced (or perceived to have experienced) some very personal, harsh life events, the last thing you want is a) to have someone who deems themselves as an open-minded, intelligent person minimize those events (because they cannot fully relate), and b) to have someone white who may or may not completely understand all of the facets involved to become the arbiter of your feelings – deciding if it was or was not indeed a racially motivated situation or just a perception to the alleged victim.
Scars are often deep and perception is another person’s reality, so I think the tendency is to not share.
Self-censorship with regards to race does not happen only on one side of the aisle, though. Many -- maybe most -- white Americans, tend to be extremely guarded on race or avoid the subject entirely while in the presence of people of color because of the fear of slipping up and innocently saying something that is then perceived as offensive or for fear of just plain being misinterpreted with the end result of being labeled as racist. Admittedly, it can be argued that often many African-Americans are hypersensitive and overact to innocuous statements. Understandably, it is much safer to not discuss these matters and make no substantive progress. These are the two conversational challenges we must seek to overcome in order to make real advancement.
(An aside on racial hypersensitivity: while a constant overreaction and calling everything “racist” is obviously misleading and detrimental to the cause, it is important to realize that conditioning may be the biggest factor as a reason. Imagine someone smacking you on your head every day for five years, then one day they stop. I’m pretty sure for a long time thereafter when you see that person coming, you are going to assume, maybe erroneously, that the person has bad intentions for you and instinctively leading you to react accordingly.)
There were significant discussions on two topics - defining racism and white privilege. One discussion revolved around the fact that there are some organizations that believe “only whites can be racists,” presumably because generally they control the institutions (economic, social, educational, etc.) and have the power to affect other groups. While acknowledging the disproportionate number of whites in power across most industries and institutions, I believe that the proposition that only whites can be racists, like one of my committee colleagues stated, is a “distraction” and shifts the focus of any race discussion to a frivolous one. The truth is that anyone, regardless of race, can be racially insensitive and discriminatory, and the more appropriate discussion on how we bridge our cultural gap would be more effective. Still, I think we have to acknowledge that whites tend to be in superior positions of power where discriminatory practices can affect/oppress other racial groups significantly more than the other way around.
The idea of white privilege is a very interesting subject that stirred intense discussions within our group. The idea is that whites enjoy certain benefits based purely on the fact that they are white. Again, while I do not believe the primary use of that theme is the best approach in attacking our racial issues, it is a very real thing and should be acknowledged and part of all large discussions on race – if only as a point of reference to possibly clarify or give perspective on some of the problems of African-Americans that may go largely unrecognized.
There are countless ways that white privilege reveals itself – the ability to feel confident that if you get stopped by the police and knowing that if you have done nothing wrong, you will not get harassed based on your color; the ability to feel confident to know that if you are walking down the sidewalk a night and you approach someone of a different race, they will not view you as a possible menace based on your color; the ability to attend a prestigious university and not have some of your fellow classmates wonder if you truly have the credentials to be there or if you are just filling a diversity quota; the ability to be confident that when you turn on the television, you will see plenty of images of people of your race that will far outbalance any negative stereotypes that you may also see; the ability to be confident as a little girl to know that when you pick up a beauty magazine, you will certainly find images of “beauty” that share your physical characteristics, etc.
Because there are so many subtle “privileges” that exist, many go unnoticed or seem insignificant (the ability to find flesh-colored band-aids!). But do not diminish the collective role they play in widening the cultural gap – especially when they are not acknowledged. I oppose the notion that because there are some black people today who are better off than some white people, or that a poor white immigrant may not think she is benefiting from “white privilege”, that the topic is not relevant. To pick out exceptions to the general state of reality allows one to miss the big issue. The term “white privilege”, may in fact be offensive to many whites, I would imagine, because it could imply they did not have to work hard to attain success. Whatever it is called, it exists. If you compare a poor white immigrant to a poor black immigrant on the same socio-economic level, my guess is that, all things being equal and based solely on race, the black immigrant will have a harder time. I think that is the reason you see many immigrants trying to pass as white, but rarely have I heard of the reverse. There must be some inherent value in that.
It is my conjecture that, generally, if a white person and a black person achieve the same level of success, we can assume the black person worked equally as hard as the white person and it is likely that the black person had to work even harder – just based on socioeconomic status. And there are other factors that are not noted in the stats, but are stark realities. For example, generally, people tend to socialize and live among those we feel most comfortable with and those people tend to look like themselves (maybe that is human nature?). Additionally, generally speaking, the executive corporate world tends to be disproportionately white. So, when the CEO or other top executives want to recommend someone for hire – someone who will ultimately be hired because of the level of recommendation – then that person, more often than not, is also white. It is all legal in the game of life. But the problem is that blacks have far fewer of those types of head starts. Many people acknowledge the fact that blacks are disproportionately disadvantaged; the harder thing for many to admit, it seems, is that as a whole, whites have been unfairly advantaged. Skin color does not guarantee success or failure, but it still plays a significant role – consciously or unconsciously – in our society.
I reflect on all of this with the hopes it will further advance discussions on race within the board. During our committee meetings, it was quite apparent that as the topics became more personal and the discussions more intense, it ultimately caused me (and probably my colleagues also) to pause later to reflect on some of thoughts that were shared and lead us all to try to look at the world through a prism that we might never have considered.
That means our work was a success.