Con­fronting racism as a white man

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Royce Jef­frey Royce Jef­frey is an ed­u­ca­tor in Bal­ti­more; his email is royce.jef­

As a pre­teen grow­ing up un­der the safe blan­ket of a pre­dom­i­nantly white sub­ur­ban Mary­land neigh­bor­hood, I was un­equiv­o­cally drawn to the vi­brant threads of black cul­ture. I revered so many of its out­spo­ken he­roes: Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, Martin Luther King, Muham­mad Ali, Marvin Gaye, Tu­pac Shakur, Spike Lee, Thur­good Mar­shall.

An older, and con­sid­er­ably taller, boy named Kellen would visit our neigh­bor­hood from New York each sum­mer, bring­ing with him all of the lat­est ex­plicit ’90s rap mu­sic I craved and my par­ents ab­horred.

My peers of­ten asked if I had looked in the mir­ror lately: “Dude, you’re white,” they’d re­mind me, ef­fec­tively im­ply­ing that I needed to start act­ing like it. I would thank them for the racial re­fresher, while inside I felt my­self sway­ing pre­car­i­ously on the rick­ety bridge that con­nected the chasm be­tween whites and blacks.

My step­fa­ther al­ways told me that I was born with the golden ticket: a well-off white male in late-20th-cen­tury Amer­ica. Count­less mi­nori­ties re­ceived only a raf­fle ticket that guar­an­teed them noth­ing but a long shot at gain­ing the sta­tus, re­spect and equal­ity that was pre­de­ter­mined to be my birthright.

For years I put up with off-color com­ments, ex­cus­ing racially in­sen­si­tive jokes as the in­her­ited big­otry from el­ders and smil­ing po­litely at in­sults from my in­su­lated — and of­ten ig­no­rant — white cir­cle.

Af­fix­ing foot­notes to many of these re­marks was as common as look­ing over one’s shoul­der be­fore mak­ing them. One of the old stan­dards is: I have noth­ing against black folks, but (insert opin­ion against black folks). Or the ever-pop­u­lar: It’s OK, I have lots of black friends (none of whom you’d speak this way around).

As a weak-minded youth, I tol­er­ated much of this hate­ful vit­riol, see­ing it merely as harm­less, if dis­taste­ful, rhetoric. But I have grown to a point where I am com­fort­able with ju­di­ciously voic­ing my dis­plea­sure to my white broth­ers and sis­ters.

D. Watkins, a Bal­ti­more na­tive as well as pub­lished author and teacher, wrote, “If you are in a priv­i­leged group, and you want to help op­pressed peo­ple, one of the best things you can do is teach other peo­ple in your priv­i­leged group.”

By say­ing noth­ing, are we mod­el­ing the tenets of mercy to­ward our fel­low man, or are we pro­vid­ing a host on which a par­a­site can fes­ter and breed? As hosts, we are just as cul­pa­ble as the par­a­site it­self; ac­ces­sories to the mur­der of hu­man dig­nity.

Hall of Fame bas­ket­ball coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s char­ac­ter is what he does when no one is watch­ing.” Wooden stood tall in the face of an un­apolo­get­i­cally racist so­ci­ety dur­ing his early life. He would not com­pro­mise his prin­ci­ples, even pulling his en­tire team from a tour­na­ment in the 1940s be­cause his one black player was not per­mit­ted to at­tend.

What do we do when no other races are watch­ing? Are we will­ing to stand up to our own di­vi­sive mem­bers? To an­nounce our dis­ap­proval of ver­bal at­tacks on mi­nor­ity groups made from the com­fort of our ho­moge­nous so­cial cir­cles? To sever cords that bind us to those who still speak the an­cient lan­guage of di­vi­sion?

This can be un­com­fort­able ground that many may not be ready or will­ing to walk. We fear os­tra­ciza­tion — get­ting kicked out of our fa­mil­iar par­adise. A Wash­ing­ton, D.C., po­lice of­fi­cer once told me that “the ceme­ter­ies are full of good Sa­mar­i­tans.” Peo­ple who try to ward off in­jus­tice can of­ten be­come the very vic­tims they in­tended to de­fend.

Is our white skin too thin to take the po­ten­tial re­tal­i­a­tion from those around us who have had their in­grained stereo­types and view­points chal­lenged? Will we be buried for at­tempt­ing to bring other whites a sense of com­pas­sion and un­der­stand­ing to the plight of mi­nori­ties?

To quote Dr. Dre from his clas­sic “The Chronic” al­bum: “Things will re­main the same un­til I change ’em.”

We can make these changes by boldly hold­ing each other ac­count­able for the words of our white worlds; tak­ing steps to fuse the yin and yang of racial har­mony; do­ing our part to ei­ther soften hearts of stone, or to leave them be­hind in the ru­ins they com­prise.

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