Confronting racism as a white man
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.