In comparison to the last ten years, this current moment in the history of US racism seems calm, as if all is well. Yet, the currents under the surface of these calm waters are far from calm. Consider these facts: Michigan State University has just issued an apology (one that sounds all too familiar) in response to criticism because their gift shop had a display where figurines of black people were placed hanging from a tree; Colin Kaepernick still does not have a job in the NFL; two young black men in Texas were not allowed to graduate from high school because their dreadlocks were too long; while covering the Kobe Bryant tragedy, a newscaster stumbled on air and called the “LA Lakers,” the “LA N****ers;” and the Trump administration has just released their list of additional countries for the travel ban, which includes mostly countries with populations of color.
These points undergird the enduring validity of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its relevance during the the last few years. For instance, we are reminded of the disproportionate reaction to black athletes like Colin Kaepernick by the POTUS who called them all disdainful unprintable epithets compared to his tepid and cautiously nuanced response to white supremacists who openly marched in Charlottesville in support of white nationalism. The difference in these reactions should make us all ponder carefully and clearly. While the white nationalists like the ones in Charlottesville spewed hatred for particular groups of Americans and seemed intent on eroding the waves of progress gained painfully by so many Americans, Black athletes and their allies were peacefully holding their country to a higher standard reflective of its aspirations as a nation where all citizens are valued. These are the patriots, following in the footsteps of so many Americans who fought and sacrificed for the freedom of all Americans. True patriots should want justice for all.
These racist occurrences are the tip of the iceberg, the most visible and public part of a deep and dangerous problem. But the part of the iceberg that lies hidden beneath the surface is much more dangerous, and massive. It is that which is submerged that becomes the most subversive. The everyday occurrences that do not make it on to the news, that happen to us and we simply shake our heads and keep going through our day. It is the story of the 5 year old African American girl who is called an “ugly black witch” by the 5 year old white boy in her pre-kindergarten class; it is the two young black women who were pulled over in Columbia Missouri for nothing other than the police had a suspicion that they might have weed; it is my student who was crossing the street and was almost run over by a white man in a truck who screamed “nigger” at her. These are happenings that occur every day, quietly adding to the subversive mass of dangerous ice below the surface. It all seems hopeless, for how much chipping away can one group of people achieve against a system supported by the most powerful institutions and individuals? Until we are all concerned, even those of us who are not personally impacted, we remain up against a hard cold place.
Most black people know what lies beneath the surface because we have to deal with it every day, but the mainstream society seems mostly unaware of the everyday indignities that are served people of color, resulting in bursts of surprise and outrage every time the tip of the iceberg reveals itself again. However, the tip of the iceberg is able to remain because nothing has changed beneath the surface. Perhaps it is time to plunge in and look under the surface, even if you are not personally impacted, and seek ways to act to change the shape of these hidden experiences. A recent episode struck me deeply, and I offer it here as an example of the ugliness of racism and the hope that is possible when more of us act.
My husband works in an office that has heavy customer service traffic. He is the only black man on the team. One day last week a woman came in to get some advice on her concerns. The receptionist directed her to an office where my husband was waiting to assist her. When the woman saw my husband standing there, she whispered to the receptionist, “Will I be safe in there with him?” The only reading of this reaction is that the woman has a racist lens through which she sees the world. It was not the well-ironed shirt my husband was wearing (he is obsessive about ironing his clothes), or the pair of glasses on his handsome face that raised a spontaneous reaction of fear in her. It was simply and completely the color of his skin. This is a textbook definition of racism.
When he recounted the story that evening, my heart went out to him because this was just another example of what black folks contend with every day. Often people call in and ask to speak to someone else because they are uncomfortable with his accent. But as I processed this latest episode, I began to realize that there were three heroes (patriots?) in this story. The first, of course, is my husband who noticed the woman’s hostility even before he heard about her comment, and yet still managed to treat her like any other client. The two other heroes were the receptionist who chose to tell my husband what the woman had whispered and the manager who heard about the encounter and called the woman to let her know that her behavior was unacceptable. Neither of these white women were directly impacted by the racism, but someone they cared about, a colleague, a human being, had been attacked. They could have turned away, told him that he was over-reacting, that the perpetrator was just a cranky lady. Instead they listened to him, absorbed part of his pain, believed him, and acted to confront the source of racism. They looked beneath the surface to see a seemingly small racist act that had the potential to wound deeply. My husband went to work the next day, still weary of the customers, but reassured that his colleagues had his back. We should never underestimate this feeling.
This is what we need. We need more people to be affected by the chill of racism, to speak up when they see something that goes against our values as a just society. We need to understand that people of color have had experiences like this all their lives, that there is a level of exhaustion when only the affected folks chip away at the massive oppression by themselves. And, of course, we all must be intentional and adamant as we urge the wider society to rethink and reclaim the definition of “American patriot.”