(Photo credit: Ron Cogswell)
In the wake of recent incidents involving race relations in America, I’ve seen a sentiment voiced over and over from people who are frustrated with the current state of our union:
We’re really not any closer to overcoming racism now than we were fifty years ago.
That’s an understandable feeling, but it’s not actually true. Despite our ongoing struggles, we really do live in the most progressive time in America’s racial history. A mere two generations ago, it was legal to force children with different amounts of melanin in their skin to attend separate schools. Now we all use the same drinking fountains, we’ve elected a black president (twice), and overt racism rarely goes completely unchecked in public. Those are all huge steps in the right direction.
But as anyone with a shred of awareness can see, we haven’t eliminated racism. We are not living in a “post-racial America.” Not by a long shot.
Racism is like a big, sprawling weed embedded in the soil of the United States. In the past fifty years, we’ve managed to cut down most of the visible stalks and stems and leaves of that weed. We rarely see obvious, blatant racism tolerated on a wide scale. Today our laws and generally accepted societal practices reflect—for the most part—a sense of racial equality. And that’s good. That’s a necessary first step.
But if you’ve ever battled a noxious weed, you know that cutting down the visible plant is just the surface work. Chopping off a weed at its base doesn’t kill it; you have to dig it out by the roots. And that’s the hardest part. That’s the grueling, messy, down-on-your-hands-and-knees-with-dirt-under-your-fingernails work. It’s tedious and frustrating. You dig and pull, but the roots endlessly intertwine and cling desperately to the hard-packed earth. It can sometimes feels like an impossible task.
That’s where we are now with racism in America. The visible weed has been chopped down. Some people see that flat surface of earth and say the weed is gone. Some people deny that it still exists, even when the weed shows signs of sprouting. Some say if we just stop paying attention to it, stop talking about it, it’ll go away on it’s own.
But it won’t. That’s not the way weeds work.
If we don’t keep digging deep with racism, it’ll keep springing up. And this weed is more than just an eyesore in our front lawn; it threatens to destroy our very foundation if left unchecked. The roots of racism and racial prejudice are woven through our history, our social structures, our institutional framework, and our collective consciousness. Digging up those roots is ugly, messy, back-breaking work. It’s good work. It’s necessary. It’s not hopeless or impossible. But it’s not pretty, either.
So how do we do it? As with battling a real weed, we need a variety of tools. Talking about racism with people whose experiences don’t parallel our own is one tool. Striving to understand how the social, emotional, and psychological effects of our country’s racial history affect people today is another. Taking honest stock of our inherited legacies and our current realities is helpful. Listening with compassion and checking our instinct to defend ourselves in the face of uncomfortable truths is vital.
But what does rooting out racism actually look like in practice? That’s hard to say, and probably depends on our own individual circumstances, where we live, who we know, and what our own background looks like. And since roots sprawl under the surface, there’s a lot we can’t see until we start to do the work.
I think it might look like white people examining how racism infects us (yes, all of us) and acknowledging that white privilege is a real thing. It might look like black people patiently trying to help us white folks see things that are out of our view. It might look like white people acknowledging the far-reaching effects of 300+ years of oppression. It might look like black people being forbearing and forgiving when white people offend out of ignorance or lack of understanding. It might look like white people listening more than talking. It might look like black people doing their best to let go of anger, justified as it may be.
It definitely looks like people of all races and backgrounds working harder to understand one another’s experiences. Ideally, it looks like patience and honesty and humility from all sides, but likely it will often look like frustration with one another. We can’t uproot a weed as old and deep as racism without tearing up the ground and wearing a few fingers raw. The pain is part of the process.
And that’s okay. We just have to all recognize that it’s a long, messy process, and sometimes it’s going to hurt. Blame, anger, defensiveness, and denial are natural responses, but those things only harden the soil and make the work more difficult for everyone. Trying to soften our hearts will go far in loosening those roots.
Even if conversations get heated or tough or frustrating, we have to keep having them. Even when the soil is hard, we have to keep digging. We can’t see one another as enemies in this endeavor, because it’s going to take all of us. White hands, black hands, brown hands, tan hands—patiently, deliberately digging together as one human family.
That’s the only way we can hope to rid our home of this weed for good.
For historical context: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Dr. Joy Degruy
For understanding of current racial issues within our justice system: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
For understanding white privilege: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack by Peggy McIntosh
For more on what I think white Americans can do to work on racism: What I Want my Children to Know about Being White in America