Voices: To the (Probably White) Person Who Says It Shouldn’t Be About Race

PORTLAND, OR (February 18, 2014) — Editor’s note: From time to time, we come across articles in church newsletters, individual blogs, and other media that we believe may interest our readers. Jelani Greenidge is interim worship leader at Kaleo Covenant Church in Beaverton, Oregon, and a regular columnist for the Covenant Companion.

So, in light of the Michael Dunn verdicts—several guilty counts of attempted murder, but a hung jury on the count of murder in the first degree—there is a resurgence of conversation on social media about the ways in which the criminal justice systems, particularly in the state of Florida, are heavily biased against young black men.

In particular, I’ve seen scores of black people lamenting this disparity, usually with some emotional combination of sadness, anger, or, most common, a detached bitter sense of resignation.

And in response, when discussing the particulars of the case, I’ve seen several white people say things like, “Well, I just don’t think it should be about race,” or “Skin color has nothing to do with it,” or something along those lines. It’s not that they’re defending Michael Dunn’s (or before him, George Zimmerman’s) actions, but they’re saying, “It’s just a tragic situation, period, and race shouldn’t factor into it.”

It always hurts for me to read or hear comments like that. Every. Single. Time.

You know why? Here’s why.

Because in principle I agree with you, but that ship sailed a long time ago.

Like, literally. Centuries ago, ships carrying African slaves to this continent started a foundation of forced labor and systemic disenfranchisement, and ever since, people with brown skin and a cultural connection to the African American experience, no matter how tenuous, have faced an uphill struggle to receive the same benefits and fair treatment as whites.

I know that’s not exactly news, but when you say you don’t want to talk about race, you are, intentionally or not, implying that this history is irrelevant to the current state of affairs. This is not only logically inconsistent, but from my vantage point, personally offensive. Not that I feel offended every single time… usually, I’m able to brush it off because I get that it’s not being said with malicious intent.

But it’s still painful. It’s a micro-aggression that I choose not to respond to most of the time because it’s usually said by someone with whom I don’t share a particularly close relationship, and sometimes it’s not worth the time and effort to sort through these things.

But I’m writing this now just to give you, my unspecified but more-than-hypothetical mutual white friend, a bit of insight regarding how this comment might look to someone on the other side of this particular privilege axis.

When you say or type, “Why do we have to make this about race?” this is what we read or hear:

Why are you bringing up this confusing and painful situation? I don’t mind talking about current events, but you’re bringing up an area where I feel like I’m at a disadvantage as a white person, and rather than take the time to deal with whatever layer of privilege I may walk in, I’d much prefer to skirt the issue altogether and protect the illusion I’ve been harboring that my accomplishments are all solely the result of my hard work. So stop talking about race because it makes me uncomfortable.

I’m sure you don’t mean to say all of that, but that’s how it can come across.

You know what makes me uncomfortable? The idea that I might get shot at a gas station if I’m listening to Lecrae, Trip Lee, or any other artist that sounds like someone else’s idea of “thug music.” (By the way, those artists are Christians. They are not thugs, by any stretch of a definition. But you won’t know that if you don’t actually pay attention to what’s being said in the music.)

When we’re talking about a systemic racial bias that subtly provides a veneer of legal justification for the targeting—not just figurative, but actual, literal targeting—of young black males by gun-carrying white people, and you say, “Let’s not bring race into this,” what you’re unintentionally declaring is that your desire to be comfortable in the conversation is more important than our desire to not get shot.

Again… you might not be trying to say this, but that’s how it can come across.

So perhaps there are different phrases you could use to communicate the sentiment? Perhaps you could try this one on:

It saddens me that there is still so much racial division in this country, and I wish things were different.

See? I can TOTALLY give an amen and a high-five to that. Feel free to copy-and-paste that one into your Facebook conversations, whenever you feel the urge to say that race shouldn’t be in the conversation.

Or, if you want to go with a lighter touch, feel free to use Seinfeld’s “look to the cookie.”

That is all.

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13 Comments

  1. Thanks Jelani-very well said and helpful. Also thanks for the Seinfeld episode..I thought I’d seen ‘em all but missed that one.
    Betsy

  2. Jelani, the undeniable truth is life’s not fair for any of us. What I have always told my own kids and the athletes I coach is you should not always expect to be treated fairly. There will always be bad calls, prejudice, (hidden and unhidden), and people who try to cheat you.

    I’ll take a big step and say, that’s not important. What is important is how you respond, your attitude and how you figure out how to make the most of the situation. I’m a white American who’s a Pollack, married to an Irish German American lady, who adopted Colombians, living and working in a neighborhood that is similar to the United Nations. I truly believe I’m color blind. I live like Dr. King challenged us to live by looking not at the color of a man’s skin but at the content of his character.

    What got me there was my Christianity and my “Attitude of Gratitude.” When I am facing a situation in my own life that is unjust, an important thing to turning it around is to thank God because I know he can work good in the worst of situations. Here is what I am talking about; you wrote about the “ships carrying African slaves to this continent started a foundation of forced labor and systemic disenfranchisement…” Slavery was undoubtedly a [stain] in our nation’s history. Much like abortion today, it robbed humans of the God-given right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Instead of looking at that history and claiming we still suffer today those injustices, what about taking a different perspective? Although it was extremely tough on those slaves, how about thanking God for your ancestors who suffered so you can now live as a free man in the greatest nation in the history of the world? In the end, you get what you expect, and if you expect to see racism, you won’t be disappointed. Thankfully, the flip side is also true.

    1. Denny,

      Much the sentiment you express, I agree with. Particularly the part about accepting that there will always be hardship and travail and people who will always try to get over. Indeed, I believe that it’s a mark of character to be willing to rise above those tactics with one’s dignity intact.

      And yes, I do in fact, carry a large amount of gratitude for those who came before me and sacrificed mightily to give me the opportunities that I have today. I’m speaking both generically of my African-American heritage (or, to be more precise in my family’s case, Afro-Caribbean) as well as specifically for both of my parents, particularly my father, Rev. Henry Greenidge, who has labored in many arenas, including our very own ECC, to help ensure a more fair and just environment for people of color to worship in, on a local, regional and national basis.

      However, you said this:

      “In the end, you get what you expect, and if you expect to see racism, you won’t be disappointed. Thankfully, the flip side is also true.”

      This I must disagree with most vehemently. I have walked into plenty of churches, parachurch organizations, and establishments of higher learning (including North Park University, where I got my BA) fully expecting to find a respite from the casual and structural racism that I endured throughout my secular work and education history, and ended up disappointed when I encountered many of the same assumptions about white cultural superiority and racialized inequities.

      You can read more about my North Park experience here:
      http://www.christenacleveland.com/2013/09/be-ready-to-blaze-a-trail/

      I’ve heard it said that the difference between mercy and justice is that mercy is helping someone who’s drowning in a river, but justice is asking the question, “why are people ending up drowning in this river?” and trying to do something about the problem. It’s my conviction that most people of color eventually reach a point where trying to function without addressing the problem of racism crosses the threshold from quiet dignity into naive foolishness. To continue attempting to secure the fruits of the American dream that we’ve been promised, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, without trying to combat the insidious forces of structural and institutional racism that pervade our culture, would require a denial of reality bordering on outright delusion.

      I know that all of us are somewhat limited by the scope of our own experiences, but there are plenty of people of color — especially Black men — who have had similar experiences, people who were not peeking under every rock for examples of racism, but who were simply trying to do the hard work of assimilating into a broader American culture and had to deal with the painful reality that they weren’t receiving the same treatment as their white counterparts. Many resources have been created from these stories, in the form of books, blog posts, feature films, songs, et cetera. It might do you some good to avail yourself of one of these resources.

      Because I’m sure you mean well, but at a certain point, intentions are less relevant to the outcome. If you want to be taken seriously as someone trying to engage this issue, you would be wise to take some time and listen to someone of an ethnic minority who wishes to share their story with you. You might be surprised at what you find.

      Otherwise, your observations, while valid according to your point of view, will be too removed from the situation to be particularly useful — like if I saw footage of a plane that crashed into the ocean and decided that it couldn’t have been all that painful, because I’ve swam in the ocean and water is soft, so if those people died it must’ve been because they did something wrong on their way down.

  3. Thank you, Jelani. Such good and important words for our world and each one of us.
    I have also appreciated your writings in The Companion.

  4. Thank you. I keep running into Christians in denial about race and your post is right on target. Peace and blessings to you.

  5. Thanks, Jelani. It is hard for us white people to see just how much privilege and prejudice are embedded in American culture. Thank you for challenging me to take off my blinders and see truth more clearly.

  6. As an older black man I say thank Jelani for expressing the frustrations of a lifetime. And dare I say, millions of lifetimes.

  7. Thanks, Jelani.
    I’m an old white guy who wishes it weren’t all about race but understands that it is. I wish it weren’t so, and I hope that it will eventually be not so. Look at these Bosnians and Serbs, still going at it; look at these Sunni and Shia, look at the Hutti and the Tutti… May peace and love eventually reign. I wish I knew how to advance it sooner. Kudos to you.

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