There is a four letter word that is as distasteful as its other four letter counter parts and it distorts realities, paralyzes its victims and creates doubt; FEAR. Tatum, addresses the various degrees of fear in the article “Whiteness: the Power of Resistance” (2008) and I beleive the article hits the proverbial nail squarely on the head. Somehow in some way we were taught that different is “bad” and not “normal” and typically, we fear that which we do not know. We claim to “celebrate” our differences in this country but only if those differences don’t permeate the society that we have established. America, it appears, does not respond well to change an irony that confounds me. That being said, it does not mean that we should give up and stop trying to improve. I am sure you are familiar with the old saying, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” as often times it’s the small squeaky rumblings of society that capture the attention of society; Occupy Wall Street anyone? For me, this means that the “trickle down” theory may not work when dealing with racism but the trickle UP theory may; meaning, change starts with the individual who carries it forward.
My son has a friend named Pete (real name changed). Pete is a nice kid and he is respectful of me, my home and my family. Pete is on the honor roll at school and he plays several sports. He would be what one would consider the “All American” boy. So you can imagine my surprise when watching television one day in my home, a commercial came on with a black couple and it had to do with their homeowners insurance. I said that I thought it was a funny commercial and Pete agreed and followed it up with, “Yeah, I mean really, because everybody knows that black people don’t own homes and could never afford that place!” At first I truly thought he was being sarcastic and then I realized that he was serious. I did not explode in anger and instead calmly explained to Pete that, while he is entitled to his own opinions and beliefs, in my home certain language and behaviors are unacceptable and will not be tolerated and if he could not comply then he was welcome to go home. Pete was stunned and actually asked me why because “it’s not like you’re black”. I explained why I found the language offensive and he at least heard another point of view. Have I changed who he is and what he believes? No, but I did make clear what I was willing to accept and where I draw the line. Had I stayed quiet and silently disagreed while allowing the actions and words to go unaddressed, I would be condoning something that I know is wrong. I think that we need to get to a place, as individuals, where we set our personal acceptable standards and act on them in spite of our fear. We cannot control the world but we can control ourselves, our reactions, our behaviors, our words and our silence. If we are to remain silent we are, in essence, issuing our perceived agreement.
I think people stay quiet out of fear of confrontation or being scrutinized as “overly sensitive”. The saying “I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not” has lead me to consider how I want to be remembered and has changed how I have chosen to behave. I am not disrespectful or rude, I merely know who I am and am not afraid to speak my mind in an appropriate manner. There are some individuals who may say that “who” they are is indeed a racist, and sadly, you cannot change everyone; but I do feel that there is an appropriate way to confront someone with a difference of opinion or belief and that it can be done respectfully and without being aggressive or nasty. For me, it starts with a question and then maybe another until I can understand, at least to a minimal degree, why this person thinks/acts the way that they do, and then I am able explain my “why’s” to them. By becoming more conscious of our own actions and words, in my opinion, is how we can educate ourselves and others and change has the opportunity to take place. Change then continues when we share the experiences with others; we simply have to stay open.
If we avoid “uncomfortable” discussions about race all together and act like everything is fine then we do ourselves, others and society a disservice. Doing what is right will sometimes make you uncomfortable but it can also make you a hero. Can you imagine what our world would be like if everyone stayed comfortable and never acted even when afraid? Let’s look at the 9/11 responders; it has been said that they were heroes because when everyone else was running away they ran in. They knew that unless they acted people were going to die and even if they could not save everyone, they may be able to save some; even if it meant giving their own lives. I would imagine that it must have been terrifying to run into those fire ridden buildings and even more terrifying to acknowledge that by doing so you may not survive. When it comes to discussing race and acting on what is right vs. what is comfortable, we all have the opportunity to be a hero; we just have to set aside our fear and act. What are your standards of acceptable practice and have you honored them? Are you willing to set fear aside and become comfortable with discomfort? Who’s hero are you willing to be?