There’s a Huffington Post article I keep seeing around on my Facebook news feed called “Police Misconduct, African-American Misconduct, Muslim Misconduct: Call for Action.” It’s written by an older white man named George Peknik, who in an open letter format instructs the 95 percent of “good ones” of three communities that they need to do a better job of rebuking the “criminal” and “evil” five percent minority of their respective groups. The three communities Mr. Peknik addresses his article are the black community, the Muslim community, and the police.
Does anyone else notice a major group missing from Mr. Peknik’s list?
Yes, this article is the type white people love to make viral, because it tells various minority groups what they need to do with themselves, without ever saying a single word about what the white community needs to change. White people love telling other groups what to do, but we’re generally not accustomed to being given any criticism as a collective. This is because a phenomenon that’s been termed “white normalcy,” which means that since whites are treated as the baseline normal in our society, we don’t typically get treated as members of a group; we have the totally unique privilege in this country of being treated and spoken to as individuals.
But collectively, we white Americans really do have a sickness. Some of the folks reading this will be able to sense a major symptom of that sickness in the discomfort you’re feeling right now, or the discomfort you feel when someone tells you that black people face challenges you don’t understand and will never have to deal with. That’s it, right there. That’s our collective demon, kicking up a white hissy fit.
It’s the same demon that enslaved black people for hundreds of years. The same demon that tortured and mutilated thousands of black people to death in lynch mobs after mock trials across the American South. The same demon continues to oppress and marginalize African Americans throughout all levels of our culture. And it’s the same demon that’s statistically 2.5 times more likely to pull the trigger of a police officer’s gun when apprehending a black person than a white person.
This is subtle stuff we’re dealing with here. We whites have evolved as a community with regard to our pervasive racial biases and prejudices, and now we’re in the more challenging levels of the game of exorcising our cultural demons, where our remaining evils aren’t quite as obvious as that of owning a human being as property. But as Malcolm X famously said, “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.” We’ve still got a long way to go, and until that knife’s all the way out and the wound has fully healed, we don’t get to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves on fixing our racism problem.
Which is why it’s so important that we white people stop doing what Mr. Peknik and too many others are doing. We need to stop telling the black community what they need to do to fix their problems. We’ve got more than enough cultural mind-viruses of our own to attend to without craning our necks looking at our neighbors and telling other groups what they should be doing about their problems. Not only are we unqualified to dispense such advice, having never lived the life a black person lives, but we actually cause harm to our nation’s healing process with such behavior.
Imagine you’re a black man who’s been treated different his whole life because of the color of his skin, who has encountered problems no white person has ever encountered due to their race. You’re hurting because people you keep seeing people who look like you getting gunned down in unjust ways for unjust reasons… and then you and see some old, privileged white guy talking down to you, telling you what black people should be doing with themselves. It’s obnoxious, and it’s going to put you on the defensive. Now you’re no longer thinking about how you can help yourself and your fellow man, you’re thinking about this intrusive, condescending bully and who does he think he is telling you how to fix problems he’s never encountered and can never understand. It’s dragged the dialogue and the progress off course, into some very muddy and unproductive waters.
But there’s a lot we can still do. We can get real honest with ourselves about our own demons, our own subtle and not-so-subtle biases and prejudices that we inherited from those white people who came before us in ways we try earnestly to understand. We can talk to other members of the white community who don’t quite “get it” yet. And perhaps most importantly, we can listen. Listen to black people talk about their experiences. Listen to the facts of the reality of the situation, not just the dissociative “let’s pretend that’s not a thing” convenient narratives spun out by conservative media outlets. Get curious.
“It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to get a sense of this. If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”
Do you know who said that? If you don’t know already, you’ll never guess.
Newt Gingrich said that on CNN the other day.
Newt Gingrich. What’s your excuse?
The last thing the black community needs right now is white people telling them how to keep white people from hurting them.
So, let me start. Here’s a clue, white people – the very thing in us that wants to say there is no problem, is the problem.
Let’s solve that first, before we start pointing fingers.
[AP Photo/Max Becherer]