Yesterday — March 21st – was “International Day
for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination”.*
I first began to pay attention to racism as an adolescent. At first, simple things: everyone knew people who used the word “nigger” were racists, and we ‘more civilized’ people used the word “negro”. I think I even felt as long as enough of us said negro rather than ‘the n word’, things were okay. But of course, adolescents are naïve, being at the beginning of everything.
At 12, I had started to read the newspapers and ‘see the world’ as it really was. There was still occasional news of postwar fallout, still horrifying tales of concentration camps, the Korean war – and the “boom” was on.
Then just weeks after I turned 14, a front page story appeared about Emmett Till, an American boy the same age as me who had been lynched for flirting with a white woman. I still remember the shock, how suddenly vulnerable and threatened I felt, as if the same thing might happen to me.
Why did I feel that? No doubt because empathy for those kids had not been erased the way it had been in the south. Living in a relatively new suburb of Montreal (Pointe Claire) we generally didn’t hear much about race. In elementary school I’d had a crush on a black fellow student known as “Junior”, and never heard a racist comment about him. I had so much to learn.
But in the U.S. later that year, when Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, became suddenly famous for refusing to move to the back of the bus, we began to see many more news reports about racism in the south. It was frightening to see the ugly cruelty kids were subjected to every day.
Over the decades, my beliefs about eradicating racism evolved. I became less emotional, more analytical – but perhaps more impatient. In the sixties, my first husband and I would be watching coverage of another violent civil rights demonstration in the U.S.; he (an ex-military man) would comment, “What those kids need is a good kick in the ass”. Increasingly, I wished I were with them (no doubt a little personal experience would have changed my mind). I thought they were right, and so courageous. They were. That marriage was soon over.
The civil rights movement did achieve significant improvements – and racism today is perhaps subtler in that it seems harder to prove. Most of the demonstrations we see on the news now are reactions to police officers killing an African American, unjustifiably from most perspectives.
As with ‘visible minorities’ in general, blacks on average are poorer, and more tend to live in poverty ghettoes . But whether this is due to racism is a little harder to demonstrate when an African-American is president of the U.S.A. Some actually use that as proof that there is no racism.
I’ve been thinking about yesterday’s anti-racism day* and wondering how we can make it mean something to “renew our commitment to building a world of justice and equality”. I believe as long as we accept poverty and its ghettoes, we accept racism. So poverty is out. That means we need social + economic policies that encourage integration – like a guaranteed annual income ** and affordable housing. It means ‘sharing the wealth’. And it means giving up blaming the poor for their poverty (the “bad choices” myth.
Integration would reduce these myths of bigotry, replaced by real knowledge of each other. I often say we will eliminate racism when we are all willing to welcome any race into the bosom of our family.
Meanwhile I am trying to accept that progress is never fast enough.
– 30 –
*U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says,
“The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is an opportunity to renew our commitment to building a world of justice and equality where xenophobia and bigotry do not exist. We must learn the lessons of history and acknowledge the profound damage caused by racial discrimination.”
More: Someone posted this on Facebook, and I am grateful for that: http://www.timwise.org/2014/12/tim-wise-on-whiteness-and-the-historical-trick-of-racial-privilege/