So You Want to Talk About Race

So You Want to Talk About Race

Ijeoma Oluo

America is not, and has never been, the melting-pot utopia that their parents and teachers told them it was.

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RACE AS WE KNOW IT IN THE US IS CLOSELY INTEGRATED with our economic system. The system of racism functioned primarily as a justification for the barbaric act of chattel slavery and the genocide of Indigenous peoples. You cannot put chains around the necks of other human beings or slaughter them wholesale, while maintaining social rules that prohibit such treatment, without first designating those people as somewhat less than human. And later, the function of racism was somewhat repurposed as a way of dividing lower classes, still with the ultimate goal of the economic and political supremacy of white elites.

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Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people—you will get more because they exist to get less. That promise is durable, and unless attacked directly, it will outlive any attempts to address class as a whole. This promise—you will get more because they exist to get less—is woven throughout our entire society. Our politics, our education system, our infrastructure—anywhere there is a finite amount of power, influence, visibility, wealth, or opportunity. Anywhere in which someone might miss out. Anywhere there might not be enough. There the lure of that promise sustains racism. White Supremacy is this nation’s oldest pyramid scheme. Even those who have lost everything to the scheme are still hanging in there, waiting for their turn to cash out.

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we don’t have to name a few successful white people to argue that they are doing comparatively well in society—there are enough that they don’t even stand out),

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Often, being a person of color in white-dominated society is like being in an abusive relationship with the world. Every day is a new little hurt, a new little dehumanization. We walk around flinching, still in pain from the last hurt and dreading the next. But when we say “this is hurting us,” a spotlight is shown on the freshest hurt, the bruise just forming: “Look at how small it is, and I’m sure there is a good reason for it. Why are you making such a big deal about it? Everyone gets hurt from time to time”—while the world ignores that the rest of our bodies are covered in scars. But racial oppression is even harder to see than the abuse of a loved one, because the abuser is not one person, the abuser is the world around you, and the person inflicting pain in an individual instance may themselves have the best of intentions.

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When we look at racism simply as “any racial prejudice,” we are entered into a battle to win over the hearts and minds of everyone we encounter—fighting only the symptoms of the cancerous system, not the cancer itself. This is not only an impossible task, it’s a pretty useless one. Getting my neighbor to love people of color might make it easier to hang around him, but it won’t do anything to combat police brutality, racial income inequality, food deserts, or the prison industrial complex. Further, this approach puts the onus on me, the person being discriminated against, to prove my humanity and worthiness of equality to those who think I’m less than. But so much of what we think and feel about people of other races is dictated by our system, and not our hearts. Who we see as successful, who has access to that success, who we see as scary, what traits we value in society, who we see as “smart” and “beautiful”—these perceptions are determined by our proximity to the cultural values of the majority in power, the economic system of those in power, the education system of those in power, the media outlets of those in power—I could go on, but at no point will you find me laying blame at the feet of one misguided or even hateful white person, saying, “and this is Steve’s fault—core beliefs about black people are all determined by Steve over there who just decided he hates black people all on his own.” Steve is interacting with the system in the way in which it’s designed, and the end result is racial bigotry that supports the continued oppression of people of color. Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change.

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We can get every person in America to feel nothing but love for people of color in their hearts, and if our systems aren’t acknowledged and changed, it will bring negligible benefit to the lives of people of color.

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The ultimate goal of racism was the profit and comfort of the white race, specifically, of rich white men. The oppression of people of color was an easy way to get this wealth and power, and racism was a good way to justify it.

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Being called “cracker” hurts, may even be humiliating. But after those feelings fade, what measurable impact will it have on your life? On your ability to walk the streets safely? On your ability to get a job? How often has the word “cracker” been used to deny you services? What measurable impact has this word had on the lives of white Americans in general?”

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When we are willing to check our privilege, we are not only identifying areas where we are perpetuating oppression in order to stop personally perpetuating that oppression, but we are also identifying areas where we have the power and access to change the system as a whole. Where I benefit most from being able-bodied is where I have the most power and access to change a system that disadvantages disabled people. Where I benefit most from being cisgender is where I have the most power and access to change a system that disadvantages transgender people. When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.

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Does your privilege mean that you are more likely to sit in a manager’s meeting while others are not? Ask why there are no disabled people in the room.  Does your privilege mean that politicians are begging for your political support? Ask what they are going to do for people of color next time they knock on your door to hand you a flier.  Were you able to get a fancy private education as a child? Use your resulting financial security to support levies to improve public schools.  Don’t have to juggle work and children? Use the promotion that added flexibility helped you get to support employer-funded childcare and family leave programs.

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At its core, police brutality is about power and corruption. Police brutality is about the intersection of fear and guns. Police brutality is about accountability. And the power and corruption that enable police brutality put all citizens, of every race, at risk. But it does not put us at risk equally, and the numbers bear that out. My fear, as a black driver, is real. The fact is that black drivers are 23 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers1, between 1.5 and 5 times more likely to be searched (while shown to be less likely than whites to turn up contraband in these searches), 2 and more likely to be ticketed3 and arrested4 in those stops. This increase in stops, searches, and arrests also leads to a 3.5–4 times higher probability that black people will be killed by cops (this increase is the same for Native Americans interacting with police, a shamefully underreported statistic). Even when we aren’t arrested or killed, we are still more likely to be abused and dehumanized in our stops. A 2016 review of a thirteen-month period showed that Oakland police handcuffed 1,466 black people in nonarrest traffic stops, and only 72 white people5, and a 2016 study by the Center for Policing Equity found that blacks were almost 4 times more likely to be subject to force from police—including force by hand (such as hitting and choking), pepper spray, tazer, and gun—than white people.

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Our police forces were born from Night Patrols, who had the principal task of controlling black and Native American populations in New England, and Slave Patrols, who had the principal task of catching escaped black slaves and sending them back to slave masters. 8 After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, catching and reenslaving black people became the job of Night Patrols as well, and that job was continued on after the Night Patrols were turned into the country’s first police forces. Our early American police forces existed not only to combat crime, but also to return black Americans to slavery and control and intimidate free black populations. Police were rightfully feared and loathed by black Americans in the North and South. In the brutal and bloody horror of the post-Reconstruction South, local police sometimes joined in on the terrorizing of black communities that left thousands of black Americans dead. 9 In the South, through the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement, it was well known locally that many police officers were also members of the Ku Klux Klan. Through much of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, American police forces were one of the greatest threats to the safety of black Americans. Our police force was not created to serve black Americans; it was created to police black Americans and serve white Americans.

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When looking at anti-black bias in police actions, we are looking at the product of police cultural history that has always viewed black Americans as adversaries, and of a popular culture that has always portrayed black Americans as violent criminals not worthy of protection. From our books, TV shows, and movies, to our crime focus on news programs—the narrative of the black brute is as strong now as it was when Birth of a Nation was released to wide acclaim in 1915. We hear this repeated in the language of our TV pundits and our politicians. Who will do something about this inner-city crime? Who will keep our streets safe from these thugs? Who will protect us from these super-predators? The belief that black people still need to be controlled by police is promoted by our politicians and funded by our taxpayers.

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Studies have shown that if you have a “black-sounding” name, you are four times less likely to be called for a job interview. White women still make only 82 cents for every white man’s dollar, black women only earn 65 cents for every white man’s dollar, and Hispanic women earn even less at 58 cents for every white man’s dollar. The wage gap between white and black men has not budged since Reagan’s cuts to affirmative action began in the ’80s, with black men making 73 cents for every white man’s dollar, and the wage gap between white and Hispanic men has actually grown since 1980, going from 71 cents down to 69 cents for every dollar made by a white man.

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Appreciation should benefit all cultures involved, and true appreciation does. But appropriation, more often than not, disproportionately benefits the dominant culture that is borrowing from marginalized cultures, and can even harm marginalized cultures. The problem of cultural appropriation is not in the desire to participate in aspects of a different culture that you admire. The problem of cultural appropriation is primarily linked to the power imbalance between the culture doing the appropriating and the culture being appropriated. That power imbalance allows the culture being appropriated to be distorted and redefined by the dominant culture and siphons any material or financial benefit of that piece of culture away to the dominant culture, while marginalized cultures are still persecuted for living in that culture. Without that cultural power imbalance, cultural appropriation becomes much less harmful.

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Rap is a very diverse art form that can entertain, inform, enrage, comfort, and inspire. Like many art forms, many people will spend their entire lives working at it and will never be better than mediocre. Some, with rare talent, will rise to the top, others with rare talent will continue to toil in obscurity. But if you are a white rapper, you can be “okay” and go multi-platinum. Not only can a halfway decent white rapper sell millions of copies of a halfway decent album, raking in money that most black artists would never dream of, that white rapper is more likely to be accepted as “mainstream.” That “legitimacy” bestowed by whiteness actually changes the definition of rap for the American culture. When the most popular rappers in the country are white rappers doing a decent impersonation of black master rappers, what kids see as legitimate rap changes. What they aspire to changes. Whom they give their money to changes.

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what actually is not fair, is the expectation that a dominant culture can just take and enjoy and profit from the beauty and art and creation of an oppressed culture, without taking on any of the pain and oppression people of that culture had to survive while creating it.

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If you are not black, and you are tired of hair like mine being a mystery to you, there are a lot of ways to get to know more about our hair. You could ask why more black people with black hair aren’t in more television shows and movies. You could ask why there are no “how-to’s” for our hair in your magazines. You could ask why our hair products have to take up one tiny section of a completely different aisle in the store. You could ask why our hair isn’t called beautiful, why our hairstyles aren’t the ones you are coveting. But instead, you assume you could just touch it. Because it is not about equality or even understanding—it’s about reaffirming that nothing and nobody is beyond your grasp.

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if you live in this system of White Supremacy you are either fighting the system, or you are complicit. There is no neutrality to be had towards systems of injustice—it is not something you can just opt out of. If you believe in justice and equality, we are in this together, whether you like me or not.

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There are groups out there fighting every day for people of color. They are running after-school programs, giving legal advice, providing job training, providing medical services, fighting school discrimination, and so much more. And this all costs money. Give what you can to groups like the ACLU, SPLC, Planned Parenthood, NAACP, National Immigrant Justice Center, National Council of La Raza, Native American Rights Fund, Native American Disability Law Center, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and more. Reach out to people in your local community to see what local organizations could use your financial support.

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