Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Opinion

Column: How to talk to a racist

NASHVILLE ó There are still white Southerners who honestly believe that American culture worked better for everyone, white and black alike, under segregation. There are still white Southerners who question how bad slavery really was. When an enslaved black personís health and strength are needed to guarantee the slaveholderís livelihood, this argument goes, it just wouldnít make sense to whip them or starve them or rape them or work them to the point of collapse.

Southerners arenít alone in believing such mendacity, but the South is where slavery and segregation metastasized, so it may be more concentrated here. Wherever this insidious delusion takes hold, however, it requires a gargantuan ignorance of history to maintain, and thereís a lot of ignorance afoot in the land right now. More people here in Tennessee today drive cars bearing license plates emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag than ever before. A strong majority of Southerners ó 61 percent ó are committed to keeping their Confederate monuments on public land.

I have exhausted my ability to understand why, deep into the 21st century, Iím still hearing otherwise good-hearted people use the same arguments that white Southerners used to discredit Uncle Tomís Cabin more than 150 years ago: It couldnít possibly have been that bad. But worse in many ways are the white people who will tell you point blank that the world today ó the world they actually live in and can see with their own eyes ó canít possibly be as unfair as black people say it is.

Maybe this is what happens when a personís only "news" source is the alternative universe of Fox & Friends. Or maybe theyíre all just racists.

Okay, theyíre definitely all racists. But hereís the thing: They donít believe they are. And the problem with writing off people who donít recognize this countryís pervasive and enduring culture of white supremacy, much less the ways in which they themselves benefit from it, is simple: Being called a racist almost never causes a racist to wake up. Being called a racist almost never causes a racist to say, "Oh, wow, youíre right."

I get that itís hard not to scream "Racist!" at a racist. If youíre a white person who wants to be an advocate, itís both infuriating and demoralizing to know that the people causing all this suffering are people who look just like you. That much is true about being a white liberal in a culture of white supremacy. But itís not the only truth.

Hereís whatís also true: Prejudice is endemic to humanity itself. Human beings are tribal creatures ó we trust the familiar and are drawn to it; we distrust the unfamiliar and keep our distance. White people, liberal and conservative, often claim not to notice another personís race ó "I donít even see color," they argue ó but itís just not true.

We are hard-wired to recognize difference and to view it as an aberration. Noticing difference is not the same thing as hating difference, of course, but Iím not talking about vicious white supremacists here. Iím talking only about garden-variety prejudice, the kind that operates at an unconscious level in everyone. And the difference between an unconscious liberal racist and an unconscious conservative racist is only a matter of degree, not a matter of kind.

Vicious white supremacists live among us, no doubt, and if they get their way they will be marching again on Aug. 12. ó the anniversary of their deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year ó this time in Washington. Such unrepentant racists will probably never come to understand the harm they have done and are doing to this country, much less the harm they are doing to their own souls. Every minute of public outrage feeds their hunger for validation. Ignore those people. When this episode of "The Ugly American" is finally canceled, theyíll crawl back into their hidy-holes again.

But the grumpy old neighbor who voted for Donald Trump out of frustration with Washington? The high school classmate who posts an Obama joke on Facebook? The white woman on the plane who tenses up when a Middle Eastern man sits down in the seat beside her? Try not to give up on them yet. These folks are your sisters and brothers. You belong to one another in exactly the same way that you and the targets of their racism belong to one another. Welcome to the Hotel California: You are at the most uncomfortable family reunion ever, and you can never leave.

If youíre a white liberal whose goal is to feel morally superior to such people, go right ahead and urge them to check their white privilege. Call them stupid rednecks. Get online and tweet your feats of moral derring-do in the cause of a more just society. You havenít made a single thing better for anyone suffering the actual effects of racism, but when has that ever stopped a white person from airing a little righteous indignation?

If, on the other hand, youíre a white liberal whose goal is to foster a more equitable culture, you need to stop yelling "Racist!" at anyone who doesnít see the world exactly as you do. Somehow you need to find enough common ground for a real conversation about race. Very few people are stupid or irredeemably mean. Theyíll listen to what you have to say if they trust youíll listen to what they have to say back.

So take a breath. When you encounter a person who believes heís merely honoring his ancestors by driving a car with an image of the Confederate battle flag on the tag, when a Facebook friend announces that itís disrespectful to take a knee during the national anthem, when you sit down next to someone at the church picnic who genuinely loves and respects the black people they know but who consistently votes for politicians with overtly racist policies, stop for just a moment and take a breath.

Before you say a single word, think of all the times you made an assumption about a stranger that proved to be untrue. Think of the times you found yourself feeling uneasy in the company of strangers of another race ó think about how you were forced to interrogate that uneasiness. Think of the plank in your own eye.

To begin a real conversation about racism, start there.

Margaret Renkl covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

Comments
Editorial: Habitat for Humanity still has questions to answer about selling mortgages

Editorial: Habitat for Humanity still has questions to answer about selling mortgages

A good reputation can vanish overnight, which is why Habitat for Humanity of Hills-borough County made a smart decision by announcing it would seek to buy back 12 mortgages it sold to a Tampa company with a history of flipping properties. The arrange...
Published: 08/14/18
Editorial: Why stand your ground has to go

Editorial: Why stand your ground has to go

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe made a reasonable decision to charge Michael Drejka with manslaughter in last monthís deadly Clearwater convenience store parking lot confrontation. The shooting, which erupted over use of a handicap parkin...
Published: 08/13/18
Editorial: Politics aside, arguments are clear for moving appellate court to Tampa

Editorial: Politics aside, arguments are clear for moving appellate court to Tampa

Itís time to re-establish a permanent home for the state appeals court that serves the Tampa Bay region.It makes sense to put it in Tampa, the same as it made sense 30 years ago when the courtís operations began moving piece by piece up Interstate 4 ...
Published: 08/09/18
Updated: 08/10/18
Editorial: A big first step toward improving transportation in Hillsborough

Editorial: A big first step toward improving transportation in Hillsborough

The Hillsborough County transit referendum that has made the November ballot is significantly stronger than two efforts that failed to reach the end zone in the past decade. The one-cent sales surtax would generate enough money to meaningfully improv...
Published: 08/09/18
Editorial: Bondi should stop fighting smokable medicial marijuana

Editorial: Bondi should stop fighting smokable medicial marijuana

The fight for medical marijuana in Florida should have ended with the resounding 2016 vote authorizing it in the state Constitution. Instead, the battle for access drags on, with Attorney General Pam Bondi waging the latest round in a lengthy legal b...
Published: 08/07/18
Updated: 08/10/18
Editorial: Warning signs of a mental health crisis in Florida

Editorial: Warning signs of a mental health crisis in Florida

They reach from South Florida to Tampa, from a high school to a college campus, from troubled kids to troubled parents. But there is a common thread connecting these tragedies: Florida has a mental health crisis. Addressing it would require spending ...
Published: 08/07/18
Updated: 08/10/18
Editorial: Time to pursue or sink ferry to MacDill

Editorial: Time to pursue or sink ferry to MacDill

A proposal to use local money to ferry workers to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa always has been a questionable idea. The loss of nearly $5 million in federal money toward the project makes it all the more suspect. Itís time the ferry supporters off...
Published: 08/07/18
Updated: 08/10/18
Blood on the streets of Chicago

Blood on the streets of Chicago

A hot summer weekend, when Chicago should be at its most livable, brings an undercurrent of dread and horror to this city. Summer is block party season, beach season, baseball season. But in some neighborhoods, summer is killing season ó when armed g...
Published: 08/07/18
Updated: 08/10/18
Editorial: FDA should not penalize premium cigars

Editorial: FDA should not penalize premium cigars

A well-meaning but poorly designed effort to keep tobacco from children could sink a niche industry and end Tampa’s fabled history as a cigar-making capital. The Food and Drug Administration needs to recognize not all tobacco products are alike...
Published: 08/06/18
Updated: 08/13/18
Editorial: New St. Petersburg Pier spot for Echelman art better, not perfect

Editorial: New St. Petersburg Pier spot for Echelman art better, not perfect

The St. Petersburg City Council has listened to the concerns of constituents and forged a compromise on where to install a signature public art piece in the new Pier District. Plans had called for an imposing aerial net sculpture to soar above Spa Be...
Published: 08/06/18
Updated: 08/07/18