“I’m 46,” the man wrote. “It’s hard for me to imagine that only 50 years ago prejudice was so rampant. I feel good about the progress that’s been made, but I also know that prejudice is still alive: stagnant and dormant in some people and ‘in your face’ in others. As a modern civil people, we must continue to fight prejudice, stand up against intolerance, and educate our youth about the importance of acceptance.”
“Where are the heroes of today?” he continued. “We need another Rosa Parks. We need another Martin Luther King. We need to do a lot more than what we have been doing.”
What we actually need, I replied quietly, are more white people who are willing to be civil rights heroes.
We need white people to be as outraged about racism as people of color are. We need white people to realize that racism is not a black issue—it’s a white issue. We need white people to refuse to participate in a system that privileges them over fellow human beings. We need white people to actively, visibly, and publicly examine their own role in perpetuating racism in subtle and unconscious ways, acknowledge and own their part in the problem, verbalize the unearned privileges that accrue to them simply because of their skin color, and demand those same privileges for people of color.
Fighting racism isn’t only the job of people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. The next generation of civil rights activists in this nation must be white people who realize that winning this fight will be the result of individual, daily actions on their part, not grand pronouncements and history month celebrations.
In “The Color of Fear,” a
remarkable film shown during the community dialogue program, Building Bridges, a
young African-American man named Victor puts it this way: “Most of the lethal racism we face isn’t the
KKK burning crosses; it comes from people who experience themselves as decent
folk, moral churchgoers.” “Racism is so deep.” he continues, “that you don’t
think about it. It is insidious. It is in the very air that you breathe. White
people don’t talk about what it is to be white; they talk about the human
experience. Because in the U.S., white is human.”
Some say we should live in a colorblind world—that we are all human, after all. But if we are unable to see race, we cannot see racism—and denial is not a strategy. After hearing Victor’s story in “The Color of Fear,” a white man named David asks, “How can I help you?” “Help me by understanding yourself and the invisible protection you have because of your color,” is the reply. There can be no progress on the issue of racism, Victor explains, “unless you’re willing to be changed by my experience as much as I’m changed every day by yours.”
As long as we wait for national heroes to emerge, nothing will change. As long as we relegate the solution to the very people we’ve oppressed in the first place, nothing will change. Unless we wake up every morning determined to eliminate racism even when that work is difficult, nothing will change. Many times, racism has existed around me, but I didn’t notice—because it didn’t affect me. It’s this subtle racism we must fight. And to fight it, we must see it, not minimize it.
If Rosa Parks had waited for a Bi-Partisan Task Force on Unilateral Bus Seating, she’d still be standing on that bus. Sometimes, we just need to act. But let’s not confuse movement with action. Being a strong white ally doesn’t mean that we should take over, assume we know what is best for people of color, or ask them to speak for their people. Rather, it means that we should find out about people of color by listening to their stories, teach our children about racism, talk to other white people about racism, interrupt racist jokes or comments, and stand by people of color—not just when it’s easy or convenient, but always.
As Nelson Mandela once said: “your smallness will not save the world.” To end racism, we must make bold strokes and be active anti-racists. We must acknowledge our unearned privileges, accept our own racism, and own this problem ourselves, each individual one of us.
The police officer who fingerprinted Rosa Parks after that fateful bus ride was named Drue Lackey. When asked to comment on Parks’ death, Lackey simply said that he had no problem with black people and that he was just doing his job. As long as we “just do our jobs,” racism will prevail.