Systemic racism has affected all of us. Here’s how to start unlearning its harmful lessons. | Elizabeth Wellington
It’s time we unlearn ideas about black people that keep systemic racism alive and kicking.
George Floyd’s death disgusted America.
Not just Black America. White America was appalled, surprised, and aghast to see Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin strangle 46-year-old Floyd on bended knee in broad, open daylight.
How could this happen in 2020?
Still, after weeks of peaceful protests and violent riots, Black bodies are still hunted. And killed. On June 12, Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot in the back by Atlanta police officers as he tried to run away from them.
Even in Philadelphia there are those who still don’t think Black lives matter. Writ-server supervisor at Philadelphia Family Court, Michael Henkel, was fired from his job after a video of Henkel tearing down Black Lives Matter signs at Columbus Square at 12th and Reed went viral. “Black lives matter,” a woman is heard yelling at him. “Not to me,” Henkel yelled back.
Black people aren’t responsible for this hate. It has been normalized through decades of systemic racism fueled by white America’s belief that Black people — no matter where they are from — are inferior. We live with this reality every day. It manifests in a big way as police brutality.
But microaggressions are also ever present. For example, Band-Aid just introduced a collection of bandages that match Black skin. It only took Band-Aid 100 years.
Even the newspaper industry has been debating whether the “b” in Black people deserves a capital B. This debate has been going on for decades. And it’s only been now that the L.A. Times, BuzzFeed, NBC News, MSNBC, the Associated Press and this newspaper made the capital B in Black standard, and recognize that Black is deserving of a capital letter.
Band-Aids, capital letters: They may seem minor, especially while we still mourn the deaths of Floyd, Brooks, and others. But they are more connected than you might think.
“The Black experience in America is one of traumatic invalidation,” said Stephanie Mattei, a psychologist and associate professor at La Salle University, who is white. “The Black experience is invalidated time and time again. Outside of the Black community, the rest of society doesn’t acknowledge their feelings or thoughts. How can you get over a trauma without acknowledging it is a trauma?” said Mattei, who described traumatic invalidation in Black Americans as like PTSD that has gone untreated.
We can’t undo 400 years of inequality overnight, a few weeks, a couple of months, or several years. But we have to start somewhere. And that somewhere should be with ourselves. We have to identify what makes us angry, what makes us uncomfortable, and sit in it. It’s time we unlearn ideas about Black people that are a part of the American psyche and keep systemic racism alive and kicking. Some think they are fair and just statements. They are not. Some think they are harmless. But they do cause harm.
Unlearn: Bad people are racist. I’m not a bad person, so I’m not racist.
Recognize: Racism is an act, not a state.
Racism is not a fixed category, nor is it an identity, said Ibram X. Kendi, historian and author of the New York Times bestseller, How to be an Antiracist. In a TedX interview last week, Kendi explained that “racist” is a descriptive term: It describes what a person is saying or doing in a given moment. According to Kendi, to be truly antiracist is to believe there is nothing wrong with a specific group of people. An antiracist is someone who is willing to admit when they are being racist and willing to recognize the inequities and problems in our society. “The heartbeat of racism is denial. The heartbeat of antiracism is confession,” Kendi said.
Unlearn: The effects of slavery are over. What matters is now.
Recognize: The effects of slavery continue.
Yes, enslaved people were freed in 1865. And Black people have achieved a lot, even the U.S. presidency. But the trauma Black people suffered collectively during the antebellum era can still be felt today. “That pain has never been validated,” Mattei said. Black people have been charged with healing themselves and cleaning up a mess they didn’t make. “That’s a tall order,” Mattei said. “It’s impossible to heal when you’ve been invalidated every step of the way.”
Unlearn: Color doesn’t matter. There is only one race: the human race.
Recognize: Black experiences are valid.
Saying that you don’t see color is another way to invalidate the Black experience, said the Rev. Marshall Mitchell, pastor of Salem Baptist Church. Mitchell went on: “When Black people tell you something, listen. If Black people have established capital in other parts of your life and they speak up to tell you something, give them an audience and not default to them overreacting or being emotional.” This will require a certain level of vulnerability, he said. “We have to unlearn defensiveness. We don’t know everything and we have to be willing to admit what we don’t know.”
Unlearn: Black people don’t seem to care about violence in their communities.
Recognize: Black people mourn violence in their communities every day.
There is always rage and sadness when Black people are victims of violent crime. But the truth remains: According to the nonprofit Mapping Police Violence, Black Americans are three times more likely to die at the hands of police than white people. And it’s not because Black people are more violent; it’s because white people fear Black people. We aren’t criminals, we are whole people. But because America has this desire to punish, to be punitive, Mitchell said, it becomes easier to punish Black people because America doesn’t see humanity in us. This is why we continue to see stories about police officers killing Black men for small, nonviolent offenses, like selling loose cigarettes.
Unlearn: The Black experience is separate from the American experience.
Recognize: We are a major part of the American story.
Black history is American history, said Hilary Beard, a Philadelphia-based speaker and author of Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life. But it is not how we learn the history of this country in school. Beard lists a litany of important moments of Black American history from Crispus Attucks, the first person killed in the Revolutionary War, to Garret Morgan, who invented the traffic light. “We have been present and active participants in every facet of this country,” Beard said. American history is littered with the destruction of Black businesses by groups of angry white people, from Philadelphia’s Lombard Street Riots in 1842 to the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1920.
“The problem is that Black success has always been a threat to this nation … so white America has sought to subjugate, incarcerate and remove us from American life to minimize and diminish our contribution. But Black history is American history and American history is Black history,” Beard said.