Tracey McKee – March 21, 2023
Race and racism are hard to talk about. Having open, honest, and productive dialogue with others always helps us arrive at more thoughtful and creative ways to solve our issues. But when we consider talking about race/ism, most of us tend to shy away. If you are a person of color, you may be fatigued by the lack of acknowledgment or understanding that you encounter. Or it could be that you doubt anything productive will come of talking about race/ism with those who aren’t affected by it. If you are White, you may worry you will say the wrong thing or wonder what value you could add to the conversation. Or you may feel inept. I know I felt that way.
In 2018, I was at a loss to understand the police shootings of unarmed Black men that continued to make headlines across our nation. What was happening? Why were these men dead? In an attempt to do something positive in light of these tragedies, I decided to participate in Brownicity’s What Lies Between Us course. Taking that course helped me to understand some of what keeps us shying away from talking about race/ism: people of color and white people have very different experiences in this country and very different histories as well. Sure, I had a superficial sense of this, but learning the history of race and racism was transformative. It reshaped my understanding of our country’s history and its treatment of various peoples.
I learned that race is not something biological – there is no genetic basis for race. The idea of race evolved to justify slavery in our country; after all, it was hard to own people when our founding documents said all men were created equal. Labeling enslaved Black people as an inferior race made it easier to defend their enslavement, especially as it became inheritable. Similarly, labeling Native Americans as a savage race helped gain support for taking their land after efforts to “civilize” them were resisted. And, when we went to war with Mexico in 1846 to gain more land, Mexican citizens were disparaged as mongrels and savages. Official government documents, diary excerpts from Thomas Jefferson and others, newspaper and magazine articles, and government propaganda ads, all describing and showing how race and racism have been woven into our country’s fabric, were hard to swallow and hard to dismiss.
And even though these truths were hard to comprehend, my classmates and I talked about how it helped to have everyone working from the same comprehensive history. Learning the difficult history, the history of our country that is glossed over or left out of textbooks and curriculum, helped me to understand how we have arrived at our present-day circumstances. It is no wonder that we have a racial divide in our country and racial injustice plagues us. Learning about race/ism and its history helped me to see that it is long past time for it to be gone.
One of the most important things we can do when trying to build bridges between ourselves is to understand one another’s story – the story of how we have been shaped to be who we are and to believe what we believe. Doing so helps us to see a person and to appreciate the perspectives they have come to hold because of their history and their experiences. It creates respect and trust. When we invest in people this way, we are weakening the roots of racism. In her book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brené Brown said it well: “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” Learning the tough history of racism is an act of moving in.
Berry, L. (2017). What Lies Between Us: Fostering First Steps Toward Racial Healing. Createspace Independent Publisher.
Brown, B. (2019). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Random House.
California Newsreel. (2003). The Difference Between Us: Race-The Power of an Illusion. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.racepowerofanillusion.org/episodes/one.
California Newsreel. (2003). The Story We Tell. Race-The Power of Illusion. USA. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.racepowerofanillusion.org/episodes/two.