Racism. The subject is steeped in centuries of emotion. The mere mention of it among people of different ethnicities can suck all the fun out of a room faster than a backdraft consumes air. And more often than not, the resulting vibe after those discussions is just as explosive.
Some are exhausted from explaining it and some are tired of hearing about it. In all honesty, I don’t enjoy writing about the subject. But as a Black man, there’s one reason I continue to have those discussions, and if you consider yourself an ally of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color (BIPOC), or even someone who stands against racist practices, it’s the same reason you might continue to as well: Because they matter.
The State of the Union
It boggles my mind that in 2021 folks are still resistant to the fact that BIPOC are not afforded the same freedoms, rights, and opportunities as our white counterparts. Even more astounding is that the need still exists for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to express in words (spoken and written), deeds (personal and public demonstrations), and legislation that America is woefully negligent in fulfilling its promises.
That any human being is treated as less than because of their skin color, or for any reason for that matter, is maddening. If you’re still thinking America is flourishing in a post-racial Renaissance, here’s a quick, one-question litmus test just for you.
Thank you, Jane.
There are basically three mindsets regarding racism in America. Don’t get your keyboard all locked up. In the interest of time, I’m writing in broad terms. Very broad terms.
- The Willfully Ignorant — people who willfully claim ignorance of racism or deny its existence. They’re aware of the injustices and either unabashedly embrace their racist point of view or drape their racism with the American flag and call it patriotism.
- The Marginalized and Their Allies — BIPOC and those who support racial equity and stand against discriminatory practices. (Yes, I know these are different groups, and I’m glad that you know that, too. But this essay isn’t about the marginalized versus allies as they’re both working towards the same goals.)
- The Unknowing — those unaware of the facts because they haven’t been exposed to realities different from what they experienced growing up. (Don’t get all up in my Comments about this definition. Like I said, I’m writing in very broad terms here.)
We can talk till we’re blue in the face about the evils of racism, misogyny, and other social ills. Still the fact remains: If people aren’t ready and willing to see the world differently, we cannot make them. That decision is wholly their own. Now, if you have a proven strategy that works on changing people’s worldview, great. Write an essay about it and post it. But for the sake of this essay, let’s totally forego discussing the Willfully Ignorant and focus on the Unknowing. Why the Unknowing? Because ignorance is not the same thing as opposition. And this gives me cause to be hopeful, very hopeful.
(You may want to grab a beverage or snack for this part.)
Years ago, I kept a blog and between October 1 through January 1. I wrote about my experiences performing in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular to share my adventures with family and friends. (Another story for another day.) At some point, I began tweeting about my exploits in New York to just about anyone who found them interesting.
While on Twitter early in rehearsals, I read a tweet—not directed to me—from some guy named “Mitch.” He asked no one in particular if October was too soon to put up his Christmas tree. I sent him a cheeky reply encouraging him to get his tree up as soon as he could.
We sporadically kept in contact the remainder of that Christmas season and for a few years after. No heavy topics. Our common interest, Christmas. Three years later, Mitch, his wife, and two kids flew across the country from California to New York for a weekend during the Christmas holidays. We held a lunchtime “tweet-up,” during which I met him and his family. Afterward, they saw me in the show.
Did they fly to New York for the sole purpose of seeing me perform? Fat chance. But in any event, we kept in touch, even after I hung up my elf shoes and no longer performed in the Christmas show.
It wasn’t until three years later that we first discussed anything having to do with racism. That conversation, initiated by Mitch’s questions, served as one of several dialogs that prompted me to write “How I Talk to White People About Racism.” Since then, we’ve had several conversations about a myriad of race-related topics.
A Few Weeks Later . . .
Mitch text messaged me how he had returned to school at thirty-eight years of age to complete his Associate in Arts degree, intending to get a Masters in Psychology. He went on to tell me how his American history course (which covered the Civil War through 9/11) was especially thought-provoking in light of our previous conversations. According to Mitch, it seems our impromptu chats about racism created fertile soil for the details of racial injustices perpetrated against Black people which were presented in the more formal setting of a college classroom to take root.
At the time, I thought my answers to his questions about my experience as a Black man in America were one-offs. I interpreted his questions as random queries coming from a guy who was a little sheltered. Later, my eyelids were peeled back when he also told me that he was raised in an ultra-conservative, uber-Republican part of Arizona. I had no clue. He seemed so . . . reasonable. Sheltered, but reasonable.
He went on to passionately recall epiphanies he experienced in his music history class, 1930–2000. For example, how white artists got rich off music originally written by “African Americans” while giving us little to no financial compensation. I laughed to myself as I thought that bit of history was common knowledge. He then demonstrated a deeper understanding of the systemic racism and the injustices facing People of Color today.
I knew the history of racism was bad. Still, the details I’m learning are more disturbing than I thought . . . lack of freedom for freedmen . . . anything they could do to hold African American men back and keep them down. Things have improved since then, but still lots of work to be done.
I couldn’t wait till he got to the ’80s and MTV. Especially the way the network played only videos by white artists until Michael Jackson’s label threatened to pull all their artists’ videos if they didn’t become a lot more inclusive real quick and play Jackson’s videos. The rest is history. It always comes down to dollars and sense. (You see what I did there, right?)
One of our more recent conversations brought our relationship full circle. We are two people of different ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations, marital status . . . we’re about as divergent from one another as two people can be. He actually came right out and thanked me for helping him reconcile the difference between what he had been taught and what he experienced in the real world. He felt more comfortable with calling out racism. I explained that we were able to discuss that “stuff” because of his desire to understand. He also said he hoped didn’t sound stupid or rude. When we first began communicating, discussing race relations wasn’t even on my radar, just like I’m sure he didn’t know his worldview was narrow.
I’m not so arrogant as to assume responsibility for Mitch’s transformation. A more accurate assessment might be that I’ve been one in a series of people and incidents in his life to help him see the world with a broader, more inclusive point of view. Honestly, I think if I had passed on the opportunity to share my thoughts with him, someone else would have been given a chance to plant those seeds in his life. And how much better for the world that one more person understands that racism is real, its effects are far-reaching, and is also willing to speak out against it. And you know his kids are going to soak all this up as well . . . that’s a-whole-nother socially aware and proactive generation ready to fight the good fight.
You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
If you’re someone with a vested interest in eradicating racism, passing up an opportunity to speak out against it—especially with someone with a genuine desire to understand more than they know and to do better—is counterproductive. I’d much rather not have to beat the drum over and over, but if I have to I will. Because this is bigger than me. There’s more at stake here than what I feel like doing. Let me clear, that's not to say that I'm going engage everyone in the same way. I am, after all, very human.
As much as we’d all like to see the fruits of our labors, we rarely get to see how or if our efforts have long-lasting effects on another person in this arena. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plant seeds for the benefit of future generations. Many of the freedoms we enjoy today exist because of the efforts of others. How sad would it be if our ancestors strived only for their visible and immediate benefits?
It doesn’t matter whether you witness their growth or change. Paradigm shifts take time. It may take fifty, a hundred, or more people all saying in their own unique way for someone to learn that racism is wrong and that people who aren’t white are people, too, and are inherently due the same freedoms, rights, and opportunities as white folks. Remember, we’ll all on a journey to becoming better versions of ourselves. Some of us just need to be given a few directions along the way.
The most significant impact anyone can have on another takes place when the two people are in relationship with one another. This isn’t limited to intimate or familial relationships. As long they treat one another with respect and care, great change is possible. You see what came from a random tweet about a Christmas tree. And it didn't happen overnight.
It’s no one’s responsibility to change another person’s mind. Whether they choose to get with the program or not is no one’s choice but theirs. But when given the opportunity to have a potentially positive impact on another person in matters of race in America, as a BIPOC or ally, you owe it to yourself—and others—to tell your truth and plant a seed.
Love one another.
Originally published at Medium.com.