Can Whites Understand Racism?

The argument  between Rosie O’Donnell and Whoopi Goldberg during a discussion of racism on Thursday’s The View, exposes a fundamental fault line in our current discussion about race and racism.  Whoopi made the observation that Whites could not “understand nor experience” the impacts of racism directed against Blacks while Rosie argued that discrimination against gays was equally toxic and did allow Whites to experience the same hurts and discriminatory effects as Blacks.   I’m inclined to side – marginally – with Whoopi on this one based on my own experiences and the on fact that Whites don’t have the same historical antecedents to inform us when it comes to understanding the impacts of racial discrimination as Blacks do.   

It’s my personal experiences in observing and dealing with “vicarious acts of racism” that form and inform my views about the Goldberg/O’Donnell argument and explain why I marginally side with Whoopi since back in the mid-60’s I was steeped in the miasma that was our national racial tinderbox of an atmosphere at the time.  

During my freshmen year at Howard University, the first of five years at this Historically African American University, one of my classmates, Ron Truitt by name, and I became best friends.  One Saturday we took a bus downtown to get architectural supplies from an art store on New York Avenue and stopped by a Drug Fair afterwards to pick up another category of essential supplies – Mars Bars, Baby Ruth’s and big packages of Lay’s Potato Chips.  I walked up to the counter, Ron waiting behind me, where a young white girl (from Virginia, I assumed, by her southern drawl, thereby invoking a stereotype) smiled at me, took the three dollar bills from my outstretched hand, rang up my purchase, reached into the cash register drawer to get my change, and then placed said change into the palm of my outstretched hand.  No problem, nothing untoward. 

Ron, physically very un-intimidating at a skinny, 5’6” tall, 130 pounds and a light skinned kid from Durham North Carolina with about as much thugishness as a marshmallow, handed his money to the same clerk, extended his hand palm up exactly as I had done not a minute past, when the young girl from Virginia proceeded to place his change directly on the counter about an inch to the left of his palm, thereby avoiding even the risk of actually coming into contact with Ron’s “Black” flesh.  Ron picked up the change from the counter and we started walking towards the door.  I was aghast at what had just happened and I heatedly asked him:

“Did you see that?” My blood was boiling.

“What?” he replied, apparently not understanding my anger. 

“She put your change on the counter but put my change in my hand.”

He looked at me and chuckled softly.

“Oh,” he said. “That.  And what exactly were you expecting, Scott?”

As small and insignificant as this banal “incident” was, it hurt me deeply.  It was the very first time that I had observed a racist act perpetrated on one of my friends.  And as small as it was, as the banal and quotidian act that it represented at the time, I remember it as vividly 50 years later as if it had happened yesterday.    It is the very banality that rendered this act so terribly insidious.  Was it the only racist act I observed directed at one of my friends over the years?  No, of course not.  Not by a long shot.  There was the incident a couple of years later when a White, North Carolina State Trooper pulled my car over in the middle of nowhere – two Whites, two Blacks on our way down to Florida – for the simple reason that “salt and pepper” passengers in the same car were immediately suspect; the time up in Silver Spring when I and one of my Black friends were taunted with vile racial epithets by a group of KKK’ers (yes, they were dressed in sparkling white sheets) racing by in a Ford convertible; the time a “mongrel” group of us were denied entrance to a bar on Connecticut Avenue – there must have been hundreds of such incidents.  A few, especially during the 1968 riots, were both frightening and dangerous. 

Through my friendships with my fellow Howard students, by getting to know their families and their family histories, by exploring their home neighborhoods, discussing their hopes and fears, I also came to know the corrosive, damaging and enduring effects of racism.   But my “knowledge” is not the same “awareness” or “understanding” that my Black friends and their parents experienced.  While anyone can empathize with someone who has been subjected to racism, no one can really know the deep rooted impacts that racism has unless one has been subjected to it themselves. 

As the North Carolina State Trooper stood next to my grey, 1963 Chevy examining my driver’s license, I was scared – I knew why he had pulled us over - but at the back of my mind was the thought that even if arrested I could get myself released with a simple payment of a fine or a telephone call.   I can assure you that the Black passengers in my car were not having similar thoughts.    I, as a White man, trusted that even in North Carolina the very rules, laws and regulations that governed our society, would kick in for me.   For my friends, they often did not.  

Rosie’s argument? Yes, she’s not wrong but she’s not right either, in my view.  What’s missing from the “gays too have been subjected to discrimination” is the huge weight of history that every Black person in the country carries with them each and every day of their lives.  It’s like a virus that springs to life at birth, stays in the body – sometimes benignly, sometimes virulently – for the rest of their lives.    With gay men and women it’s certainly personal, hurtful, demeaning and sometimes life-threatening and deadly but discrimination against gays is not loaded with the crushing historical debt that Black men and women carry around like a life-time mortgage that no matter how diligent you are in making your monthly payments, can never be fully paid off. 

My fateful decision to attend a Black University at the young and naïve age of 17, has meant that my experience with Black people, race and racial issues, is different from that of most of my White peers.  This perspective does give me a different “take;” one could say a more knowledgeable, realistic, first-hand view based on real-world life experiences on these issues.  In a sense, it is a biased view, just as a scientist specializing in neuro-biology is biased to support “things” neuro-biological since his or her knowledge is greater than that of us ordinary folks.  My specialized knowledge definitely puts me at odds with the right wingers who proclaim that it’s Black people’s fault – by not obeying the law –when young Black men are killed by police officers.   To me, this perspective is one that springs from ignorance.  Not an ignorance from lack of intelligence (necessarily), or deficient DNA, but one that reigns for lack of real life experience in the lives of people who, unlike them, are subjected to racism.   My “take” on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner “controversies”?  Whatever the “facts” are in each case, Whites don’t get arrested for being “White.”   But Blacks do get arrested for being “Black.”  Unfortunately for me, it’s too late to wipe clean my history.  Nor do I want to.  It is what it was. 

But there are times when I come off – on chat boards for sure – as some self- proclaimed White boy expert on racial issues.  Yes, the epithets, the demeaning comments, the cavalier dismissiveness of toxic historical legacies, the outright racist assumptions and comments make my blood boil.  But like the Whoopi – Rosie argument, there is more than one side to this story.  Yes, perhaps the Black community needs to do a better job in acknowledging and dealing with problems in the Black community despite the nation’s racial heritage, but by the same token, White Americans must accept the fact that they can never know first hand the traumas, impediments, and the personal and collective pain that racism and that self-same toxic racial heritage continues to wreck upon the health and well-being of the Black community today.  This is the real deal.  This is the reality. 

And that includes me.  I am not Black.  While I have closely followed in the footprints of my Black friends, acquaintances and associates, been deeply and intimately involved in the culture and lives of many Black people, have learned about a world that is so different from mine as to be unbelievable, despite all this, I have never spent an instant walking in my beloved friend Ron’s shoes and never will. 

Take care all. 




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