“She fucks Black dudes? She probably has something.”
Those were words said to me in high school — by a friend.
I spun on my heels and told him how those words were racist, and my friend, who was nice and would give someone the shirt off his back, listed every reason why he couldn’t possibly be racist. He wasn’t a card-carrying Klan member, like the racists I’d seen on TV; his words were racist, I didn’t know whether or not that made him racist. I knew I was angry, though. But he didn’t understand it. I walked away to preserve the remainder of my time and sanity.
This year makes a decade since then, and in this year alone, Ahmaud Arbery was lynched in broad day-light, cops raided Breonna Taylor’s home and shot her in her sleep, and George Floyd died with a cop’s knee on his neck for the whole world to see.
To my surprise, white people have shown up in droves to support the Black Lives Matter movement. According to a survey done last month by Monmouth University, the percentage of white Americans who say police are more likely to use excessive force against a Black culprit has nearly doubled since 2016, from 25% to 49%. I’ve seen white people call out friends and family for hateful speech and even use their privilege at protests to protect Black folks from violent police officers. Books on white privilege and race have been flying off of the shelves and the documentary “13th” has been trending. And in my personal life, I’ve had a few dozen constructive conversations about race with my white friends. It reminds my cynical heart that change happens when people come together, and that it’s never too late to rip away the veil of ignorance.
Then I remember that incident in high school with my friend. I remember his utter confusion at the prospect he could possibly be racist. It makes me wonder: How many of these new supporters think their proximity to Blackness exempts them from being racist? How many saw that video of George Floyd and thought to themselves, “how could someone let that happen,” then went out and stared at an interracial couple, or questioned whether a Black kid in their office was there only due to affirmative action? How many of these new BLM supporters will march and chant and feel pride from being an ally, but never question how their microaggressions and unconscious racial bias perpetuate the unsafe environments Black people tell them about?
If they don’t question themselves, nothing will truly change.
Racism is complex. Most of it is subtle, quiet. It can seem innocent and harmless. It hides in the language of policy, and even in “complements” like “you’re attractive for an Asian woman” or “you’re pretty much white.” Those are examples of microaggressions. Derald Wing Sue, the professor of counseling psychology at Columbia who brought the term into wide-use, defines microaggressions as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”
“Ordinary” racial bias and microaggressions are a daily experience for most Black people, not the extreme violence as depicted on television and social media.
And let me tell you, there’s nothing micro about microaggressions. The cumulative effects are like an axe chopping into the trunk of an oak tree: a single stroke does little but leave a knick. Now imagine the cumulative effects of many axes, day in and day out, until eventually, that tree is wobbling in the slightest winds.
I went to a school founded by segregationists; my oak tree was being chopped at daily. What my friend didn’t understand was these negative interactions make you angry and resentful. It takes up too much energy to sort out whether or not what someone said was meant to be a slight, and after a while, you stop trying to determine if it is, and assume it is. You carry that anger and resentment around with you, and, over time, your threshold for bullshit lowers. When that frustration spews out, typically on to the last person to wrong you, that person doesn’t see the build-up towards your anger — all the knicks already on the trunk. All they see before them is an angry Black man who “can’t take a joke.”
As I watched buildings around the country go up in flames this year and turn into smoldering black lumps, I know what got them there. It’s the same anger I’ve harbored inside of me. When I see bricks thrown through windows, I know the anger that carried those bricks.
If you haven’t felt the sting of being treated as a foreigner in the land your ancestors built with their bare calloused hands, haven’t had to see your people getting murdered repeatedly on social media and TV, then you probably don’t understand that anger. But that’s what microaggressions lead you to: anger towards the place you’re supposed to call home and distrust in people you are supposed to call your countrymen.
If you fancy yourself a supporter of BLM, you need to assess your day-to-day interactions with Black people, along with the overt racial violence that you see. If you want to change, you need to admit you’re biased. We’re all biased. Yes, even if you have a Black friend, or a Black boyfriend or girlfriend. You can be biased with a Black husband or wife, and you can be biased with a Black child.
Unconscious biases are those thoughts and correlations your brain makes without you realizing it. It’s what festers below your thoughts. The brain can only consciously sort through about 16-40 bits of information at once, while subconsciously, it's sorting through as much as 11 million bits of information. To do that, the brain makes shortcuts. These shortcuts can come in the form of throwing things into categories. For example, when you see a dog, your brain automatically sorts between categories such as cuddly or dangerous, depending on your experience. Now apply that to humans. You can consciously love your Black best friend; they’re familiar. But when you’re walking on a sidewalk at night, and you see a Black man you’re unfamiliar with, your brain does the familiarizing for you. Now, your fingers are instinctively curling tighter around your purse and your heart's racing. That doesn’t make you a horrible person, but it does make you unconsciously biased.
You need to go towards your bias, not run from it. Don’t aim to be color-blind. Seeing color has never been a problem - it’s what you do once you see that color is the problem. According to Patricia Devine and her colleagues’ study on breaking prejudiced habits, instead of color blindness, you should aim to “individuate.” Meaning, try to learn about the different attributes of someone from the group in which you hold your bias against, and you’ll start to notice them as an individual and not a part of a collective.
Next thing, try and break out of your homogenous circle. About 75% of white people in this country don’t have a single Black friend. That’s about 75% of the people in the nation’s majority that get their knowledge about Black people second and third-hand, typically from other white people who know just as much. Once you leave your circle, you’ll eventually realize the people you fear aren’t much different from you. Your brain simply needs a larger sample size to go off of.
It’s worked for me. Being in white spaces has come with its frustrations, but it has also come with its upsides. My brain isn’t able to group individuals together anymore because I’ve been exposed to enough white people. And what you’ll find is that over time, you don’t clutch your purse as much as you used to, or cross the street. In my case, I’m less pessimistic than I used to be. I know now at the age of 26 that there are non-Black people who truly try to do better.
The third thing you can try is simply slowing down. Your brain gives you your biases as a way to make quick decisions, but you don’t have to react to your first or second or even third thoughts. Is that guy with his hoodie on really harmful, or is he just simply cold? A few seconds of rational thinking could keep you from calling the cops, and could probably save his life.
Finally, consume Black media and Black art. After a while, you’ll realize from our music and writing that what you see today isn’t new - it’s an on-going theme. Plus, according to Patricia Devine, exposing yourself to non-stereotypical examples of the out-group you hold your prejudice against measurably lowers bias.
I’m not trying to chase away new BLM supporters. I’m trying to change the way many of them think about racism. This isn’t the first time our country has rallied around the death of a Black man. Back in 1955, Emmett Till’s beaten and bloody body was plastered on the cover of Time to show the world what evil racists were capable of and it mobilized the civil rights movement. But that was 65 years ago. George Floyd’s video was released just over a month ago.
Even if we defund the police and get reparations, if the people who are joining the movement now won’t do the internal audit needed to understand how their day-to-day interactions with Black people is a part of the anger and unrest they see on TV, we’ll keep repeating these moments again and again and again. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed by cops, but Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in the midst of an attempted civilian’s arrest. You can’t policy reform that type of hate and ignorance away.
At some point,some of you won’t go out and march any longer. You’ll stop tweeting about how Black lives matter, because it won’t be the pressing concern any more, or at least not your pressing concern. But at the least, you can change the way you interact with Black people on the daily. Understanding your own biases is important work. Maybe if my friend that day in the hallway would’ve taken a few seconds to think before he spoke, he would’ve realized he was being a bigot. I don’t know. But remember that being aware of your bias can be the difference between life and death for Black people. The same bias and fear you before you clutch your purse or make derogatory statements, is the same bias and fear a cop feels before he unloads his gun into a Black man’s car.