As a white mom raising white kids in middle America, I pride myself on being as conscious as possible when it comes to racism. I ensure my kids embrace differences and teach them not to be colorblind. But last week one of my co-workers (who is a black man) told me I’ll never understand what racism is like because I’m white, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. Though I certainly wouldn’t call this racism, I’ve had people of color treat me negatively because I’m white. What should I tell my co-worker if this comes up again?
— Jody in St. Louis
The short answer: I agree with your co-worker. You’ll never understand what racism is like.
For example, I’m a proud feminist, and I’m educated when it comes to women’s issues, but there’s a good reason I’m not out here saying I know what it’s like to be pregnant. Because I’m a man and I have no effing clue what being pregnant is like! I’m sure it’s uncomfortable and painful, but I’ll never know because I haven’t lived it. So I listen to my mom friends tell their pregnancy stories without adding any “yeah, buts” or whataboutisms ― because quite frankly, that’s not my lane, and it never will be.
Now, let’s not confuse racism with prejudice. Prejudice is the belief that a person or a group of people are less than because of who they are. In other words, if a black woman tells you not to bring your bland, raisin-infused potato salad to the cookout because “white folks think salt is the best way to season food,” she’s not being racist. She’s displaying prejudice against you and people like you (and against your potato salad).
Black people can be prejudiced as hell, just like any other group of people. As a matter of fact, I think all humans are prejudiced in one way or another. But just because a black person hurt your feelings that one time doesn’t mean you’ve experienced racism.
This is where I’m going to lose some of you: I don’t believe that people of color can be racist in America.
Racism is completely different from prejudice, because it’s systemic, as the -ism suffix connotes. I’d define racism as a political, economic or social system in which a dominant race uses its power to oppress others of different races. And because I know people will pull a hamstring running to look up a dictionary definition of racism, I’ll link to one here. (It’s not far off from mine.)
When you experience rudeness from black people, remember that they will never have the power you do as a white person. They don’t live in a country where the laws, norms and rules benefit them. White people ― er, white men ― were running the show around here long before the ink on the Declaration of Independence was dry.
That’s not to say white people haven’t experienced discrimination, but the way America is currently set up, there’s nothing white people can’t have. Wanna join the rap game, play professional basketball or participate in any black-dominated activity? If you’re good enough, you’re in.
It’s not the same for people of color. For example, there are only three minority coaches in the 32-team NFL — in which almost 70 percent of the players are black. Hell, Texas Tech University recently fired a white guy for losing more games than he won as the head coach there, and a couple of months later, the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals hired him to be their head coach. If you’re going to tell me the reason for the NFL’s lack of minority head coaches is that they’re unqualified, I can’t take you seriously. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Racism is when people of color are locked up for decades for weed charges but a white Stanford swimmer was sentenced to a measly six months in jail after being convicted of sexual assault.
Racism is when a black man visits a day care center and is told there is a six-month waiting list to get his daughter in but his white female friend speaks to the same woman a few hours later on the same day to get her infant daughter in and is accepted. Yep, that happened to me.
The fear of racism is what made me inform my neighbors that I was going to host a bunch of loud 5-year-olds for my daughter’s birthday party. I didn’t do it because I’m a polite guy. I did it because I didn’t want the cops to roll through, since I’m literally the only black man on my block. I could go on all day.
So when someone tells you that you will never understand what racism is like, Jody, you should rejoice, because racism is demoralizing, painful and exhausting. Take the word of a black guy who has endured decades of this. For those thinking that I’m a playing the victim card, here, please note that I’m not interested in sympathy or handouts. I just want empathy and understanding.
If you truly want to be an ally against racism, here’s my advice: Talk less and listen more when around people of color. Don’t be that white person who will inevitably fill my inbox or Twitter mentions with reasons that racism doesn’t exist (white supremacy is one a hell of a drug, man). Hear the stories of people of color and learn from them. Then when you see racism in your community, fight like hell to destroy it. Again, as a white person, you’re way more powerful than I am in that regard.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is approaching, and we still have a long way to go to achieve his dream of racial equality. One thing I know for sure? We’ll never get there without the help of good white people.
I’m a single mom. My son is 13 years old and has hair that falls slightly below his shoulders. It was never an issue when we lived in a hippie town in Massachusetts, but now that we moved to the South for my new job, he’s getting bullied on a daily basis. I’ve had friends and family tell me that it’s my fault because if I was a good parent, I’d have cut his hair to protect him. But I feel that I’m sending my son the wrong message if do that. He loves his hair, and he’s not breaking any rules at school, so why should he change?
— Zoe in Orlando, Florida
I’m with you 100 percent on this, Zoe. If you think about it, people are bullied all the time for things that aren’t as easily changed as a hairstyle ― like skin color, gender, religion, weight, sexual orientation ― and they find ways to persevere. As I’ve mentioned previously in this column, I was bullied mercilessly growing up, and as I sit here now, I feel I’m a stronger man because of it.
Don’t get it twisted, though. I don’t believe that being bullied is a prerequisite for toughness later on. In a perfect world, I’d like to eliminate bullying. But there are a lot of weak-minded kids and adults who find joy in the pain of others, which means bullying isn’t going away anytime soon. However, I am a strong believer in being authentic.
There are countless people in America who are silently suffering because they are afraid to be true to themselves. I’m friends with some of them, and I witness how difficult their lives are on a daily basis. But for some reason, they believe life would be more painful if they showed the world who they really are, and that’s sad to me.
We’re on this floating rock called Earth for a limited time, and I would tell your son to do whatever the hell he pleases with his hair. I think we can agree that the goal in this parenting game is to raise happy, kind and productive children, right? How does teaching your kid to give up what he loves because some assholes are mean to him accomplish that?
With that in mind, you might need to approach the school administration about this, if you haven’t already. I’m not sure what level of bullying he’s experiencing (name-calling, physical altercations or both), but if his school is worth a damn, it’ll take your concerns seriously.
At the end of the day, you’re demonstrating to your son that being different is cool. As Albert Einstein once said, “The one who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd. The one who walks alone is likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.” Contrary to what your friends and family think, I believe you’re doing what a good mom should do by teaching your son to be who he chooses to be.
I’d be dishonest if I said that it’s not going to be a tough road for him. He’s only 13, so he doesn’t have the coping skills that a grownup would, and it could be easy for him to become depressed because of what his classmates are saying and doing. But your job is to keep reminding him that he’s a great kid who’s doing nothing wrong. If he ultimately decides to cut his hair, be sure that he’s doing it because he wants to, not to escape the bullying.
On a somewhat related note: A common misconception is that Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is coming up next week, is a holiday for black people. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a day for people who believe in equality and wish to end discrimination in all its forms. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, Latin, Asian, short, tall, overweight, mentally or physically disabled, gay, lesbian, Muslim, Jewish, female, poor, old, a recovering addict, covered in tattoos or a dude with long flowing hair. If you’ve experienced discrimination and wish to be viewed based on your merits instead of the other noise, then King fought for you too.
You’re doing the right thing, Zoe — and your son is fortunate to have you as his mama.