Fellow White People: We Don't Get To Decide Racism Doesn't Exist

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Fellow White People: We Don't Get To Decide Racism Doesn't Exist

Editor's Note: This article was originally posted in September 2016.

I'm scared to post this.

I'm afraid of alienating people I love: people I interact with on a daily basis, people whose friendships I value. I wouldn't say this if it hadn't been weighing heavy, like a 50-pound weight on my tongue every time I open my mouth to say something and stop before it comes out because I don't want to stir the pot.

I don't want anyone to be mad at me. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. But I can't, in good conscience, do that anymore.

I live with a certain degree of privilege. Monetary privilege? Not so much. But social privilege? Absolutely. I am part of a demographic that is perceived as the LEAST THREATENING to society. I'm a White Lady. Further, I'm a Southern White Lady. Still further, I'm a Heterosexual, Cis-Gender, Southern White Lady who Happens to be the married mother of two apple-cheeked blonde children. I'm a damn Norman Rockwell painting, complete with pearls and a homemade apple pie.

I have literally never been discriminated against in any significant way. I've been the target of unwelcome male attention because of my gender but that's a rant for another day.

The point is I don't have any right to complain about racism. What I do have, however, is a duty to complain about racism.

It exists. It's real. It happens every single day in every single city in America, whether we see it or not, and as long as we avert our gaze, it's pretty easy to feel indignant that anyone should imply that there are racists among us. "There's a Black man in the White House," I hear them huff. "What more do they want?"

I'm not going to speak for an entire race that I'm not a part of but my guess is that one of the things "they" want is to no longer be referred to as "they." To do so is to imply that to be Black means you aren't part of "us." That you are somehow "other," that you can't sit at our table.

Having a Black president is a huge step. Even ten years ago, I didn't really think it was possible. There was too much of a pushback. Too many people were angry. Too many people said, "I'm not racist, BUT..." It's a huge step, a leap forward in progress that was long overdue. But we're not done.

How many times have you heard nasty things said about our First Lady that was directly about her race? About her body? How many insulting caricatures have you seen posted on Facebook by a friend from elementary school who you only vaguely know?

I'm ashamed of how many times I just clicked "Unfollow" and pretended it hadn't happened because I didn't want to make a fuss or cause any unpleasantness. After all, I'm going to run into this person at the Dollar General, and I'd hate for it to be awkward.

I should have called it out for what it was. I should have said, "Why was it treason when the Dixie Chicks didn't like George W. Bush, but you can laugh at caricatures of our Commander in Chief, depicted in overalls, eating watermelon in the Oval Office, while the First Lady, a woman of infinite class and enviable arms, stands by in a dotted headscarf, like she stepped right off a bottle of syrup, and call it freedom of speech?"

But I didn't. I quietly unfollowed, I went for a run to burn through the rage and shame that burned in my cheeks and my stomach. I should have said something. I should have said something. I should have said something.

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Clemson's football coach, Dabo Swinney, made a speech about Colin Kaepernick's protest, about his choice to remain seated during the National Anthem. I realize that down where I live, to question Dabo isn't just treasonous, but downright sinful.

But here's my problem: He didn't condemn Kaepernick. He just said that his protest wasn't at the right time or place. He said that our problem was sin, not racism. And on the surface, that's pretty innocuous. He's being lauded by nearly everyone I know as an example of what humans should be like.

However, I wonder when, exactly, is the right time for a protest. I wonder where, exactly, is the right place.

He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He held him up as an example to which we should all aspire. But maybe he forgot about some things. He seems to have forgotten Dr. King's 13 arrests. Maybe he never learned about the death threats Dr. King and his family received, year after year of his peaceful protests.

Dabo wasn't there, I assume, when people called for Dr. King's blood. I certainly wasn't. But I can read. I paid attention in history class. Those incidents are well-documented. It's just more comfortable to forget, I guess.

What I really want to say is that you need to decide what it is you want.

"We wouldn't mind peaceful protests."

(Okay. We'll forget for a minute that this is being said by the same country that arrested, beat, tear-gassed, and set actual fire to peaceful protesters not all that long ago. That can't be used as evidence by the jury. Didn't happen. It was all hand-holding and rainbows and everyone recognized Dr. King as a saint from Day One, and immediately saw him as the force that would unite our country forever.)

Nobody threw books at little girls just for walking into school. No one poured acid into swimming pools because Black people were swimming in them. Nobody lynched anybody. Nobody set fire to any churches. White America collectively opened their eyes, all at the same time, and said, "Holy gee whiz! You DON'T want fewer rights? Our bad! Won't happen again!")

So, since you said, "We wouldn't mind peaceful protests," that's what Colin Kaepernick did. You actually can't get much more peaceful than that. He just sat. He didn't yell. He didn't hold up a sign. He didn't throw punches or set fire to anything. He just sat.

America collectively lost its mind over this.

"We wouldn't mind peaceful protests, just not like that. It was the wrong time and place. It was inappropriate. It was disrespectful. It was distracting."

People are burning his jersey. Boycotting his team. Using his name as a swear word. He is vilified and called a disgrace. People are FURIOUS. But he did EXACTLY WHAT YOU SAID YOU WOULD BE TOTALLY FINE WITH.

I've read, "He's rich, what is he whining about?" As though his protest was for personal gain, which he has stated repeatedly that it is not. As though being rich exempts him from caring about anyone else having problems. As though he being rich, personally, has erased generations of systemic oppression.

So Dabo wants him to protest in a way that isn't distracting, in a more convenient way. Maybe we'd be okay with it if he protested peacefully... at home? Alone? With the curtains drawn? In the middle of a Tuesday night? That... that kind of defeats the purpose of a protest.

I've heard people say that what Kaepernick did "should be illegal." Really? Think about it. Really think about what you're saying. If I understand you correctly, you want peaceful protests to be punishable by law? You want sitting during the National Anthem... to be punishable by law?

So, saluting the flag, standing for the Anthem — those are going to be mandatory? Think. Think. Think. What other governments have made swearing allegiance mandatory? I'll give you a second. You can Google it. You did, huh? Now, is that what you really want? Really?

The words of the National Anthem, which I have sung hundreds of times at various sporting events, fundraisers, and even once at a funeral, clearly celebrate, with fireworks and a note that pierces the stratosphere, that we are "the land of the free." That means everybody. EVERYBODY. Everybody is free to say things.

So if you have the right to burn Kaepernick's jersey, that means, logically, that he has the right to sit during the National Anthem. If you want to make that illegal, then you no longer want this to be the "land of the free"; you want it to be "the land of the things I'm comfortable with."

In college, at Clemson actually, I read Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in a history class. I read this sitting in a classroom within spitting distance of a statue of John C. Calhoun. The irony, at the time, was lost on me. But, after hearing Dabo's much-lauded speech, during which he invoked the name of Dr. King, I couldn't stop thinking about this:

"One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked, 'Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?' The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded as much as the outgoing one before it will act."

He continues to say, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.' But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your Black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of affluent society..."

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It goes on, and it is painful and poignant, and it should be required reading for everyone before they're allowed to post anything at all on the Internet, ever.

Racism is still a thing. It is. It was when I was in Kindergarten, and there was one Black girl in my class. Another kid told me not to sit next to her because black people's houses were dirty. This wasn't in 1967. This was 1988. Well after desegregation, this kid, who is five didn't know any better, had been taught to say these ugly words. Somebody taught her that. If racism stopped like a switch flipping off when Dr. King declared that he had a dream, then where did she hear it?

Racism is still a thing. When ladies are describing someone and look around before they whisper, "She's Black," it's still there. When we say things like, "Some of my best friends are Black," to excuse or defend the next words that will come out of our mouths, we are acknowledging that what we're about to say is racist.

And with those words, that seem harmless among your friends, you plant another seed, you enforce the idea that we are somehow different, that your "Black friends" are in some way not the same as your "white friends." If they were, you would just call them your "friends." Whether you mean for it to be or not, it's still there.

When I, an idiot teenager, got away with loitering and stealing signs and committing acts of petty vandalism, no one ever stopped me. Ever. No one blamed it on my upbringing or called me a thug. No. They chuckled and said, "I remember being a kid, too." It's still there.

I say this to you, my fellow White People: we don't get to decide that racism doesn't exist. That's not our call to make. Maybe you aren't racist. A whole lot of people aren't. A whole lot of people in the SOUTH aren't. There are, I have to believe, more good people than bad people. But that doesn't mean that those bad people aren't there: vocal, angry, and dangerous.

Just because we don't see something every day doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. I don't see polar bears every day but I've seen one once, and that's enough to make me accept that they do, in fact, exist. It may not affect you at all. But you have to think, if so many people are angry, if so many people see it, then who are we to say their experiences are invalid? It's not our place.

We don't get to decide how other people feel. We don't get to sit from a distance and say, "They have a Black president, what more do they want?" If you think racism doesn't exist, stop using race as the primary way you describe our president. Use "Harvard graduate" or "excellent husband" or "Commander in Chief." Show our first family the same respect you show the National Anthem.

Hold W's daughters to the same standards you hold the Obama daughters. Treat Michelle Obama with the respect she deserves as our First Lady. That's what you have to do in order to claim to love your country enough to scream treason when someone sits during its anthem. You can't have a fierce pride in your Confederate heritage, wave your heritage flag, and then be horrified when people don't want to say the Pledge of Allegiance, even though if your ancestors hadn't done exactly the same thing, you wouldn't have a Confederate heritage to be proud of.

You can't claim racist remarks about our first family are "freedom of speech" when a peaceful protest is "treason." Actually, you can.

That's the point. You CAN do those things. The veterans you support fought for your freedom to do those things. But if you want that freedom, you can't say it applies only to the things you like. It doesn't work that way. Walk through it.

"We have freedom of speech, so we can say whatever we want. But that guy shouldn't be allowed to say what he wants because I don't agree with it. I don't think that right should be distributed equally."

And there you have it.

That America, where the pledge is mandatory and we're not allowed the right to peaceful protest? That's not the Land of the Free. That's something else entirely. I'm not saying you can't be angry. I'm saying to be careful what you wish for.

A country that requires you to swear devotion to a specific set of ideas, and makes pledging loyalty to them mandatory, is not a place I would want to live. I don't think it's a place anyone wants to live if we really sit down and think about it.

I want my patriotism to be a personal choice. I want my religion to be a personal choice. I don't want anyone making my personal choices mandatory because in doing so, you take away the meaning in the choice.

I acknowledge my privilege. I don't celebrate it or deserve it, but I realize that it's there. And since it is there, whether it's right or not, I think I'm obligated to use it for good.

If you make a racist joke, I'm going to call you out. I'm going to make it clear, from now on, that you should not be comfortable using that language around me. I have ignored it and excused it for too long, and I'm ashamed of that. It's not okay. It's not harmless.

Since Dr. King's legacy is now so much revered (as it should have been all along if things were just and people were kind), I want to close with this because it is as true today as it was when it was written in that jail cell in Birmingham:

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council or the Ku Klux Klan but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, 'I agree with you and the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

Before you say that MLK would have condemned the Black Lives Matter movement, read his words. Because they condemn you, too.

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Erin Schultz is a writer and contributor to YourTango.