Like everyone else in the country, I can’t stop thinking about last week’s events. I can’t stop trying to figure out a way to comprehend them — first the senseless deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, then the senseless deaths of Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael J. Smith, Lorne Ahrens and Michael Krol. Somehow, we’re compelled to make sense of the senseless. We know we can’t, but we also know we have to try. We have to talk. We have to figure out some way to discuss race and injustice, guns and hatred, police and people of color, fear and sacrifice, and the abrupt, outrageous victimhood of everyone who dies at the end of a barrel in these inflamed and disunited states where we now live.
But how do we start? How do we even talk about race when anthropologists tell us it’s a social construct? When our best selves believe that it shouldn’t even matter? Well, here’s how white people can kick things off: by admitting that it does.
Like most Caucasians, I never thought much about being white. Whiteness always struck me as a negative state, a bleached racial canvas defined by what it wasn’t. As a kid I knew I wasn’t black or brown, and I knew that people identified by their blackness or brownness suffered terrible prejudice — but what this meant in terms of my own whiteness, I couldn’t tell you. I knew that my dad was Italian, my mom was English-Scottish-French-German, and I was a mash of both. But white? That meant nothing to me. My parents discussed racism with me and my sister in the language of sweeping moral imperatives and prohibitions: Treat everyone the same. Never use racial epithets or tell racist or ethnic jokes. Speak out when someone else does. But they never spoke to us about being white. If, as they assured us, everyone’s alike, then why bother parsing the differences? There weren’t any, right?
So when Justin Timberlake took heat for tweeting out a tone-deaf “We’re the same” in response to Jesse Williams’ remarks at the BET Awards, I cringed. He was no more oblivious than most well-meaning white folk, all of us adamantly believing and repeating the standard line on race that our well-meaning white parents taught us: That there is no difference. That we’re all alike. That we’re all brothers and sisters. That we’re all born and made of the same essential human stuff.
And so we are. In the eyes of our Creator, there is no difference. But it isn’t the Creator’s eyes (which are, at this point, weeping) that are causing the problem. It’s our eyes, the eyes of society, the eyes that see and pass judgment on a black man with a broken tail light and a license to carry a gun, the eyes that narrow with fear at the guy in the hoodie running an errand, the eyes that regard a brown boy with suspicion when a white one is viewed with confidence and calm.
This is where my parents were wrong. This is what has taken me, your Typical Clueless White Person, far too long to understand: Not everyone is the same. My whiteness means that I’ve never had to worry when I send my teenage son to fetch milk or ice cream in the evening, because his whiteness protects him after dark. My whiteness means that I’ve never had to sit him down for the talk that mothers give their black sons about safety on the streets and dealings with police.
My whiteness means that in every conversation I’ve ever had about race and the failures of our justice system, in everything I’ve ever read about mass incarceration and economic imbalance and the pernicious effects of institutionalized racism, in all of my sympathetic, heartfelt, horrified responses to same, I have never asked how I play into it. How I might be privileged, complicit and complacent. What my whiteness means. Which is, in its way, proof of just how privileged, complicit and complacent I’ve been. I still don’t know what it means, but I know that it means something, and I know that I have to question this something to change the status quo. And maybe that’s a start.
So as we grieve and object to the taking of lives last week, all of us — the whole spectrum of Americans — can hope and pray that more lives aren’t taken in reply. We have to, because we can’t let violence become the conversation. We need to talk, and we need to listen. We need to figure this out together.