From Brer Rabbit Redux:
Matthew Johnson: I was recently criticized by a good friend for having been bitten by the “post-racial” bug for suggesting that race, as a socially constructed concept unrelated to genetics, affects everyone and that human connection can transcend (perceived) racial differences. I would never be so naïve as to argue that race no longer matters; in fact, I will argue that it matters more than ever, affecting even white people — which is why we, as human beings of all colors, need to start having more honest and inclusive conversations on the subject.
It is not necessary for race to affect me, as a white man who grew up in the moderately affluent suburbs, to the same extent or in the same way as it affects an urban black resident or a Mexican immigrant in order for me to be qualified to speak on it or combat it to the best of my abilities. I, too, have been alienated from family, potential friends, and even society by real or perceived white racism. I, too, see it as a cancer that must be eradicated.
The fear always exists that my family will not accept a partner I bring home that isn’t white. My mother, in part due to my consciousness-raising efforts, has no qualms with any woman of any color who loves me and treats me right. However, past comments from certain extended family members have made my blood boil with anti-racist rage. Equally traumatic was my ex-girlfriend’s insistence on playing the victim role and guilt-tripping me for being more privileged than she by virtue of my whiteness. Her use of the “race card” to get her way could not occur in a society that is not already saturated with power and privilege asserted through racial hierarchy. No matter how sincere, committed, or accountable the individual, trust is very difficult to build across racial lines. I learned this the hard way.
Nonetheless, it is fortunate that being a white man in the struggle for racial justice and equality does not place crosshairs on my back in today’s United States — but there was a time when it did. I think it’s important for us all to look back and recognize the courageous contributions of whites to the abolition of slavery, the empowerment of blacks during Reconstruction, and the anti-segregation battles of the 1960s. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. How many realize that white men were among the victims of racist, proto-fascist brutality in the South for daring to share a bus seat with their black brothers?
Knowing this history I was a bit surprised when I was told in private by a respected professor and radio personality that I should not be teaching at a youth detention center whose population is 100 percent black and Latino for no other reason than because I am needed in my “own community.” As someone who taught Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro in that very detention center, I know that Woodson himself would not agree. Although Woodson, as the founder of what became Black History Month, was a strong proponent of empowering blacks by teaching them their history through a non-Eurocentric lens, he was not opposed to whites teaching blacks as long as they were committed to black liberation.
I do not have a problem with those who insist on taking a more nationalist or separatist approach to race relations. I only ask that they not attempt to speak for all blacks, all Latinos, all Asians, all indigenous peoples, or all whites when making their arguments. It is not as if all citizens of any color view separatism and, indeed, alienation as akin to empowerment. Moreover, I do not think it is even possible to convert an obstinate racist without introducing that same racist to the very people he or she hates/fears.
We are all in this struggle together. A racially harmonious society is ultimately in everyone’s best interests. It is even in the best interests of those who eschew fairness and long-term prosperity for short-term profit and power. The principle of “unity through diversity” is crucial because the point is not to ignore or deny racial differences, but to transcend them. The point is not to ignore or deny racial injustices, but to collectively identify and resolve them — and there is no way to accomplish any of this without the participation of whites.