The Census makes clear that America’s demographics are changing. The percentage of white Americans dropped, while percentages of people of color, of multiethnic and multiracial people, increased. Welcome to our emerging reality.
To some whites, this is the dreaded harbinger of a nightmarish future where we are not in control. Numbers only confirm what’s been underway for some time. Like it or not, we must learn to voluntarily surrender every existing sense of entitlement to control the spaces we occupy. What is called for is the giving of respect.
All white people are not dismayed, afraid or angry. Many are secretly or openly hopeful of America becoming better, doing better. Some have invested time to learn facts and actual history, done work on themselves, and even with imperfect understanding, they step up, speak up and put themselves at risk of hostile neighbors, kinfolk, and co-workers. Some do it out of human decency, some with conviction this is good, godly, and right. If that’s you, I want to encourage you and say I’m kinda proud of you. Keep moving forward in educating yourself to become the thermostat and not the thermometer in your sphere of influence. Learn from good examples. Also, learn what not to do from bad examples and failures, including your own.
I once attended an event where I was one of the very few white people in attendance. The guest speaker was a white attorney who tried to connect with his audience by telling fondly of his “darky mommy.” It was absolutely cringe-worthy. Note to self: However we connect across racial lines, this is not it.
More recently, at a nail salon, one elderly white customer questioned the technician, a person of Vietnamese descent: “Where are you from? Do you like it here? Do you like us?” Awkward. Was she sincerely trying? Maybe. So, how would you answer? When your livelihood is in serving, trimming, massaging, decorating, and otherwise catering to the hands, feet and self-image of customers, particularly paying customers of the dominant culture, how would you answer such questions? With honesty and transparency, as you might with a trusted friend? Or do you respond more guardedly and out of necessity to retain customers, maybe even a tip? If you don’t know, keep living.
Such ham-fisted attempts as these reveal an awareness that change is not only inevitable, but it’s already happening. Some are trying to adjust, cope with and navigate whatever this new normal will be. Even NFL teams have “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” written in their end zones. These efforts are not structural, but we are increasingly aware. Trying is something. But trying good things instead of doing the right things is inadequate.
Before you grab your neighbor’s hand to chant kumbaya and do the sway thing, understand; this is deeper than that. All our stuff encumbering America’s actual freedom and equity is deeply rooted. Truthful history exposes us, and relinquishing power is rare. It’s going to take work. The mercy we need requires sufficient humility to hear and face objective truths. We must own our inequities completely and deal with them ruthlessly. This requires determination. That fight-or-flight reflex was not given to us so we might continue in or defend things that are wrong. This includes our own image. I can’t think of one person who wants to look in the mirror and see an irredeemable, intransigent racist. Many would become instantly combative at the suggestion, especially if true. Yielding dominance is a rare virtue.
When lawmakers in Texas debated a voter suppression bill clearly targeting minorities, the Speaker of the House requested that no representative use the term “racism.” Why? The word was impolite! One thinks of Mad Magazine’s bit with Ozzie Nelson, reading his newspaper with much of the news simply cut out before he could read it. One thing the US Census plainly tells us; this approach will never do.
By Frank Robinson