Leading with Dialogue Rather than Criticism | Understanding the Racial Blindspots of White People

In a perfect world, we’d all see eye to eye. Despite our differences, we’d understand each other’s lived experiences, and lead with demonstrating empathy and support. We’d avoid making harsh generalizations or rash judgments, and rather than characterizing or shunning certain behaviors and stances that we didn’t understand, we would graciously accept the fact that not understanding something doesn’t make it wrong.

Because many Americans prefer to live in environments with people who share their racial background (and this is especially true for white people specifically), we often forget how many different types of experiences and norms exist across the country–let alone the world.

Let’s quickly just break down the numbers. There are over 7 billion people in the world. Seven. Billion. Of that, about 320 million people live in the United States–meaning, only 4% of the world’s population lives in this country. So as significant and dominant as we think our experiences and opinions are as Americans, in the grand scheme of things, 96% of the world operates under a completely different set of daily norms and expectations. But let’s be honest–all Americans definitely don’t experience America the same way–so let’s break down that 320 million a bit more:

According to the 2015 US Census, White people (including ‘white Hispanics’) make up 77% of the population, while White non-Hispanics make up 61.6% of the population.  Black people make up 13.3%, American Indians make up 1.2%, Multi-racial people make up 2.6%, and Non-White Hispanics make up 17.6%. For the purposes of this post, I won’t get into all the semantics on the difference between race and ethnicity, or how our nation’s founders created a hierarchical racial classification system to justify white supremacy, the enslavement of Africans, and the violent removal of Native Americans. I’m sure we can all agree that the fact that we continue to be subjected to experiencing America within the racial categories that were manufactured for the political and economic gain of white people is baffling and sad, but here we are in 2016 still asking people to check the racial box that applies to them.

Okay, back to the point. That means, of that 320 million, 4.1 million are Black. And of that 4.1 million, about 1.1 million of us are employed in a field that requires a higher education credential (in order words, might refer to ourselves as ‘Black professionals’). So that means, mathematically speaking, “Black professionals”, comprise 0.0034% of our country’s population, meaning 99.996% of our country does not share that unique combination of race and educational attainment level/choice of occupation, and therefore is likely to see and experience the world in a different way (and, knowing that within our 0.0034% there are varying experiences, that number probably looks more like 99.999%).

For those of you who don’t have an affinity toward numbers, I say all of this to make one simple point: we make up such a small fraction of the population, and as a result, many of our experiences are unique to us and not as commonplace as they often feel. As dominant as our daily experiences seem, to someone else, they simply don’t exist. And as frustrating as it is to scroll through your Facebook timeline and see white people shaming Colin Kaepernick or saying “all lives matter,” so much of how people experience the world is based on the set of norms that they have operated in throughout their lives, and therefore believe to be true. White people, as the majority racial group in our country and as the ancestors of the very individuals who created race as a social and economic construct to operate in their favor, have the unique privilege of only seeing the world through the lens of their own experience if they want to. If they never wanted to interact, live near, or work with People of Color, there are several places across the country where that could be their reality (Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, for example, are all 96% white). People of Color, on the other hand, don’t have a choice but to understand the nuances of white America–we couldn’t avoid it if we tried. Three out of every four physicians are white; 83% of public school teachers are white; 91% of Fortune 500 CEOs are white; 73% of actors portrayed in movies are white–and the list goes on. So no matter if we get sick and need to get treated, or simply want to Netflix & Chill, white dominant culture is evident everywhere, all the time.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t ever excuse or justify ignorance (especially in the age of Google where you can, quite literally, type in any unanswered question you’re curious about and find a plethora of resources to answer it) just because whiteness is so prominent. However, we can lead the dialogue with empathy by understanding that (excluding blatant racists), there are so many white people out there who cannot for the life of them comprehend an America where working hard does not guarantee success or prosperity, or an America where the most prominent feelings you experience on a consistent basis are skepticism and fear. Should we blame them for that? Should we hold it against them that their ancestors created the racial hierarchy by using themselves as the standard of excellence, while subjecting our ancestors to centuries of brutal hatred and enslavement? Should we resent their ability to navigate our country’s systems without bias or exclusion,while we are disproportionately impacted by negative outcomes?

The simple answer is yes, of course we have a right to feel frustrated and perturbed. The realities of systemic racism are burdensome and difficult to swallow, let alone interact with on a daily basis. But also understand that racial blindspots are a result of holes or gaps in experiences. Even the most well-intentioned white people inevitably carry them because they don’t have to think about race in a society where theirs is treated as the invisible, defaulted norm. To take it a step further, 21st century “colorblind culture” prolongs and enlarges the existence of  racial blindspots, because it asserts that color doesn’t matter–we’re all the same.  The thing is, “colorblind” rhetoric is actually a cop-out designed to help us avoid acknowledging and deconstructing the abhorrent, systematic dominance of race in America. It’s the post-Civil Rights era discourse that most millennials were taught in school–once upon a time, America was really ugly and racist, and people were enslaved. But now, we’re all equal! Isn’t that great? It focuses on the progression toward human rights that we’ve made, rather than telling the full story of the systemic nature of race and outcomes. I’m with you, it would be excellent if color didn’t matter–trust me when I say People of Color wish this were the case more than anyone else. But instead of letting people off the hook by calling themselves or our society colorblind, it’s important to always define racism as the deliberate construct that it is, and not as a set of actions that only hateful individuals possess.

 

In summary,

  • As Black professionals, we are such a tiny little pocket of the US population. While that makes us magical, it also makes us isolated in our experiences and interpretations of society. It’s up to us to share our stories and perspectives to help influence and change the dominant rhetoric around race in America
  • Try not to feel burdened or consumed by the inevitable ignorance and mischaracterization of Blackness, Black stories, and Black movements by white people. Because of the nature of power and privilege, white people have been able to either opt out of the conversation about race completely, or have been socialized to only see the world through the lens of their own experiences while challenging everything else. While it’s not an excuse, it’s a reality that needs to be addressed, and can be done so by focusing on the systemic, not interpersonal, nature of racism.

/// What is your approach to addressing racial blindspots? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below!

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