When I told my editor I felt compelled to write about race and the issues currently dominating our news, he said, “Do you feel you—as a white person—really have a lot to add to the conversation? If so, go for it. But make sure you’re answering that question in the affirmative.”
Let me start by saying I am a white person who was lucky enough to be raised to know that the only difference between people is in their immutable characteristics: skin color, hair color, eye color, height, sexual orientation—but not in their worth or value as a human being deserving of respect.
I’ve written almost 200 columns now, and too many of them have touched on race, discrimination and the outrages perpetrated against people of color, or people being wronged based on their gender, sexual orientation or religion. I’ve written about my own father threatening my life if I came to my brother’s first wedding with my Black boyfriend. I’ve written about the attack on a Muslim community in Coachella, and on the unconscionable dislocation of Black, Mexican and Indigenous peoples from what is now downtown Palm Springs. I’ve talked about local residents with a long history of fighting racism who are committed to the realization of a diverse society where nobody is considered lesser. I’ve written about my own history of working for civil rights and gender equality. And I have three Black ex-step-children whose safety is always on my mind.
We are right now at a time of profound change—if we are courageous enough to follow through and not let the latest distractions divert us from the hard work that needs to be done.
After the horrifying killing of George Floyd, the shooting in her own apartment of Breonna Taylor, and all the other people we’ve had to add to the list in recent years, the latest indignity is Bubba Wallace—the only Black first-tier NASCAR driver, who pushed the racing series to ban Confederate flags—finding a noose hung in his garage at the raceway. Too many people are willing to distort the message of the tens of thousands of protesters who have filled streets throughout the country and around the world, and label them as thugs, hoodlums and terrorists.
For those who object to what’s happening by maintaining that THEY aren’t racist and have never done anything against others based on skin color, or those who are sick of all the whining and complaining because we all have problems, or those who turn away because it’s too difficult to watch, or those who work with people of other races and have never felt the comfort to have a conversation about these issues, or those who sympathize and wish they could do something to make a difference but don’t know what—this column is for you.
The only way to be part of the solution is to recognize the problem.
We’re born into a culture based on racism, and we absorb it in every interaction and through every institution with which we come into contact. It’s only by awareness and conscious action that we have any hope of overcoming that history. White people, born into the privilege of being considered the norm against which everything else is compared, are the ones who have to change the course toward our future.
There’s a difference between personal bias—where you may have been raised to believe that people who look a certain way are somehow inherently inferior or to be feared—and institutional racism.
A racist system is insidious in its reach, influence and impact, and all too often, especially if you’re white, you’re not even aware that it exists. It’s at the core of education, health care, housing, banking, elections and the police who are supposed to protect and serve the public.
Police forces were originally created to control slave uprisings or escapes, and that mindset is at their core. Let local law enforcement know that you want change in their training, their disciplinary practices, their transparency. Show your appreciation for their efforts in keeping the peace, and lobby for the re-funding of social services that can more appropriately deal with social issues that don’t require an armed response. Never forget that your taxes pay their salaries.
Institutional racism is at the core of our banking and real estate systems. Red-lining is historically how we keep people “where they belong.” Home ownership is a key asset, and if you get into trouble, you have no way to access funds to help get you back on your feet without assets. Identify minority-owned businesses and patronize them. Ask your own bank how they do inclusive outreach in the community. They need to know white customers care about this, and you can influence change by threatening to move your money to a more community-friendly entity.
People of color often have lower-paid jobs without benefits—particularly health care and savings for retirement. Individuals without health-care coverage are more at risk of illness and earlier death. The disparate rate at which people of color are suffering from COVID-19 is evidence of this. Let your elected representatives know you support everyone having access to both.
Education is supposed to be the means by which we offer equal opportunity to get ahead—but public education is not equal when poor neighborhoods have sub-standard schools. Even if those students get through high school, they’re not able to compete with those who have had the advantage of special prep classes, counseling for college applications and financial assistance. Let your children’s teachers know you want them to teach ALL of our history. Remember that children hear EVERYTHING and learn not just from what you tell them. You have to model the behaviors you want them to emulate. Teach them to recognize bias and to be willing to speak up when they see it.
In our political system, although people of color are now more represented in elected office, suppression of votes is another way our country institutionally limits the ability of those who have been most marginalized from having real power to effect change. You can make a difference by getting involved with a local political organization or the Registrar of Voters.
You need to identify your own personal biases, and there are things you can do to change: Put yourself in situations where you have a chance to interact and listen. Expand your awareness of our history so you can teach others.
Perhaps most important, intervene whenever you hear something that is inappropriate. You can do it quietly and firmly, and it will make a difference. Just know that silence is tacit agreement. Do SOMETHING.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show The Lovable Liberal airs on IHubRadio. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.