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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

ListenListen to this

Straight talk about racism

Jack A. Kirkland

Blacks and Whites may live in polite tolerance but rarely speak openly or listen seriously to one another. Without such candor, we are unable to fathom or face the problems that continue to divide our diverse society in the United States. The author suggests that most Blacks are reluctant to communicate across the racial divide, and most Whites have only encountered sanitized relationships with deferential middle class Blacks. However, we must find the courage to speak and hear the truth because survival in the emerging multicultural society depends on our ability to initiate and sustain genuine communication.

The Pervasiveness of Racism

Let’s face it, when we talk about healing racism, we are talking about the morbid, rancid, corrosive relationships between Black and White people in the United States. Aspects of this same phenomenon exist among a variety of people who interact with the dominant European-based culture and experience. Such rancor, because of religion, culture, or some other variable that results in discrimination, is only a spillover of the residue of the fundamental attitudes many Whites hold toward Blacks.

Historically, in the United States the African was regarded to be and was treated as less than human by Whites. This was institutionally sanctioned by the Constitution, which, ironically, established freedom of religion but perpetuated slavery. This act of contrivance thus implicated the corporate Church as a co-conspirator in the commitment to and adoption of racism. It is hard for a country to uphold such discriminatory laws for centuries, and for people for whom the laws were made to benefit not to believe that they are superior to others, merely on the basis of color. So, when every institution in the land was ordered to stop treating Blacks as inferiors—even when this command came from the highest judicial system in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court—only the letter of the law changed. The spirit of the law—perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs of what it implied and would support—lingered.

Even today, long after proponents of the law admitted that this position was wrong, that bastion and beacon of truth-public education—consciously and purposely perpetrates ignorance and mythology about Black people. There is also a pale, hollow, sickening silence from the pulpits: The response to the legal decree, it becomes clear, was but a pause, a quick look around to see if the law was sincere, before carrying on business as usual in race relations. This new "truth," freedom and equality for Blacks, enunciated first after the Civil War and then after the civil rights movement, is merely the old lie, which is again proclaimed as the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Racism is like a running, bleeding cancer. It is an all-consuming, overwhelming, and monstrous malady that eats into the very core of self-esteem of its victims—and, alas, it destroys the perpetrators as well. All appeals to reason to stay these consequences, and the cries for justice, are caught and held fast in a "black hole" where the light of common sense, human rights, and neighborly decency cannot escape to prevail. To do that which is moral or right may never equalize the scales, even when that moral imperative is logically and rationally presented.

Racism is bold, callous, and without a conscience. This great wrong actually believes that it ultimately has right on its side. If that should fail to be convincing, it has the power of might to solidify its position. Fear and ignorance have coalesced into hatred and contempt, and the catalyst for these to congeal is color. Tradition has given this society a deranged social investment, which over time has engendered a social illness. This airborne virus of racism has been transmitted to other countries via Hollywood movies, live television, and reruns. It is highly contagious and seemingly contaminates members of the coming generation before they are even born. This illness is like an addiction. I recall a White man telling me in a group session, after he had achieved a profound awareness and resolve not to repeat his past biased pattern of racial relating, "I am now a recovering racist." This indicated to him that he could easily fall back into his past way of life if he picked up his old attitudes or went along with the people he most probably would find around him.

It takes courage to define your own way and tread your own path in racial relations, to take one different from the path hewed out and traveled down before you by your parents, relatives, and friends. It is consistent, conventional, and convenient to do as others do rather than to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It does not require judgment, or examination of truth, or exercise of character to be one of the crowd, but it does require the desire to be accepted, to go along, to wish not to be challenged.

I have had White parents tell me the dilemma they face when they have raised their children as best as they can to be free of racism and then have them ask, "Why do people hate Black people?" Such a question shows hope. This gives the parents opportunities for discussion, explanation, and clarification, providing they can do so. But when the question is asked of a child, "Why do we hate Black people?" we know this penetration of presumed truth is in search of a rationale or justification and, correspondingly, much has been modeled and has happened in the child’s presence that has made this indelible impression.

The Palm of Racism

Whites do not begin to know the effort it takes for Blacks to subdue their true feelings about the racial pain they incur, even in work situations, where it may appear that the relationships are collegial and compatible. Generational fear provides the protective, defensive kindness that "sugar-coats" feelings. In this way the blunted comments that come out of the mouths of Blacks are not the same as the sharply edged thoughts kept on check in the inside that cut so deeply into the self-esteem of the psyche. This has proven to be hazardous behavior for Blacks; the evidence of stress-caused illnesses is only now coming to the fore— the expense of enduring the hurt rather than expelling or dissipating it on the offender.

It is amazing to observe Blacks and Whites under stressful situations. Race is often the first thing to be abandoned when great loss is envisioned and mutual agreement is reached—" We are all in this together." This could be called the "foxhole syndrome." It was seen during World War II when Blacks and Whites were under the same fire from the enemy. They protected one another in every way possible, because their lives were in the hands of each other. It is operable in other imaginable situations, as when Black and White students are pressed to work together to study hard to pass an exam, and in many similar episodes that one can think of where cooperation is vital to success. Ah, but when the stress is removed, the individuals or groups, like oil and water, begin to separate. The G.I.s coming home from the war, having faced death together, now returned on separate sides of the ship, barely acknowledging each other although a short while before they might have died for one another. I am amazed that this same phenomenon exists in children’s homes, where youth experience stress concerning the deterioration of their families and their own unraveling relationships with family members. These youth huddle together in common misery and feel pain for one another. Sometimes the hurt is sufficient to glue a permanent relationship of brotherhood, one that does not respect the nations’ definition of how different races should behave.

Only during the civil rights movement did the masks of Black America come off, and then only temporarily, most often showing a face of impatience and determination rather than hatred. After the civil rights movement, many Blacks quickly moved into supervisory, managerial, professional, and academic positions because of pressure placed on society by aggressive Blacks. Once they had "arrived," many of these Blacks attempted to dissociate themselves from the very people who had gotten them there. They attempted to assuage White America into thinking that Black America was not really angry about the hostile treatment rendered and the inadequate, paltry services provided. This is a group of Blacks who have gotten to higher places than other Blacks in the past, and this group’s members are the next generation of characters in the ongoing saga of the life sequel of discrimination by color, but with modest compensation. This "new elite" acted the part of real minstrels to mainstream America, performing for the price of admission. They refused to make significant changes in the unchanging scene in racial relationships, for fear that they would jeopardize their place and the coveted prize. The dominant culture in the United States believes that it is interacting with the real Black America when, in reality, it is relating to this very small group of so-called "middle class Blacks," a group that it believes is escalating in numbers. This is now the only segment with which it has to negotiate. The "have nots"—the depressed, oppressed, and disconnected Blacks—are truly the largest group of Blacks in this country’s history, and their numbers are swelling. It is a dangerous strategy not to relate to this more representative group of Blacks, one that will have dire consequences.

In every arena you might search out, the African is not a bona fide American; thus, the use of the term African American. Blacks are a highly visible people in the making of this country, but they have an invisible presence in the engineering of it. A great number of Blacks are unemployed and not even counted in the national labor statistics. Blacks are never fully counted in the U.S. Census. They are an inordinately large percentage of the prison population, far beyond their natural percentage in the U.S. population. They have been living in a national economic depression for more than two generations; correspondingly, even in spite of this best of all economic times, half of the children are growing up in poverty. The projections for the next generation bode even worse, lest anyone should think that Blacks are becoming integrated as full first-class citizens. Health studies of Blacks have shown a high incidence of infant mortality, equal to that of countries given "third world" status, and schools for Blacks have high rates of illiteracy and dropouts.

Many Blacks feel that the great experiment of bringing people of different racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds together has been put on the waste heap of the tried and forgotten. Is there no "wake-up" call for those unaware of the great cost of racism and what it will continue to exact in human and fiscal capital, in the loss of unharvested promise, dreams, energy, and renewal?

Are we resting on our laurels? Do we think we have done enough? Let us not confuse change with progress, or that which is now better in race relations with that which is "good enough."

Given the choice of dying or being fair, would the United States rather die? Can this country not exorcise its racism? Is the price of equality so great, so dear to the bosom of this country, that it would rather expire than admit that a person of color is equal to any other?

There are Black and White parents who are diligently and painstakingly rearing their families this very hour to be free of racism—and bigotry, the Black response to racism. (Blacks cannot be racist; they do not have the institutional power to impose their will on others.) But, these people are merely raining drops of clear water into racially polluted, mind-locked lakes of humankind. Once fallen, immersed, they too become tainted, perhaps to a lesser degree. They are engulfed, stained by that which stains the waters—generations of reinforced, impacted myths, unwilling to refresh and clean themselves with waters of regeneration.

The Road to Racial Healing

The real solution to racism lies not with the transformation of avowed racists, although we must never give up on them. Instead, it rests with the great masses who do not know that they are, or do not believe themselves to be, racists. These are the people who delight in their relationship with those who are racially and culturally dissimilar
from themselves. They tell the story of racial compatibility from their vantage point, always without the benefit of honest feedback. Black America and White America have never truly talked and seriously listened to each other. Our solution rests with our ability to instigate and sustain such communication.

So, if the basis for racial healing is to be applied or prescribed for this social psychosis, let us use the psychotropic medicine of truth. It eliminates early signs of hallucinations, the appearance of people of other ethnic groups never seeming to be quite equal to the observer. The truth must be told early, openly, unguardedly, and publicly, otherwise there is no prospect of ever achieving racial harmony. And, without it, we are all the losers. We are a republic with a democratic form of government, but we all know that we do not treat all people right. Although there are many poor people who are White, not one of them is poor because he or she is White; the same cannot be said about Blacks. In addition, our sense of charity is affected by the color of the one in need. Generally, Whites will not give to a Black charity, but Blacks will give to a White charity because they can identify with the need and the hurt.

The Klan, the White Citizen Council, and the Militia are groups subsidized emotionally by sympathy and human disregard for others, by those who hope to hold on to yesterday. Such groups look for renegades, "compadres," rejects, and social failures who may be successful by other standards but who would lead a life of retreat rather than progress and advance forward in human endeavors. All persons who condone these groups and the likes of those who rise up in opposition, even in defense, but with counter-vilification and vengeance, justify their place in the middle and their right to be immobilized, when they state that they do not know what to do.

The road to racial healing has not been void of high costs to Whites who have provided support. The "underground railroad" caused White engineers and conductors to place their lives at risk for such a cause, and a similar relationship was forged in the civil rights movement, where an equally perilous journey was taken with White friends.
The biggest news to White Americans is that Blacks do not hate them. Blacks resent being treated with contempt, and they demand equality. But, if the opportunity for revenge came today, Blacks would not do to Whites what has been done to them. It is hard for Whites to conceive that anyone who has been as horrific as they have been to Blacks can be forgiven. Even the recent examples of the kindness demonstrated by Blacks toward Whites in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa after they had experienced great oppression and enormous loss of life for freedom are classic illustrations of this truth. Anger does give way to hating when encrusted and compacted in unrelenting misery. And it is important to note that we have in our midst the first generation of Blacks—free in a limited sense—growing up separated from the White society. This is a group of Blacks with no fear of Whites drilled into them by anyone, and they do not wish to become part of what they call "White middle class America." They are fearless and will not run from a fight. Even other Blacks are afraid of what is brewing within them.

Forgiveness is still possible as we create a climate for us to come and reason together." Our running away from one another socially and geographically will ultimately end up by our having dredged a gorge so deep that it will only permit us to see one another—not greet, meet, or engage one another on equal footing.

It will take a series of powerful events—sparks—coming together and occurring almost simultaneously to make institutional racism focus on its savage viciousness. Any one spark can be the causal agent that might cause it to catch fire and consume itself. While thunder and lightning, seemingly occurring almost simultaneously, do not cause rain, they provide the prelude, and the best possible prospect for such an impending event, and give you great evidence of expectation.

Recovering the Spirit of Democracy

Where can we begin to heal racism2 Why not start at home? This is the one place where we have the greatest advantage of determining, defining, and describing all events in our world. We could declare war on Madison Avenue, which poisons our minds and those of our children. We can become the person in charge by turning off the television set, or we can watch the programs with our children, analyze these shows, and help our children know what they are watching and what message is being drilled into them subliminally and by osmosis.

We can enable every school to have a multicultural curriculum so that youth are not expunged of self-esteem by the very institution that should be enhancing it. Multiculturalism is a psychic, intellectual, psychological, sociological, and spiritual phenomenon. It is internalized and actualized in daily living. It is what you know, feel, believe, and do. It fosters racial and cultural peer relationships that do not require a defense or an apology. It is an easy exercise of conviction that all people are equal. If you are what you eat, surely you are what you think; the public schools provide a curricula of racist foods for consumption. School is the microcosm of a racist society and is not the search for the truth but a continuation of the melodrama of racism. It will have to make mammoth corrections; perhaps charter schools will spread throughout the land and, hopefully, bring about such progress.

For every institution to which we belong, we must call it on its shortcomings for not treating all racial, ethnic, and cultural groups fairly. In exercising this conviction, we would have the arts and music more responsive and more forthcoming in imprinting upon the public mind the need to be fair. This must be the theme song of the United States.

In the spirit of democracy, we must be moved to do what is right. We can reach back to the Judeo-Christian heritage of this country, confront our collective conscience, and purge ourselves of our hypocrisy. If that does not move us to action, as a capitalist society, we can do what is in our own best interest, that which is economically sound, so that we can liberate every citizen to maximize his or her full potential in our society. And guess what? Taking either position, moved by either motivation—empathy or greed-we end up at the same place. Only the first position is moral, lasting, and will not require a revisit. This would be a return to what we are or should be all about as a nation; it is a going back to our foundation and, if necessary, resetting it; it is our revival and restoration. This change must come from everywhere; no one can wait for any particular group to take the lead or action.

We do not have much time; we have spent every minute of this "luxury." This commitment to changing the human condition for us all must come from the top (the President), from the bottom (we the people), and from the middle working toward both the top and bottom (leadership wherever it is found). Racism is playing out its last act in this millennium, and the curtain is about to come down on race relations as we have known them in the past.
The Russians woke up to the fact that oppression weakened the spirit of cooperation and crushed the human spirit, thus diminishing the capacity and productivity of a nation. They had to change or perish. In a global economy, we can no longer independently control our destinies. Decisions are being made elsewhere that affect our corporations, livelihood, and employment. Unless we work together as a multicultural group, a human mosaic, we all will lose the standard of living that many have enjoyed and many more could achieve, one that the world has envied and attempted to replicate.

And so we have a choice: all becoming brothers and sisters in one of the greatest democratic experiments the world has ever known, or all becoming the unwritten story of what might have been but for fear, ignorance, and selfishness. If you live the next 20 years, you will have a good chance to see how one of the greatest experiments of culturally diverse people living together in the world worked out. You won’t have to buy a history book; in some future day, you will have a front-row seat as the unfolding story is told.

W. E. B. Du Bois said the problem of the 20th century is the color line. Now, the challenge of the 21st century is multiculturalism, and we must face the challenge or suffer the consequences together. There is no standing still or turning back.

In this article, "America" and "American" will be used to mean the United States and U.S. residents.


This feature: Kirkland, J. A. (2000). Straight talk about racism. Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol.9 No.1 pp 9-13 

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