Despite Ferguson crisis, whites remain ‘colorblind’
Michael Brown would have been starting college this week. That fact has been weighing on my mind as I watch the Rutgers buses crowd again, as people elbow their way on and off of in a frenzy to get to that very important first class of the semester on time. You have to make a good impression. But as Ferguson seems to disappear in the flurry of the fresh Fall semester, I think its important to remember and to propel the conversation forward: the conversation on race and whiteness.
I grew up in a community and culture that actively socialized me to fear black people — specifically, poor and urban black people. I can remember specific events within my family and neighborhoods that taught me this caution and fear. But I know that it is not isolated to my individual experience, because no matter where I was, the news and media helped reinforce this caution and fear. I think looking back, most white people are educated and socialized with this conundrum: colorblindness (“I don’t see race or judge people by it”), yet still holding values and beliefs about what it means to be black in America. We’re formally taught to love people regardless of skin color, that we’re all human. At the same time, we’re taught to fear black people by family, friends and the media culture.
We might not consciously experience this as fear. Often, we experience it as ridicule, the rendering of what we fear as inadequate or laughable. It’s a common defense mechanism to take what we fear and mold it to something digestible and palatable. We make racial jokes and stereotypes, we appropriate black culture for white consumption (twerking, hip-hop), we keep them in certain jobs and we put them in prison. All of this in an attempt to mock what we fear — to soothe and ease the fear.
Time Magazine recently coined this “negrophobia” as a psychological disorder in some people. It is actually just called good ole’ “racism” and white supremacy, a system that privileges whiteness through various economic, socio-cultural sanctions. Ferguson highlighted this privilege of white Americans: the privilege to exercise the First Amendment and to be free from state-sanctioned violence.
Garner. Trayvon. Emmett. Byrd. The deaths of these men became so much more than their individual stories. They became symbols, symbols of what is so hard to express. They help a community articulate and evidence this deep place of raw emotion, of fear. The response white America sees is not just one case, but a collective experience. Black feminist bell hooks accurately synthesizes this collective experience of whiteness as terrorism, whether you are discussing the Birmingham Bombing or demanding the president’s birth certificate. She argues that whiteness is not formed on the basis of stereotypes, but “as a response to the traumatic pain and anguish … a psychic state that informs and shaped the way black folks ‘see’ whiteness.” What other conclusion is there when we celebrate the death of a black man or make him into a Halloween costume?
I thought Michael Brown and Ferguson would be different, because it couldn’t be explained away as some rogue, isolated incident. Ferguson was a very visible manifestation of this terrorism. The militarized response was evidence enough that black people experience America in a very different way. I thought this would be it, the spark, the change. The event that would shift white American consciousness.
I was wrong — depressingly wrong — and the muted response was deafening.
As the weeks dredge on and as Michael Brown fades in the collective media consciousness and #Ferguson disappears from Twitter and Facebook, the terror remains. The fear of a white, colorblind America and very clear picture of what you can and cannot do as a black person in America.
How do white people cull the fear and start to unlearn it? Instead of reacting with humor, with violence or with demonstrations of power, we could listen and practice empathy. A baseline requirement is actively trusting the experiences of black and brown people and the realization that although we might consider racism a thing of the past, those affected it most by it might be a better vantage point to articulate the experience. Listen. What is being said? Is this just about Michael Brown? What is the collective experience? What are the fears?