March 10, 2013

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I have been abundantly blessed. I am a white, happily married woman in a high enough socio-economic class that I have the freedom to stay home to raise my kids. I have grown up with people who valued education, family, diversity, culture, progressive politics, open-mindedness, debate and giving back to others. I live in a fairly liberal and diverse area that is not struggling economically as much as other areas. I haven't known poverty, hunger or deep struggle first-hand. I have had my share of misogyny, but I've never known racism and honestly, haven't been around people who say racist things, either.

This is not a humblebrag. This is to acknowledge from the outset that I am completely aware my life does not necessarily mirror the struggles of others in this country. I'm not a Romney or a Rockefeller, but to complain about the problems I do grapple with would be yet another example of white privileged First World Problems, annoyingly out of touch.

But I am not without empathy. And it is that empathy that impels me to look past my white privilege and see the struggles of others who are not as fortunate as me in birth. It is that empathy that forces me to look at how deep the undercurrents of racism still inform our daily lives, decades after Jim Crow and demand that I analyze how much of the assumptions I make are due to privilege of my birth. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a column that points straight to that ugliness with which people of color must live every single day.

The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive [actor Forrest] Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.

But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.

I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.

We send messages every day in the way we treat others. For people of color, the message they receive constantly is that they are The Other, separate from our concerns and our solutions. For a little 7-year-old girl named Myriam in El Cerrito, California, it meant making her feel bad because of the color of her skin.

Melissa Harris-Perry responded to Myriam in the final moments of her show:
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The racial distrust and division of our nation cemented with the scar tissue of these encounters because we suspect a similar day will come for our nieces, sons, sisters and grandkids. But we hope we can delay it. We hope we can make it softer for them. Maybe, just maybe this generation will be different, that the doors we opened will stay open long enough for them to pass through unscathed. The slow, halting, backtracking difficult work of dismantling racism is not just about the law. Policy will be part of the effort. It’s not just about the health of our national democratic project, although politics will remain sick until we fix it. It’s the work of our very souls. One of those souls is Myriam. I see you. I see you in a classroom with a teacher who took your feelings seriously, a dean who wrote to me. It is okay to feel hurt. You don’t have to pretend to be strong. It’s okay to feel angry because you deserve to be treated with respect. It’s okay to ask for help because you deserve to be protected. You are going to survive it and you will thrive. Like Venus and Serena Williams and Sasha and Malia Obama, the world is waiting for you. We need the light that you and only you can project.

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