Sitting at the breakfast table with older relatives, kitchen smelling of bacon and table covered in newspapers, sometimes the conversation was chatter about the bridge club or the upcoming hot air balloon festival, but every so often it was about a black person. Whether it was a grocery store clerk, gas station attendant or something similar, their blackness was noted, usually as part of a complaint about their service.
This kind of racism seemed ingrained in some members of my family. An “us vs. them” lens on the world, stemming from growing up dirt poor in the South in a society in which racism was normalized.
A friend of mine on social media this week shared a good question, originally posted by Rod Jones, an Atlanta area juvenile court attorney: How do we flatten the curve on racism?
Suddenly, the short time we’ve been questioning whether to shelter in place, social distance or wear a mask to flatten the COVID-19 curve seems simpler.
Generations have been trying to flatten the curve on racism, terminology not withstanding. But George Floyd died May 25 after a white police officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck. Ahmaud Arbery died in February, shot when two white men chased him down. These are just the latest names to hit the headlines as videos circulated on the internet.
We’d all like to eradicate this virus, not just flatten the curve; that should be the case for racism as well, with each of us looking to do our part.
I used to think racism would die out on its own as new generations took the lead. Clearly that’s not reality.
For the majority race, it can be easy to ignore the harsh realities of racism or minimize the experiences of those in the minority.
But those of us in the majority would do better to examine our hearts, as unpleasant as finding prejudice there may be.
Despite pushing back against those conversations at the breakfast table many years ago, I was woefully uneducated about systemic racism.
I didn’t know a thing about injustices in the criminal justice system, for example. I certainly wasn’t aware that black men were dying at the hands of bad police officers. Today, I’m certain it happened then, we just didn’t have video cameras in our pockets and social media to sling that footage around the world.
Years later, I’ve still got work to do to better understand.
Any ingrained prejudices in my heart were laid bare when my husband and I invited two black children into our foster home a few years ago. Never have I felt my whiteness more vividly.
The differences in cultures between my family and theirs were in the end too much to overcome amid the myriad issues we were battling in their case.
It went well beyond my complete lack of knowledge on how to style a young black girl’s hair, though that almost immediately became our biggest concrete challenge when she asked to undo her braids and we stupidly agreed.
But the ways we interacted with the world were vastly different, partly due to class but also race, or perhaps more accurately the interaction of the two.
Our discipline methods were different. Our food was different. Our church was different. Our neighborhood was different. Helping these kids heal was made inordinately more difficult by putting new challenges in their path.
In a utopia, perhaps we can be color blind. But in these United States, to be blind to color is to be blind to oppression that disproportionately affects minorities. It’s blindness to the differences that make us uniquely human and beautiful.
There will never be a vaccine to eradicate racism, but we can help by seeking to understand other races and ourselves. There are plenty of books on topics involving race, and I’m planning to add some to my reading list.
I often tout the importance of open, respectful conversation on sticky subjects. That can be useful here, too, but race is different than politics or religion. It’s something we all live with, no matter our choices. Respect for how others experience the world is paramount.
Then comes action. Just as my eyes were opened to the plight of those in foster care, leading my family to begin fostering, once you see the injustice, it demands attention. We cannot sit on the sidelines and allow this to continue.
Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent.