A few weeks ago, I was asked to write an article sharing my thoughts on race in America. What follows was published in the San Antonio Express News on June 16, 2008.
I’m 43 and I don’t know that there’s ever been a time in my life when I’ve thought as much about race in America as I have in the last year, and I have Barrack Obama’s presidential candidacy to thank for that. I was not raised in an ethnically diverse area. My career choices have not placed me in ethnically diverse career fields. These facts are not my fault, nor necessarily a problem, but they are the facts and so I must always be careful about the formulation of ideas in such isolation.
I find it beneficial to look at race from two vantage points: first, what I expect of myself and, second, what I think we should expect from others. What I expect from myself first is an awareness that “I don’t understand.” As a white man I can never fully understand what life is like in America for blacks. I also expect that I will continue to grow and learn ONLY by listening to the voices that have experienced black-America. I expect that I will thoughtfully process those shared experiences through the filter of the values I cherish as an American. I expect that I will be able to identify the perpetuation of stereotypes when they occur.
I expect to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. I believe that even major change begins with small steps at home. I want to be proactive in looking past race. I want to, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, judge a man, not on the color of his skin but on the content of his character. I expect to be aware of my prejudices and fearlessly act in spite of them.
And here is what I expect from others: I expect that my homogeneous background will not be held against me. I expect that it will be assumed that I am working FOR blacks and not AGAINST blacks until I prove otherwise. When I make mistakes (and inevitably, I will, because I’m human), I expect that my errors will be assumed to be born not of malice but of well meaning, if uninformed, intentions. I don’t expect to be held accountable for the behaviors of people who lived generations ago. I never owned slaves. I have never oppressed blacks. I don’t feel I owe anybody anything other than the simple dignity and respect that every American is entitled to regardless of race, color or creed.
I expect every American to take responsibility for his or her own actions. I expect people to take care of their families and their communities. I expect this of ALL Americans. If I expected something different from blacks, THAT would be racist.
I expect that blacks and whites will be held to the same standards of decency in their speech. It is hypocritical to insist that whites never say “n#$$@r” when the word is so frequently used in the black community. If the word is indecent, if it evokes images of oppression and hatred, if it has no place on white lips, then I expect the same message to be taught within the black community. The word cannot have multiple meanings, and if somehow it does, then those alternate meanings must be open to inclusion in the speech of any and all rhetoricians who choose to use it.
The fear of being labeled a racist has caused many Americans to retreat to indifference. I want to help, if I can, so I am open to learning and even to being wrong. But when my mistakes get me branded as a racist, it makes me angry and bitter. For whites in America, the fear of being labeled a racist has scared many good people away from open and honest discourse. Words are taken out context. Blacks, and the media afraid of being on the wrong side of political-correctness, presuppose bigotry. Consequently, whites, rather than pursuing learning opportunities, shut down, choosing to say and do nothing.
If it’s true that we fear what we don’t understand, then I DO fear black America. The fact that I don’t understand is a fact shared by many Americans. But most are willing to learn and we are more open to discussion on these issues than we are given credit for and I don’t believe we are well served in the discussion by having white-America instantly on the defensive. Dissent is one of the things that makes America great. But it’s not a zero sum game. It is possible, and desirable that we remember that we can disagree in our discourse and still find common ground as Americans.