#Woke Up Like This: Racial Relations In America
This year, I turned the ripe old age of 25. While I typically don’t like to think of age as anything more than a number, I could already tell this was going to be a year of significance. This shift in societal expectations surrounding my age and perceived maturity diminishes “adult” activities that I’ve been praised for in the past—such as paying my own rent for the last few years.
It’s no longer impressive that I’ve reached the middle of my twenties. Gone are the days of relying on my talents and getting rejected from jobs and opportunities that I want. Even eating habits had to change.
It’s really not cute for me to eat an entire large pizza by myself anymore, but 22-year-old me thought it was the height of adult privilege.
Just as I had my come-to-Jesus moment about becoming a full-fledged adult, America had to deal with a current transformational moment in regards to race relations. Speaking broadly, Americans, for the most part, have seemingly mastered the basics surrounding racial justice but are currently struggling with the advanced curriculum. Pre-civil rights movement America—the world of lynchings, disenfranchisement, the inability to vote is a far cry from the current state of our society—has traded its main issues of the past for mass incarcerations, police violence, glass ceilings and micro aggressions.
These new issues are an improvement on the old order but they are still not the America we were all promised. While the country has moved in a positive direction since we declared independence, we still fall woefully short of true equality.
Do you remember being in 5th grade? You probably felt like the new hotness. You were the kings and queens, and essentially untouchable in the eyes of the rest of the school. You were the smartest, prettiest, and the coolest folk around. The puny 4th graders could only DREAM of reaching the same baller status. Your self-esteem couldn’t be higher.
Now, look back on your first day of 6th grade instead. If you were anything like me, your whole world came crashing down in the span of a summer. Once upon a time we were something, and just like that, we didn’t matter one bit. Yeah, we got our hands on a few more privileges—being able to stay out later with friends, no more babysitters, and better TV shows—but we were the smallest, most childlike entity in this new and unforgiving world of middle school.
Classes were harder, the school was bigger, and the unspoken rules of the school were decidedly more intricate and draconian (don't you DARE try and kick it with the orchestra kids if you're in band. They will tear you apart faster than you can say Rachmaninoff concerto). The most excellent 6th grader (unless they were a musical or athletic prodigy) was pond scum and had to work his way to the top again.
America in 2016 is dealing with a similar transition. The end of the Civil Rights era, if you were to ask most Americans (see: White People) was the defect end of racial tension in America, and while things definitely changed for the better, we aren't anywhere else to the supposed American dream for all.
The large gains black people and other POC have made in the latter half of the 20th century and the simultaneous feelings of unrest and exhaustion towards white Americans is a tough pill for the US to swallow. If we apply the education one receives in elementary school to that of white folk in 2016, we can start to tease apart why people still feel so exhausted talking about race — and, consequently, white fragility.
But what do we mean by racial exhaustion? It equates to the low-level stress from untrained muscles. We’ve focused as a country on the biggest and flashiest muscles and paid little attention to our core. There is also emotional exhaustion Americans must feel from being constantly reminded that their country’s history has the source of all the struggles of every minority group in the country.
This stress comes with practice. But just as when I learned how to juggle, it got easier. I still mess up and that's okay.
This is the lesson that folks who graduate from schoolyard racism need to understand: it’s the striving that’s most important.
Things always get weird when power dynamics seem to shift even towards the direction of equality. Chris Boeskool’s article “When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression” unpacks the specific ways in which privilege makes us feel as though we are being oppressed by those who seek equality.
Certain white Americans, in dealing with their discomfort talking about race, can be equivocated to the bully in Boeskool’s article. I’d go even further and equivocate them to a reformed bully who still feels latent feelings of superiority towards their former victims. They know that their old ways were bad, but are still confused as to why people are piling guilt on them—sometimes to the point of feeling persecuted themselves.
These are same people who coined the phrase “reverse racism.” While it’s not a thing, it’s a logical conclusion to come to with an elementary understanding of how race relations actually work. For most #woke folk, institutional racism is structured not just by personal beliefs, but also political and social institutions. It occurs when organizations, institutions or governments discriminate, either deliberately or indirectly, against certain groups of people to limit their rights.
This is different than “run of the mill racism,” which is the idea that one’s own race is superior to another. Most people would chalk this second definition up to simple prejudice, the form typically taught in schools.
Systemic racism would fly over the heads of most children were it to be explained before they were ready because many of its mechanisms are invisible. And yet many white people still espouse these ideas when talking about race relations right now. Everyone can be prejudiced and at times most people are capable of being able to benefit from racism (why people keep picking me first for basketball games still remains a mystery to me; I’m an ultimate frisbee kind of guy). Systemic Racism, as it exists in America, is centered on White Supremacy.
While it’s possible to overcome overt prejudice, it’s much more difficult to tackle systemic racism. When I was in 3rd grade, I remember struggling with multiplication tables, but after a while I mastered them. It wasn’t enough for me to stop there. My teachers weren’t satisfied with just letting me sit on my laurels and continued to push me to learn about more complicated mathematical concepts like long division, geometry and eventually calculus.
Bringing it back to the conversation surrounding race relations, many folk, despite the seemingly iterative education process of improving race relations, continue to feel exhausted living in a world where they have to continually get better. The question “why do you have to bring race into this?” is something I’m always asked when I suggest that something from my experience from being a black person in America is a source of a particular woe.
The quest actually has another question hidden within its subtext. That question is “why are we still talking about race? Didn’t we fix that already?” The answer of course is a resounding “no,” but whether we spend most of our time (in racial sensitivity training) teaching folk how to seem good rather than to be good is difficult to tell. Seeming good is easy, but leads to short cuts. It’s MUCH easier to lean on the fact you have a black friend as a reason for why you can’t be racist than to muck about in the swamp of #wokeness.
It’s not only white people who can be racist. But racism in America still stems from white supremacy. Respectability politics is a great example of this. Black leaders like Bill Cosby and religious heads put the blame on “black folk not acting right” as a reason for why we’ve been held back. These are the type of people who would claim that assimilation and appeasement is the way for racial harmony.
In fact this call to act more respectable is really just code for “act more white,” with the thought being that “seeming good” is better than “being good.” Regardless of how “good” I am, if I don’t look the part then I’m never going to be “good”.
As a “merit badge” for how great America is, we’re quick to celebrate the fact we’re a melting pot, but we don’t go far enough to improve things for marginalized groups. Minority groups are typically and routinely blamed for the regression of race relations in the country because those in the majority aren't able to make their transition to 6th grade racial politics with grace and tact, and we all suffer for it.
Feature photo by Gerry Lauzon/ VIA Flickr. In-text photos VIA Pexels.