Growing up in rural Missouri, I was a white girl living in a white world. Up until I was 16, I never had any black classmates or black kids living in my area. Back then I never thought about “being white” because that is all I knew. It wasn’t until I entered foster care at age 16 that I began to meet and interact with non-whites and since then I have been blessed to have a large group of diverse friends and colleagues who have been open and willing to discuss the issue of race in America. They have shared their feelings and their experiences with acts of discrimination they have faced. They described individuals pulling their purses closer or moving to a different seat on the subway, to being followed around in stores, name calling and/or outright refusal of service because their skin was a color other than white.
What I have experienced from many white counterparts on the other hand, is denial. I have been treated as “less than” for having dated interracially, and have been told in heated debates that systemic racism doesn’t exist, or that racism doesn’t exist at all in our country. I propose that those that deny the existence of racism in 2016, even the most well-intentioned, perhaps haven’t had the opportunity to see what others see.
D.W. Sue (2015) in his textbook “Counseling the Racially Diverse”, purports that there is a process called ‘white racial identity’, in which white people come to terms with being white. It is an invitation to acknowledge the way in which others interact with them because of their race, and recognizing that there is, in fact, institutional racism in America. The author states that when white people are first confronted with this information, there is a defensiveness that occurs, and he outlines the process and emotional responses that show up as they come to terms with this white racial identity. As I read the book, I experienced this first hand, and didn’t want to even keep reading (as he also said that I would feel), but encouraged myself to have an open mind to at least explore the possibility that the world isn’t quite what I believed it to be growing up.
After all, when black people are incarcerated several times the rate as whites for the exact same crime, and children of color show up in the child welfare system disproportionately to their white counterparts for the exact same living situations as whites, it is hard to stare these facts in the face and not begin thinking differently. What I would offer and challenge my white friends, who even with the best intentions believe that ‘racism doesn’t exist’ or that they ‘don’t see race’, is to open up to the possibility of seeing the world through much more wide-opened eyes. Read Just Mercy or The New Jim Crow, have a conversation about what it means to be white with a diverse group of friends, listen with an open heart to your friends who have experienced racism, explore what implicit bias is and how you may have unknowingly been affected, participate in ‘unpacking the backpack’ exercise, consider what privileges you’ve had simply because you are white, but may not have been aware. If we want to live in an America where racism truly doesn’t exist, it will take us all working together with all of our eyes wide open.
Lacy Kendrick Burk