“I’m 9 or 10 and my mother and I are on a cross-country road trip when we decide to stop for breakfast at a small diner in Mississippi. I’m too young to be aware of the charged atmosphere of racial tension, but something feels odd. It feels odd when the people in the diner—most of whom are white—turn to look at my white mother and me, her brown son, as we enter and make our way to a table. It feels odd when my mom asks if there are raisins to put in her oatmeal and the waitress irritatedly spits, “No!” It feels so odd, in fact, that my mother asks our server if something is wrong: “No!” she barks again. It feels odd when the woman throws down the bill when we’re done eating. No one calls us names. No one threatens us. The surly waitress has even specifically told us nothing is wrong. But when we return to the car my visibly shaken mom pulls a canister of pepper spray out of the glove compartment and tests it on the ground to make certain it’s functioning properly.
I think one of the most damaging effects America’s omnipresent racism has on a person’s psyche isn’t the brief pang of hurt that comes from being called a slur, or seeing a picture of Barack Obama portrayed by a chimpanzee. Those things are common and old-fashioned, and when they happen I tend to feel sadder than angry, because I’m seeing someone who engages with the world like a wall instead of a human being. Rather, I think what’s far more corrosive and insidious, the thing that lingers in the back of my mind the most, is the framework of plausible deniability built up around racism, and how insane that plausible deniability can make a person feel when wielded. How unsure of oneself. How worried that you might be overreacting, oversensitive, irrational.
There’s a form of mental torture called “gaslighting,” its name taken from a play in which a man convinces his wife that the gas lights in their home she sees brightening and dimming are, in fact, maintaining a steady glow. His ultimate goal is to drive her into a mental institution and take all her money, and soon the woman ends up in an argument with herself about whether she’s losing her mind. American race relations have a similar narrative: An entire set of minorities confident that the everyday slights they’re seeing are real and hurtful, and an entire set of other people assuring them that they’re wrong.“
In response to the shooting of Michael Brown, and the rioting that has followed in Ferguson, Missouri, I wanted to share one of the best essays about racism in America I’ve ever read. I read a wonderful article in the New York Times today about how white people are uncomfortable and confused; they don’t see that the world they live in is different than other people’s, even when they’re living in the same county. They don’t see their privilege. And I think this essay really speaks to that so well; it really breaks down the wall between perception and reality.
Let’s keep having this conversation, even after the headlines change.
Possibly the most widely held sentiment among whites is the hope that it all simply goes away. “I feel for everyone involved,” said Shannon Shaw, a jeweler in Mehlville. But, she added, “I think the protesters just need to go home.”
Even when they do finally go home, this all isn’t just going to go away for the protesters. They don’t have the privilege of going home to safe neighborhoods, where this is all only happening on the screens of their smart phones.