What are we willing to question?

Most of the people I know express unqualified support for Black Lives Matter and defunding the police. Me too. However — and there’s always a but — is that enough? The problem isn’t that our entire criminal justice system is shot through with racism, from the “suspicious activity” that is reported to police to the extreme inequities in sentencing.

The problem is that our entire culture is shot through with racism. So many of us learn from birth that the face of danger in America is Black. We teach hate and fear, consciously or not. If we (mostly white people) don’t actively confront that learning and unlearn it, we’re contributing to the problem. If we really want to disrupt systemic racism, we have to be willing to question everything we know is true.

I’m willing to question the truth that I have a comfortable life because I’m smart and I work hard. I’m willing to consider that I might have a comfortable life at someone else’s expense. Were my parents able to buy a house in a good school district because of the legacy of housing covenants? Maybe. (Although we are Jewish. A housing covenant would have kept us out too.)

I’m willing to question the truth of history that I learned in school. Do I benefit from history textbooks that portray the Nat Turner rebellion as an unjustified bloody terrorist attack? Or paint John Brown as a wild-eyed traitor? Or present Indigenous people as passive victims with no agency? Or devote a grand total of one paragraph each to game-changers like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez (if they’re mentioned at all)? Probably so, because it teaches us that American history is the history of white people. (Note the glaring absence of women too.)

I’m willing to question my assessment of “angry Black women” who confront store managers or bus drivers when they’ve been mistreated. Would I be treated with the same hostility or dismissive attitude (over and over and over again) if I complained? Probably not. (For searing testimony about the effects of daily racism and sexism on many women of color, read This Bridge Called My Back.)

I’m willing to question the existence of “proper English.” Maybe that’s just the English that middle-class white people speak in the 21st Century.

Dismantling racism is about more than passing better laws and electing different people. We have to change culture too. Sometimes one leads to the other, but not by magic.

What are you willing to question in order to help dismantle systemic racism?

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