Who, me? A racist?
Born in 1950 in Washington, I grew up in a mostly integrated Northeast D.C. neighborhood. Despite the “white flight” of that time, my all-white family stayed in the city, where my four siblings and I attended integrated schools.
Throughout my teens, I was not aware of any racist leanings in myself at all. In fact, when I gave the valedictory speech at my high school, Immaculata Preparatory, in 1968, just weeks after the recent so-called race riots, I clearly referenced both Martin Luther King Jr. and the equality of all.
So how could I be a racist?
Through ignorance and complacency.
I was a teenager when the Civil Rights Movement started but was completely oblivious of it. Sad to say, my mind was completely focused on myself.
My first awakening to Jim Crow inequalities didn’t happen until the 1970s, when, for the first time in my life, I began to realize that, when I was growing up, people of color were not represented on TV, in the movies, nor in the magazines and billboards I saw.
The stores where we shopped were also all white. In other words, as a child the world I lived in and experienced was almost exclusively white.
It took the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a white cop in 2020 to wake me up and begin (emphasis on “begin”) to understand the depth of denial and suppression, the humiliation and indignities, endured for generations by people of color due to the national lie of white supremacy.
By seeing African Americans as second-class citizens, white society — of which I am definitely a part — not only did its best to rob a whole people of the dignity and respect which is every human being’s right, but “my” white society put a ceiling on the dreams, enterprises and accomplishments of all non-white Americans.
Watching “I Am Not Your Negro” — a 2016 documentary based on a manuscript by James Baldwin — completely blew the windows and doors off my entire understanding of racism.
As Baldwin puts it in the film, “It comes as a great shock to discover that your country, which is your birthplace…has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you [African Americans].”
That is what I call a WOW quote. Hundreds of years of documentation of horrible, bloody American history — history which continues even today — prove its veracity.
For far too long, the constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was only applied to white society. The cruelty and suppression that African Americans have endured at the hands of white American democracy, as administered daily by white society (me) — especially by the police — is beyond unjust; it is totally inhuman.
When someone recently remarked on the ridiculousness of having a Black History Month when people of color have been working and contributing to the development and establishment of America from the beginning, I was stunned. In my whiteness, I had never even thought of that!
“The story of the [African American] is the story of America,” Baldwin said.
Because America is well on its way to becoming a majority of minorities, the era of the white majority is obviously on its way out for good.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt weighed in on this very topic 82 years ago: “We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens, whatever their background,” he wrote. “We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.”
What keeps us from ending racism? The answer is painfully simple: us!
If there is any hope, Baldwin said, “It is up to the American people and their representatives whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger they have maligned so long.”
To survive the future, with all its complex issues and problems, it’s going to take all of us.
Count me in.
Carolyn Ellis is a Beacon reader, freelance writer and abstract artist.