Dear White People / Dear Black People
Nearly a decade has passed since November 4th, 2008 – the day Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected president of the United States. The country had taken a major step forward in progress towards race equality, and many celebrated the moment as the dawn of a post-racial America. Or so it seemed.
Fast forward to 2017: Donald Trump – a president infamous for racially divisive remarks and his apparent reluctance to take a strong stance against white supremacy groups – stands at the helm of the country, and emboldened far-right groups are gaining support and organizing rallies, like the 'Unite The Right' march in Charlottesville back in August, that tragically lead to the death of counter-protester and civil rights activist Heather Heyer. In other words, the post-racial bubble has been burst, and it's clear that there's still a lot of work to do before the dream of a truly equal American society can be realized.
President Trump's attitudes and the far-right movement represent just the tip of the iceberg. The growing racial tension has been built on the largely unchallenged system of institutional racism that has its roots in slavery and continues to enforce racial segregation in the society to this day. It's evident in events like the Oscars that for two consecutive years (2015 and 2016) failed to nominate any black talent, causing the filmmaker Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith to boycott the awards ceremony last year.
Yet, while the lack of diversity in events like the Oscars breeds more segregation and division, many white people aren't even aware of the whitewashing going on in Hollywood, let alone the privileged position they enjoy in life because of the ubiquitous preference for white skin in American society. And those who hear about “white privilege” too often confuse it with being accused of racism and prejudice. Benefiting from institutional racism because you're white isn't the same thing as outright racist behavior, however, it is a problem that needs to be addressed – beginning with greater awareness.
Systemic Racism: The Research
"All men are created equal" is a central tenet of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. And while there are many highly successful African Americans (and white people living in poverty) in the United States today, studies strongly suggest that a black person striving for the 'American Dream' has to circumnavigate many additional obstacles that do not affect white people – as well as suffering disproportionately from even a single misstep along the way.
For example, schools with a majority of black students typically receive far less funding and are more often understaffed than predominantly white schools (USA Today), while the lack of equal opportunity is also evident in higher education (USA Today). Black people face discrimination when applying for jobs (CNN), and when employed, they tend to be paid lower wages (The Guardian). They are far less likely to inherit wealth (Slate), experience more housing discrimination (New York Times), and are disproportionately affected by laws that limit access to voting (The Atlantic). The media gives less coverage to missing African American children and women of color than their white counterparts (International Business News), but at the same time, news disproportionately focuses on crimes committed by black men (The Society Pages). Racial profiling of blacks in police traffic stops takes place despite the lack of supporting data (Stanford), and when convicted, black people are often given significantly longer sentences than white people for equal crimes (New York Times). Finally, the deadliest form of racial discrimination affects black men, particularly youth aged 15-19, who are far more likely to be shot by the police than their white counterparts (ProPublica).
Telling Stories: Stereotypes
Racial prejudice is a complex issue, but racial stereotypes and negative portrayal of black culture in mainstream media undoubtedly contribute to the problem. On TV, being black is often reduced to being crass, unrefined, ratchet and ghetto. Black men are disproportionately cast in roles of thugs and drug dealers and other criminals, while black women are often portrayed as loud and aggressive in shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop.
Research shows that prominence of racial stereotypes on TV has real-life consequences for people of color (The Guardian). It affects how they're viewed by white people – the same people they may encounter in their lives as teachers, potential employers, health professionals and lawmakers – and has also been shown to have a negative impact on the self-esteem of black youth (BET).
Black producers, directors, and filmmakers are trying to buck the trend by bringing more diversity into Hollywood and TV, but attempts to tackle the distorted representation of black culture in the media are often met with difficulties. Filmmakers struggle to find funding for black shows and films, and controversy is also common, with shows like Justin Simien's Dear White People being labeled anti-white and racist even before it aired – despite Simien's attempts to explain that the title was intended as an invitation to join the discussion rather than a provocation. Similarly, the title of the sitcom Black-ish prompted President Trump to suggest in a baffling tweet that the name of the show was 'racism at highest level'.
Heated reactions like the above aren't limited to TV entertainment either. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter – (launched after an unarmed African American teen, Trayvon Martin, was shot in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman) – has drawn its share of antagonism, with some calling the movement both anti-white and anti-police. Accusations of 'reverse racism' and 'black privilege' come up also in relation to affirmative actions taken to help black students in higher education, the creation of black-only awards, such as Black Girls Rock, The BET awards and the celebration of black history during the annual Black History Month.
However, these criticisms stem from misinterpretation and failure to acknowledge the context: the intention behind the black focus is that of correcting a bias against blacks – not to claim superiority as a race. Affirmative action does not favor black students over white students, but rather its aim is to dismantle the bias that operates against blacks. The message of #BlackLivesMatter is emphatically not that 'white lives don't matter'. The movement focuses on black lives because of the evidence that black men are more likely than white men to get killed because of their skin color – an issue that the hashtag #AllLivesMatter does not address. Black Girls Rock exists because the achievements of black girls are rarely recognized elsewhere. The Black History Month showcases the contributions of African Americans because they are almost entirely missing from standard history textbooks.
The Road Ahead
In the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville, steps have been taken in several states to remove Confederate statues and monuments from public places. While this is a welcome move in the direction of rejecting white supremacy, much more needs to be done to foster true diversity and equality in the USA today. Black people continue to raise their voices to oppose racial oppression in their home country – many black athletes, most notably Colin Kaepernick, for example, are protesting by kneeling instead of standing while listening to the national anthem – but black people can't dismantle systemic racism on their own.
White people need to be more proactive and use their privileged position to speak up for the marginalized ethnicities, like Cleveland Browns tight end Seth DeValve, a white athlete who joined his black teammates in a kneeling protest. But many more need to step up – as long as the majority of white people remain silent when they see racial prejudice in action, these biases will continue to disadvantage people of color in numerous social settings. Another unacknowledged social habit to factor in when addressing this problem is cultural misappropriation – seemingly innocent things like sharing social media material that depicts black people behaving in an exaggerated manner reinforce damaging racial stereotypes and can have a stinging effect on black people's self-esteem. Although mostly done with levity and innocence the misuse of black emojis, memes or gifs can also be perceived as a hurtful form of cultural misappropriation that is reminiscent of the minstrel shows of the early 19th century which were a form of racially charged entertainment that consisted of comic skits that intentionally mocked people of African American descent by having white people made up in ‘blackface’ acting idiotically.
While a lot of unbiased bystanders might call for integration and not segregation, they should still respect the choice of black people to host exclusive black only gatherings that commemorate their recent struggles without vilifying them for being racist. These events should be respected as they’re seen as necessary until black people feel more integrated into society. As with all wounds, time is essential for healing to occur - victims of overt and subliminal racism need to be supported and made to feel as equal members of society until they have fully recovered from the scars that recent history has inflicted on their identity.