By Dayna Mason
I’m white. I have black friends. We talk about the same things all friends talk about, relationships, children, goals, etc. We’ve never talked about racism. Until now. This week I have learned more about racism in America and in the personal lives of my friends than I’ve learned in my entire life. My heart is breaking.
George Floyd was someone’s son. At one time he was someone’s precious baby boy.
“I can’t breathe,” pleaded the handcuffed, 46-year-old black man on the ground, pinned at the neck by the knee of a white police officer. I watched in shock as the news replayed the video of George Floyd’s murder.
“Momma!” he cried out for his deceased mother as he drew his last few breaths.
I felt like he was calling my name and there was nothing I could do. I was heartsick. I bawled and have been grieving ever since. I’m a writer, a wordsmith. I’m able to give life to complex thoughts and ideas with words.
I had no words.
Raising black children
As a momma (my 30-year-old son still calls me that) I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for a black mother raising her precious baby, especially a son, in our hostile environment. From the moment of giving birth her joy is met with worry. Her hopes and dreams of a promising future for her son are tempered by fear for his mere survival. At some point early in her child’s life she has to have “The Talk” with him. She has to instruct him to keep his hands out of his pockets and if stopped by the police, he needs to not only be humble, but as one of my friends explained to me, “Be prepared to be humiliated.” Because a mother would rather have her child demeaned than killed.
Black mothers have to teach their children about the unjust treatment that will be directed at them because of the color of their skin. That they will be unfairly treated for the rest of their lives no matter how good they are or how successful they become. That their lives could depend on not standing up to the unfairness.
The damage of discrimination
In 1968, the “Blue Eyes and Brown Eyes Exercise” conducted by schoolteacher Jane Elliott, labeled 3rd grade students as superior or inferior based on their eye color. The day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, in response to her student’s questions about why someone killed King, Elliott explained to her 3rd graders that it would be difficult to understand discrimination without experiencing it for themselves. She suggested an experiment. The first day Elliott made the blue-eyed children superior and the second day she reversed their roles and made the brown-eyed children superior.
On both days of the exercise, according to Wikipedia, “those who were deemed superior became arrogant, bossy, and otherwise unpleasant to their inferior classmates. Their grades on simple tests were better, and they completed mathematical and reading tasks that had seemed outside their ability before. The inferior classmates also transformed – into timid and subservient children who scored more poorly on tests, and even during recess isolated themselves, including those who had previously been dominant in the class. These children’s academic performance suffered, even with tasks that had been simple before.”
On the third day of the experiment she asked her all-white class what it felt like to be discriminated against.
“I felt sick.”
“I felt like quitting school.”
“I felt like crying.”
“I felt left out.”
“I felt like kicking a brown-eyed person.”
“Like you’re chained up in a prison and they’re throwing the key away.”
We are born with an innate sense of right and wrong, built-in goodness. We don’t have to be told that injustice is wrong. We are wired for fairness. When we feel something is unfair, our brain experiences it as a threat and triggers a “fight or flight” response. This response impairs our ability to deliberate and make thoughtful decisions. Injustice can make us feel hopeless, or it can make us feel like “kicking” someone.
The biggest tragedy of discrimination may be all of the untapped potential. We are all born with enthusiasm and curiosity that when nurtured can lead to magnificent outcomes. There are over 40 million black people in America. Can you imagine the exponential creativity and advancements we could experience as a country if we appreciated our black fellow citizens’ potential and were supporting, encouraging and protecting them?
See and appreciate color
Some well-intentioned people may say, “I don’t see color.” But, in their attempt to deny color they unintentionally make black wrong. Then they feel unnerved by overt actions that draw attention to blackness like the “Black Lives Matter” movement. They question the specificity by responding with “All lives matter” not understanding that focusing on black lives doesn’t negate other lives. For example, if the fire department was hosing down your neighbor’s burning house, you wouldn’t say, “Hey, what about my house?” Your house isn’t on fire. All houses matter. That’s implied. But when a house is on fire, all attention needs to be directed to solving that problem. Black lives are under fire and need special attention to put out that fire.
We need to see color. There is nothing wrong with seeing beautiful black skin any more than there is an issue with recognizing that someone has blue eyes and someone else has brown eyes—the same melanin responsible for eye color is responsible for the color of our skin.
We need to appreciate color. Differences are important. Elliott gives us this analogy: Think of this country as a salad bowl. Do we throw the green peppers, red peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, celery, and onions into a bowl, blend them up and serve them in glasses with various kinds of dressing? No. We want all the components of that salad to maintain their flavor, their shape, their size, their texture, and their color, because it makes for a more interesting whole.
Hundreds of years of racism is not going to change overnight. Think about this, if you were given a product color choice that included the color option “flesh,” what color would that be? Not black. That’s systemic, meaning, so deeply embedded in our system of daily life that we don’t even realize it. But it’s time for change.
The “Me Too” movement was effective in collapsing systemic sexual harassment by serving justice in several high-profile cases and creating collective awareness of the bigger problem. This awareness shifted our perspective and made us intolerant of the behavior.
We have an opportunity to do the same for the issue of racial injustice. Just like we did for women who lived for decades being sexually abused without justice, we can say “No more!” to racial injustice and hold abusers accountable.
Brown Eye Blue Eye Experiment – Jane Elliott (1968)
Brown Eye Blue Eye Experiment – Oprah (1992)
The racism discussion with Oprah & Jane Elliott (1992)
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