“Saying you’re sorry is the first step, then how can I help.”
I loved Mr. Rogers as a child and still do now so it’s no wonder that I love his heir apparent Daniel Tiger. I was watching an episode with one of my granddaughters recently and loved the message: “Saying you’re sorry is the first step, then, how do I help?” I won’t spoil the episode for you, but, in short, Daniel learns the importance of empathy and doing more than apologizing. He learns that we all need to do our part to reconcile and bring about restoration.
Like much of the nation, I’ve been pondering more deeply the lasting legacy of systemic racism. The idea that we need to just move on from the past ignores the lasting consequences the past has had on the present. To adopt this narrative is to embrace a lie.
The lie goes like this: racism is individual, it is deliberate and it intends to do harm. This lie allows us to not only avoid talking about race, it also insulates us from acknowledging that as white people we have been and are now the beneficiaries of a system that has been based on racial injustice.
Let’s start with the bedrocks of western civilization: the Renaissance, colonization, the Enlightenment and even classical liberalism. All of these operated on the assumption that white people were superior to people of color. The Magna Carta, the U.S. Constitution, and European colonization were all based on this assumption, too. The power brokers and thought leaders held this common belief and institutionalized it. Of course, there were those who decried racism but they did not wield enough power or influence to bring about lasting change.
This is particularly true in the United States. The Constitution overtly institutionalized slavery and only counted black people as 3/5 of a person. That was only a compromise so southern states would have greater representation. Nearly every institution in the United States was based on the assumption that people of color were inferior. Agriculture, education, industry, politics–etc. Fast forward to 1865, the Civil War and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments ended slavery but certainly did not end the centuries’ old belief of white superiority. This is evident by the one hundred years after the Civil War that were filled with of racial oppression, segregation, Jim Crow and so many other forms of systemic, widespread, institutional racism.
Does anyone really think after centuries of white superiority that now, less than two generations from open, transparently racist Jim Crow, we have arrived at a post racial utopia? Of course not!
We know that we still suffer from racial inequality in employment economics, housing, education, criminal justice and almost every aspect of American life. Hundreds of years of racial inequality can not be overcome only by restoring voting rights and ending legal segregation. Those efforts were needed but insufficient, kind of like saying sorry without next offering to help.
If we view racism as individual, not institutional, and deliberate, not subconscious, we can easily dismiss it. Worse yet, we can protect ourselves from addressing it. Subsequently, we help maintain the systemtic racist status quo.
So how can we as white person do more than say sorry, how can we offer help?
For one, stop acting like if we acknowledge our own advantages from being white we somehow concede that we are categorically racist. Just because you never personally participated in what you might define as overt racism doesn’t mean that you have not been the beneficiary of centuries of institutionalized white superiority and privilege.
Likewise, just because the ugliest facets of racism, like slavery and legal segregation, are illegal doesn’t mean that their legacy is without deep, devastating, lingering effects on people of color today. We should really listen to people of color and be open to discovering our own biases.
We can’t fix what we don’t address. We can start admitting to ourselves that, at some level, we are the beneficiaries of a corrupt and racist system. We can do our part to correct the generations of inequality by opening our eyes, ears and hearts to understanding and change. We can do more than simply say sorry, we can do our part to offer help healing and reconciliation.