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Judging Racism

I recently read this post on a FB page:

How come a congressman gets to have a funeral with hundreds of people in a Church while American people are not allowed to worship in their Church?

My response when I read it was that it was racist, not to mention the total lack of sensitivity to the Lewis family and everyone who knew and loved him. It also ignored the contributions John Lewis made in his struggle for racial and social justice in this country.

It was, put bluntly, an ugly statement that I believed and still believe reflects subtle racism the author probably wasn’t even aware of.

Not to mention that it also made a false claim. People are not prohibited from public worship, only that they wear masks and practice social distancing, both of which were done at John Lewis’s funeral.

But the misplaced criticism is not worth paying attention to. The racism it reflects is.

As you might expect, when I said as much I was pummeled with personal attacks insisting that I was being bigoted for calling out racism, a common tactic today. People who expose racism are the “real” racists.

I was also told I needed to “get some help.” One person reminded me that God is watching and would hold me accountable for whatever it was he thought I was guilty of.

My instincts told me to leave this alone, and I wish now I had. At the same time, that is how racism stays alive. We are reluctant to confront it, to call it out, because we have little hope of changing anyone’s mind.

But deep down you hold out hope that something might change. Actually, though, change or not, I could not ignore the racism inherent in the fact that the woman made a point of distinguishing people she said were deprived of their freedom to worship as “American people” in contrast to a congressman she did not bother to name, but was someone everyone reading her words would know was black.

The racism was hardly subtle, but if we give her the benefit of the doubt that she did not intend her comment to be racist, we have a clear example of why there is a fundamental principle in race relations white Americans must come to accept and embrace if we want to do better: Peple of color get to judge what is racist and what is not, NOT WHITES.

We who are white cannot walk in their shoes, relive their experiences, understand history from their perspective, so we cannot determine when something we say or do is or is not racist.

We must realize that our collective experience is NOT the same as the collective experience of black Americans. Never has been. Never will be.

I see babies and children being put in cages as immoral. Black and brown Americans see it as racist. Whites hear Trump’ claim that he has done more for black people than any president in history as being false. Black Americans hear it as a racist insult, as if Trump is a white master they need to do something “for” them.

Improved race relations depends on those of us who are white coming to the realization that while we may be able to judge our own intentions, we don’t get to judge the way black women and men hear our words and react to our actions.

Instead, we need to listen to them as they explain how black Americans experience what we say and do instead of defending ourselves.

So here’s the key point. By virtue of being white, we do not get to be the final arbiter of what is and is not racist.

Embracing that principle is one way we acknowledge and affirm the uniqueness of the black experience in American history and open ourselves to everything that experience has to teach us.