Dear Dr. Poussaint:
Your response to the person from New England who moved to Washington, D.C., and was shocked to discover that he or she was racist was understanding and good.
It is a familiar experience in the large cities: a white person from the North arrives in a setting where for the first time the person experiences large numbers of blacks and whites in a large variety of situations. Sooner or later, something negative happens and ZAP -- one white ex-liberal.
It says something about how unconscious and widespread white racism can be. A single bad experience with a black person "means more" than a single bad experience with another white person.
Those of us whites who stayed around for a while began to refer to it as "learning the second lesson." The first lesson, of course, is that, taken in general, blacks are as good as whites.
The second lesson involves having to face the fact that blacks are as bad as whites: nasty, vengeful, crabby, conceited -- the whole catalog of vices.
Along with it, they are prejudiced. Why should anyone trust a white liberal from New England, really?
Learning this lesson, coming through it, meant learning to take each person as an individual and accepting the fact that there are painful experiences in life. I found myself saying to white persons several times:
"We'll talk about how you can survive and enjoy; but as far as what happened yesterday, all I can say is what we white liberals always say to the first blacks who move onto the block. As we help them clean the glass out of the carpet and wash the feces off the door we always say, 'We hope you will understand we aren't all like that, and we hope you won't move away.'"
It generally surprises them to have it put that way, but it seems to get the point across. C. F. J., Cleveland Dear C. F. J.:
You express your points very well. It is especially helpful for progressive white people to talk to other whites about the nature of racism.
You probably know well how often whites turn off to black people whenever they discuss racism. Many whites assume that black people cannot be objective when talking about racial conflict and instead allow their emotions to cloud their thinking.
Consequently, some whites simply do not hear blacks or just refuse to listen to them. Furthermore, a white listener often feels accused when listening to a minority group member talk about oppression.
As a result, the white person may become so defensive and rejecting that it becomes impossible for him or her to experience any change in attitude.
You are correct in observing that "a single bad experience with a black person 'means more' than a single bad experience with another white person" because we have a racist inclination to generalize negatively about members of a victimized group.
For example, if a few black university students become academically or otherwise unsuccessful, this causes people to feel that most of the blacks at that university are probably the same. And it is not uncommon to hear people talk about the "exceptional blacks" who are academically successful.
The bigoted mind has selective vision and often sees the bad without the good. With this knowledge, many blacks feel that they are always "representing" their people and that if they behave poorly it will affect white attitudes toward all blacks. This is an unfair burden, and one which most whites don't have.
I wish more whites had the understanding and compassion that you reflect.