The protests haven’t ended, and neither have deadly encounters between black people and police — Rayshard Brooks was shot in Atlanta on Friday night. But what happens when the protests end for the day? Activists and lawmakers will push for police reform and systemic changes. Americans will vote in November. Many of those who showed up because they were sincerely moved to speak out against injustice will go back to a more normal routine. But will those of us who aren’t black be willing to have the difficult, unexpected conversations calling out everyday racism?
Not the vaunted “national conversation” on race. Not attending a community forum that unpacks and explains various components of institutional racism. Not looking over racial-justice reading lists — though all those things are good, too. But summoning the effort to confront family members, friends and neighbors when they make blithely racist comments. To challenge them when they use their privilege to get a leg up instead of using it to make things fair. To speak up even when those conversations are inconvenient, awkward or painful. Even when it makes us vulnerable. I had an opportunity to do that not long ago, and I failed.
Our neighbor, a white woman, operates a store nearby. When she’s out walking, she sometimes exchanges neighborhood gossip with my husband when he’s working in the yard. I decided one day to drop by her shop to share the news about my pregnancy and get the latest chitchat from her directly. Another white woman, whom I didn’t know, was working there that day. I asked my neighbor what she knew about the abrupt resignations of our town leadership, and then the other woman chimed in, saying something like: Well, you know the town manager and the assistant didn’t get along. But I never liked the manager. He was so uppity.
What do you mean? I asked. I’ve never met him. She went on: Very loud. Coming in here thinking he was right about everything. And he always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder.
Still not understanding, but savoring the drama, I asked for more, and could now see that my neighbor was signaling for the other woman to stop talking. But she persisted, and her next response was, roughly: He was always flashing the “Meadhouse” sticker on his car. He’s one of those people who wants you to know he’s proud of going to one of those special H-whatever schools. And he thought he was dressed so sharp in his suits and his hats, when he didn’t even know how to behave appropriately in an office setting.
I racked my brain. Oh. My. God. Did she mean Morehouse College? The prestigious HBCU — historically black colleges and universities — the school from which Martin Luther King Jr. graduated? My husband is one of those people, who proudly wears his Tuskegee University gear all the time. I was floored, not that anyone could hold such a repugnant notion, but that she would say it out loud without a second thought.
I turned to my neighbor and stared, mostly bewildered and letting the silence become uncomfortable enough that someone else felt compelled to fill it. It’s more that the two of them were really unprofessional and always undermining each other so I guess it was better for both of them to leave, I recall her saying. The other woman added: I mean, he’s just the type who will bring in his I-DEN-TITY and sue for being let go.
Why did my neighbor — who knows my husband and me — only shake her head and try to shush the other woman? And why, as someone who makes my thoughts plain on social media and live radio, who has checked family members over racist talk, didn’t I come up with anything better to say? My response was: Well, I would love for my son to go to Morehouse. It’s a great school. A true statement, but also a total cop-out. In the moment, I could hear my mother’s voice in the back of my brain saying: Don’t be rude in public. My neighbor knew something was wrong, hence her shushing behavior, but she, too, chose tired civility rather than saying what was right. Our joint nonresponse meant those bigoted comments went unchecked. In fact, they were rewarded with my money, since I made a random purchase of an item I didn’t even need before mumbling my way out.
In the wake of the protests of the past few weeks, family and friends who never before thought to discuss anti-black racism, or how to combat it, are reaching out to my husband and I for the first time. Some have been inspired by the protests. Some have, themselves, protested. All agree with what is obviously true: black lives matter. But there’s less consensus on what to do next on the personal level. Protesting has given people who aren’t black a way to feel included in changing society. Blacking out Instagram profiles or cheering on brands that have offered supportive statements helps make you part of a digitally connected community that is on the side of justice. You might even call yourself an “ally.”
What can be harder is doing something about the fact that racism, and our reflexive complicity with it, is more ingrained in our private lives than we like to admit. If you’re black, this isn’t news. Black people don’t get to table the issue of racism when the marches are over. Dealing with the emotions of the latest video of black people being killed or having the Confederate battle flag waved in your face as a supposed celebration of Southern heritage, along with the daily indignities of casual, garden-variety racism, while still showing up as a normal human being at work, at school or in any social setting, that’s just called life.
If you aren’t black, however, you can go about a much different daily round. You have a freedom from harm that allows you to go about your day while being either ignorant of or complicit in the small racist words and acts that dot our social fabric. Even as a person of color — my parents grew up in Pakistan — I wrestle with this. We are a multiracial family in a predominantly white D.C. suburb. People in our area pride themselves on being educated, tolerant and cause-driven. I served in the Obama administration, where discussions of combating systemic racism were assumed. I’ve experienced the casual racism sometimes directed at people of South Asian descent: suspicion of my Muslim faith, or the not-so-funny “Apu” stereotype. But I’ve never felt like a police encounter would put my life in danger, or that I would have trouble finding a place to live because of my race, realities that are part of the black experience.
It’s the run-of-the-mill racism, which crops up in private settings where black people either are not present or are denied access, that perpetuates discrimination and contributes to black Americans being treated like second-class citizens. This is what the rest of us need to confront if we want to bring about real social change. People who aren’t black have been allowed to think that anti-blackness, except in its most extreme violent forms, disappeared after the Civil Rights Act and the election of our first black president.
Heads up. It didn’t.
Thinking that has allowed us to prioritize our own comfort and confuse efforts to just get along with actually making our immediate world a more just place. It cedes the floor to those who are comfortable vocalizing their prejudice.
Going against the expectations of the group or polite company isn’t easy. It requires some social courage, which is different from the social affirmation that comes with joining a widely attended march or participating in the latest online campaign. It feels risky to take action when solo, when there is no obvious benefit for making a statement (other than the fact it is the right thing to do), and when you may be socially penalized by people you know. But anti-racist practice is vital in private spaces, not just public ones.
Managing these seemingly low-stakes episodes requires honing the skill of speaking up at the spur of the moment. It’s the difference between prepping for one grand gesture and anticipating a lifetime of smaller engagements. Does it sound exhausting? It is. But not nearly as exhausting or numbing as the knot-twisting of self that black people do every day.