Talking About The Elephant In The Room That Never Left


Dear Blue and Wheels,

These letters will reach you in a time and place all its own, but they are always written in a particular time. This particular time happens to be at a very divisive time in our nation, after cops shot and killed two black men, protests ensued, and during these protests 5 cops were killed by a black man. That’s an understatement, but right now, nobody needs to hear a rehash of what happened. We all know. If you want to know more, I hope the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are merely footnotes in an awful sequence of history, not the beginning bookends of something much worse coming our way.

It’s scary out there, kids. Engaging in any sort of meaningful conversation with someone who doesn’t hold your particular views is seemingly hopeless. All we create is an endless string of hashtags and videos and likes for articles that share our point of view, all while never engaging in any real and substantial movement of unified change. That word is important there: unified. For the life of me, I cannot understand how people cannot see the black lives matter for what it is intended to be. I don’t get the stubborn refusal to just hear that other side, the side that is very angry and fearful about what is happening not just because it is happening, but also because it could happen to them.

Maybe I’m being naïve, or maybe I’m just star-struck by you, Wheels, sleeping calmly next to me as I type this missive, but I think the hope for a world where all lives truly matter, where change is truly affected, is found in you. The next generations, being raised in a 21st century society that has begun to grasp the nuances of communicating on the internet in ways that we don’t grasp yet, and in a 21st century society that has come to terms with the fact that just because there are now civil rights, it doesn’t mean that everyone is treated equally. (Also, maybe one with less guns and one where we have avoided a full scale war with ISIS, but who knows?)

Last year, when I was teacher training, we took a class on multiculturalism in the classroom. I have to admit, I was not the biggest fan of this class. Mostly it had to do with the way it was framed, and the prism through which we were asked to see culture. The instructor talked about multicultural perspectives from the perspective of someone who was oppressed, someone who has been victimized by oppressors. It was not comfortable to hear this. You could feel the nervousness start to bubble up in the room, as cohort peers who had been getting to know and like each other for a few weeks suddenly had to shift gears and reevaluate the people around them.

Can I trust that person? Do they share the same worldview as me? What happens if they don’t? Are they the oppressor?

We hadn’t considered those questions when we started, and now at the end of training, it was a bit jarring to suddenly be faced with our differences when we had been unified in a singular purpose for so long. We were suddenly all aware of that elephant in the room. That elephant that lets us know that not all things are equal.

But, something very interesting happened on the third day of class. We all took a quiz to assess how our ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation affected how we interacted with the world. More importantly, it gauged how the world interacted with us.

I am straight, white male in my thirties. I am over 6 feet tall and I have a full head of hair. My teeth are straight and mostly white. I smile at people and make eye contact. I do not have any debilitating diseases or mental illnesses.

I am white privilege personified, and I have no shame in admitting that when we were asked to line up in order of the quiz score, with the highest score being the most privileged, guess who was at the front of the line?

(Two thumbs pointing back at me.)

We were asked to explain why we thought our score was the way it was. My explanation was simple and truthful. “Look at me. I’m a white guy.”

Everyone laughed at the curt response from the oddly handsome, kind of goofy white guy.

Then everyone else got their turn. And it was a horror show. Story after story of unfair treatment, discrimination, prejudice, abuse…everything. Tears were being teared. Hugs were being hugged.

Then someone spoke up. “I’m sorry. This is bullshit,” said a white woman. “I don’t think it’s right that white people are made to feel guilty for this. I won’t accept it.”

I’m paraphrasing but it was something like that.

The air was sucked out of the room, mostly by awkward silence. The instructor tried gamely to assess her opinion and help her to understand the purpose of the activity was not to make anyone feel bad or ashamed, but it was too late for that. The woman was upset, and not wanting to hear anymore, she left the room.

She left the room. That happened, and while she was gone, the discussion continued on what she had started. It didn’t go how I expected it to go, because nobody else spoke out in anger or frustration towards her. Nobody whined that she was being dramatic or unreasonable.

I remember one guy, a quiet guy whose family is from Mexico. He said, “All we want is to be heard. That’s it.”

That’s it.

Well, okay, it’s not, but that’s a good a starting point as any if we are talking about a path towards true racial reconciliation.

So that you are not unwilling to listen, I want to outline some things on how to approach such a delicate, inflammatory subject as race.

You are not black. You are half white and half Asian. You have color, but it isn’t that color. You have a culture, a particular set of beliefs and values that shape you. Not everyone has these same sets of beliefs and values. A lot of them may overlap, but respect that race relations is and always will be a Venn diagram. We can push to make the middle bigger, but the circles will never totally be the same. If someone tells you they are colorblind, tell them they are a liar.

You are also Asian, which means at some point you might be referred to as a member of the “model minority.” Please, thoroughly and completely reject this. Reduce it to smoldering ashes that flitter away in the wind. Do not stand for it. It diminishes your own standing in the world in a condescending, pat on the head kind of way (not to mention it’s an idea that has been fabricated by the majority) and it also fails to recognize that there are legitimate differences between the Asian American and African American communities that have had a huge impact on their place in American history.

While Asians have suffered horrible discrimination and oppression, it does not compare to the plight of African Americans. African Americans, after all, did not have a choice in whether or not they wanted to be African Americans. That decision was made for them by slavers who forcibly removed them from their families and homes. Entire generations of people were lost to the slave trade.

Think about what could happen to a culture’s values, its ethos. It’s not just oppression. It’s devastation, and anyone who thinks that 50 years of equal rights under the law will undo centuries of that sort of systematic cultural annihilation is either not looking at the situation with both eyes open, or doesn’t care to do so. I say this because people will try to feed you this narrative that the only reason certain groups succeed where others do not is because they chose not to be victims. They chose not to blame their problems on others and took ownership of them. It isn’t so simple. History never is.

Finally, you are white. You do, in fact, have privilege. Don’t allow yourself to feel shame or guilt because of that inescapable fact, but do know that it exists. You can no more erase your privilege than you could remove your liver. It is what it is. You are afforded things other people are not afforded. If the Black Lives Matter movement is still around, don’t make the mistake of saying All Lives Matter. Of course they do, but that’s not the point. Remember that when someone says black lives matter, there is a missing word. An implied “too.” It makes all the difference.

I keep going back to that class last year. As I think about this subject, it draws me in like a magnet, some sort of anchor point that helps keep me tethered to the most important question I can ask and potentially answer: What can I do? I am a white man, and for the first time in the history of the world, I feel powerless.

To be fair, this class was over a year ago and I don’t remember all that was said or why that woman said it. What I recounted before, I was paraphrasing. I think I got the general tone right but definitely not the exact words. I don’t want to paint her in a light that she need not be painted, but it doesn’t matter because it wasn’t what she said that really matters; it’s what she did.

She left the room.

Don’t leave the room, guys. The elephant is in there, and it needs to be talked about. And heard.