An interactive biopic on The Guardian’s website shows a running tally of all the people in the US who have been killed by police or who have died while in custody, and a breakdown by state, race, by total and per million. I spent about 10 minutes slowly looking through the faces of all those people who died, month by month. I didn’t finish the list, but I didn’t need to. If I cried more easily, I would have been sobbing.
A friend of mine, in a recent conversation about race, said “I don’t see race.” She’s white; I am also white. I looked at her skeptically: “What do you mean, you don’t see race? Come on.” She then said something like, it doesn’t matter to me, you can be white, black, brown–it’s just, it’s all love, man. (For privacy’s sake, I’m not using names.)
My thoughts were the opposite. “I deliberately see race,” I told her.
Race is something I don’t have to think about. If it’s dark out and I’m walking home, I’m not in danger of getting harassed by the police. If it’s daytime in my car, I’m in no danger of getting shot in the face during a traffic stop for not having a front license plate. I can go to bed right after writing about this, not having to worry about whether I’ll be given weird looks in the neighborhood where I go to grad school, or even leaving my house.Long story short–and I’m not breaking any new ground here–race doesn’t “exist” for me, cause I don’t have it thrust into my face. That’s white privilege. It’s not life or death for me. But it is for people of color.
So because I don’t have to deal with it, I feel an obligation to “see” race. To see what struggles my friends of color deal with. To truly look race in the face and examine it, take it apart, and see how all the parts fit together. In Zen Buddhist practice, there is a saying that “when mind looks at mind, mind disappears.” When you run away from it, it still exists, and actually becomes stronger and more sinister. But when you stop, turn around, and say, “okay, fine, let’s sit down and have tea and get to know each other,” you can start to understand it, and really deal with it.
As a White person, I have an obligation to see race. I am obligated to listen to my friends of color and empathize with their daily experiences. Now, empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy comes from a place of fear: oh, you are in a terrible situation that I don’t want to think about or deal with, so I’m going to feel sorry for you. Empathy comes from a place of courage, and embracement: I see you are a human being like me, so I’m going to become fully empty, so I can listen and be filled to overflowing with your experiences.
But really, honestly? That’s hard to do.
Pema Chödron, an American Tibetan teacher, calls that “leaning into the sharp points.” Human beings are notorious for running away from the truth, especially if that truth is uncomfortable and full of suffering. We cannot even bear to handle our own suffering, so hearing someone else is suffering beyond comparison? Change the channel, turn the page, close your browser, hang up the phone. But the problem with this is that we become ourselves jumpy, distracted, fearful, and uneasy. We end up making more suffering for ourselves rather than less, and we also make suffering for those people we were running away from in the first place. But if we jump into the fire, keep our ear to the phone, keep listening to the difficult stories, keep reading about the news that’s hard to bear, and truly listen to our own reactions, then we can start to heal as one people and to truly grow.
Race isn’t going away any time soon. (I swear to God, I have heard “If we just stop talking about race, it will go away” so many times it makes me sick.) Repeat: race isn’t going away! So stop running from it. Don’t lean back, lean in. But–and white people, I’m talking to us–CLOSE YOUR MOUTH AND LISTEN. Listen with 100% attentiveness, clarity, and compassion. Because we need less White opinions and voices on what Black people should and shouldn’t do, or how they should or shouldn’t be, or that their struggles are real or unreal–we’ve been doing that since we learned Black people existed, so shut up and learn your place. And that’s in the outer circle, listening to real talk and asking educated, appropriate questions.
Saying “I don’t see race,” is a cop-out. Don’t do it.