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Sunday, May 19, 2019
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Column: How to talk to a racist

NASHVILLE ó There are still white Southerners who honestly believe that American culture worked better for everyone, white and black alike, under segregation. There are still white Southerners who question how bad slavery really was. When an enslaved black personís health and strength are needed to guarantee the slaveholderís livelihood, this argument goes, it just wouldnít make sense to whip them or starve them or rape them or work them to the point of collapse.

Southerners arenít alone in believing such mendacity, but the South is where slavery and segregation metastasized, so it may be more concentrated here. Wherever this insidious delusion takes hold, however, it requires a gargantuan ignorance of history to maintain, and thereís a lot of ignorance afoot in the land right now. More people here in Tennessee today drive cars bearing license plates emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag than ever before. A strong majority of Southerners ó 61 percent ó are committed to keeping their Confederate monuments on public land.

I have exhausted my ability to understand why, deep into the 21st century, Iím still hearing otherwise good-hearted people use the same arguments that white Southerners used to discredit Uncle Tomís Cabin more than 150 years ago: It couldnít possibly have been that bad. But worse in many ways are the white people who will tell you point blank that the world today ó the world they actually live in and can see with their own eyes ó canít possibly be as unfair as black people say it is.

Maybe this is what happens when a personís only "news" source is the alternative universe of Fox & Friends. Or maybe theyíre all just racists.

Okay, theyíre definitely all racists. But hereís the thing: They donít believe they are. And the problem with writing off people who donít recognize this countryís pervasive and enduring culture of white supremacy, much less the ways in which they themselves benefit from it, is simple: Being called a racist almost never causes a racist to wake up. Being called a racist almost never causes a racist to say, "Oh, wow, youíre right."

I get that itís hard not to scream "Racist!" at a racist. If youíre a white person who wants to be an advocate, itís both infuriating and demoralizing to know that the people causing all this suffering are people who look just like you. That much is true about being a white liberal in a culture of white supremacy. But itís not the only truth.

Hereís whatís also true: Prejudice is endemic to humanity itself. Human beings are tribal creatures ó we trust the familiar and are drawn to it; we distrust the unfamiliar and keep our distance. White people, liberal and conservative, often claim not to notice another personís race ó "I donít even see color," they argue ó but itís just not true.

We are hard-wired to recognize difference and to view it as an aberration. Noticing difference is not the same thing as hating difference, of course, but Iím not talking about vicious white supremacists here. Iím talking only about garden-variety prejudice, the kind that operates at an unconscious level in everyone. And the difference between an unconscious liberal racist and an unconscious conservative racist is only a matter of degree, not a matter of kind.

Vicious white supremacists live among us, no doubt, and if they get their way they will be marching again on Aug. 12. ó the anniversary of their deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year ó this time in Washington. Such unrepentant racists will probably never come to understand the harm they have done and are doing to this country, much less the harm they are doing to their own souls. Every minute of public outrage feeds their hunger for validation. Ignore those people. When this episode of "The Ugly American" is finally canceled, theyíll crawl back into their hidy-holes again.

But the grumpy old neighbor who voted for Donald Trump out of frustration with Washington? The high school classmate who posts an Obama joke on Facebook? The white woman on the plane who tenses up when a Middle Eastern man sits down in the seat beside her? Try not to give up on them yet. These folks are your sisters and brothers. You belong to one another in exactly the same way that you and the targets of their racism belong to one another. Welcome to the Hotel California: You are at the most uncomfortable family reunion ever, and you can never leave.

If youíre a white liberal whose goal is to feel morally superior to such people, go right ahead and urge them to check their white privilege. Call them stupid rednecks. Get online and tweet your feats of moral derring-do in the cause of a more just society. You havenít made a single thing better for anyone suffering the actual effects of racism, but when has that ever stopped a white person from airing a little righteous indignation?

If, on the other hand, youíre a white liberal whose goal is to foster a more equitable culture, you need to stop yelling "Racist!" at anyone who doesnít see the world exactly as you do. Somehow you need to find enough common ground for a real conversation about race. Very few people are stupid or irredeemably mean. Theyíll listen to what you have to say if they trust youíll listen to what they have to say back.

So take a breath. When you encounter a person who believes heís merely honoring his ancestors by driving a car with an image of the Confederate battle flag on the tag, when a Facebook friend announces that itís disrespectful to take a knee during the national anthem, when you sit down next to someone at the church picnic who genuinely loves and respects the black people they know but who consistently votes for politicians with overtly racist policies, stop for just a moment and take a breath.

Before you say a single word, think of all the times you made an assumption about a stranger that proved to be untrue. Think of the times you found yourself feeling uneasy in the company of strangers of another race ó think about how you were forced to interrogate that uneasiness. Think of the plank in your own eye.

To begin a real conversation about racism, start there.

Margaret Renkl covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

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