We need to talk about race

People rally in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, who died of a spinal injury while in police custody.

I stopped talking to white people about race long ago. The reason, illustrated by a conversation between my white aunt and my black sister, can be distilled to one sentence: “The difference between the North and the South is that here, people are honest about being racist.”

A decade later, my aunt is still hurt by the suggestion that Northerners — she, a person with black family members — is racist.

I love my aunt; she’s my favorite aunt. But the facts are clear. New York is one of the most segregated states, and she lives in one of the 10-most-segregated school systems in the country. Those are facts she doesn’t need to know. Not experiencing racism, it’s not real for her. Nor is it evident that her decision to move from an increasingly black neighborhood is an aspect of racism; that “better schools” means “whiter schools.”

I stopped talking because I thought all white people were racist. The truth is more nuanced.

Black people think in terms of black people. We grieve innocent black children killed in another state because we know it could be our child. Walter Scott’s murder in South Carolina hit me because he was indistinguishable from my father. Timing and geography are but coincidence.

White people have the privilege to interact with a social and political system that supports them as individuals. They often are not directly affected by racism within their community, so it has little meaning to them.

What affects them directly are character attacks. Suggesting “people in the North are racist” is attacking my New Yorker aunt as a racist. She doesn’t differentiate between participation within a racist system from the accusation that she is a racist. Without that differentiation, white people in general defend themselves. Black people say, “Racism exists.” White people argue, “I’m not racist!” This “white fragility” has been documented even by white researchers such as Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University.

Racism isn’t slavery and Jim Crow. Martin Luther King did not end racism (nor did the election of Barack Obama). Racism is a Baltimore cop severing an innocent man’s spine; a child killed for playing with a toy gun in Ohio, where it’s legal to openly carry firearms. Racism is where “white” means “normal.” It’s not having a single actor of color speak in the movie “Noah,” and only white characters in science fiction films. Once you let yourself see it, you see it all the time.

But pointing this out is dangerous.

Living with institutionalized racism is tiring and provoking. Yet if black people show any emotion, we’re “angry.” The irony is our entire discussion of race centers on the protection of white feelings.

Black people are talking about a racist system. White people, refusing to talk about “I, racist,” reject the existence of racism. When talking about racism, the thousands of innocent people raped, shot, imprisoned and systematically disenfranchised are less important than the suggestion that a white person is complicit in racism. But in protecting a self-perception as non-racist, white people unwittingly support a racist system — one that justifies killing people of color.

Any Mexican criminal proves we need border security from Mexicans in general. Any criminal of Middle Eastern descent is proof of Islamic terrorism. But a white racist killing people in a state that still flew the Confederate flag is an evil individual. People of color, especially black people, are dangerous as a group, but when a white person commits a crime, they are bad as an individual. White pot smokers are hippies; blacks or Mexicans smoking pot are criminals.

A headline from the Independent illustrates this: “Charleston shooting: Black and Muslim killers are ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?” Even in an article about racism, white people are “shooters” while black and Muslim people are “killers.” Even when talking about racism, people of color are more dangerous.

So now why do you think black people are emotional when talking about race?

Expectation, treatment, a system where white is “normal” and black is “bad” — all of this is racism.

And all white people are complicit in this racism because they benefit directly from it. Even I — a light-skinned black person — am complicit.

Racism still exists not because of radicals, but because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America.

White people are in a position of power because of racism. The question is: Are they brave enough to use that power to fight the system that gave it to them? Will they speak up, or will they watch us die in silence?

I am silent no more. Too many people are dying for me to continue to avoid talking about race with white people, hurt feelings be damned.