The Black “We” and the White “I”

John Metta had given up talking to white people about racism. But after the shootings in Charleston, he gave this “congregational reflection” to a white church audience. I think it goes a long way in explaining why our attempts to discuss racism in this country tend to end in misunderstandings.

First of all, Metta explains how black people and white people see the world differently.

To understand, you have to know that Black people think in terms of Black people.

We don’t see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot…

Racism affects us directly because the fact that it happened at a geographically remote location or to another Black person is only a coincidence, an accident. It could just as easily happen to us – right here, right now.

White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are “you,” I am “one of them…”

What they are affected by are attacks on their own character…Without being able to make that differentiation, White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it.

That leads to a powerful summary of the problem.

Living every single day with institutionalized racism and then having to argue its very existence, is tiring, and saddening, and angering. Yet if we express any emotion while talking about it, we’re tone policed, told we’re being angry. In fact, a key element in any racial argument in America is the Angry Black person, and racial discussions shut down when that person speaks. The Angry Black person invalidates any arguments about racism because they are “just being overly sensitive,” or “too emotional,” or, playing the race card…

But here is the irony, here’s the thing that all the angry Black people know, and no calmly debating White people want to admit: The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings…

White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about “I, racist” and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness.

We happen to be living during a time when the reality of that racist system is being exposed via evidence of things like police brutality, disparities in the criminal justice system and voter suppression efforts. Perhaps we can find a way forward if we quit getting defensive about individual racism and joined the “we” that is working on fixing the system.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.