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Racism in America: What’s the answer?

I’m an American, but for more than seven years now, I’ve been living in Singapore. Right now, watching from the other side of the globe, I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of what’s happening in my country, ashamed of the racism, ashamed of the hate.

As a child, there were things I knew. I had brown hair. I was tall. I had big feet. And I was an American. I wasn’t a fan of my feet, but I was always fiercely proud of my nationality. I wore red, white and blue on the Fourth of July. I devoured American history. I cried every time I sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” And when I traveled, I was always proud to say, “I am American”, knowing there were so many others in the world who wanted to be American, too.

I’m not sure that’s true anymore.

Racism in my youth

Growing up in Texas, I never saw myself as a white American. I was just American. And I didn’t think of my other friends as anything else besides American like me. Then again, I didn’t really have that many friends who weren’t white like me. The whites, blacks and browns didn’t really mix too much, though I was too young to realize why. Racism existed. It’s always existed, but I didn’t see it. I didn’t know because I was white. I’m sure my friends of other races knew about racism at a very early age. They must have. They face it every day.

As I got older, I began to hear people say things that troubled me, even people I knew and loved. I was shocked when my cousin told me a story about our grandmother who was perhaps the nicest person to ever walk this planet. They were at the grocery store and my cousin said “Hi” to a kid she knew from high school. Grandmother pulled her aside and said, “Nice white girls don’t talk to negro boys in public.” Thankfully, my cousin didn’t listen to her and continued to be friends with the boy. Still, the whole thing shocked and infuriated us both. We were both stunned and it took us a long while to reconcile how such a lovely and kind soul could say something so hateful. Of course, our grandmother was raised in a different time, with her own mother being born in the South during the Civil War, an American war all about racism. It didn’t excuse her actions, but perhaps explained them.

I really began to understand racism when I moved to New York and made friends from all races and religions. I heard their stories about things that had happened to them growing up. And I started to really pay attention to the slight digs — and bigger ones, too — in a different way. Then the racial incidents started to stack up — and I started to speak out. Of course, my understanding of racism in no way compares to how a person of colour understands racism. And therein lies the problem. 

The current protests

The continuing violence is also hard for many to understand, but it’s not just about the incredibly disturbing death of George Floyd. No. It’s also about Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Michael Brown. Alton Sterling, Delrawn Small and so many more. Sadly, the list of unarmed black men who have brutally died at the hands of the police is far longer than these few names.

These protests aren’t simply about one man’s death. Rather, they are about 400 years of pent up resentment and anger. After the events this week, an African American friend, Kat van Zutphen, wrote a powerful text that left me sitting in stunned silence. When I asked her about it, she shared more, including a poem she wrote which hit me hard and it made me think a bit deeper

Kat is in true pain as are many of my black friends and this incident is somehow worse for them than others that have gone before. It’s a pain that goes to her core. This horrific murder was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Those who have been wronged have found their voice. Couple that with the cabin fever, unemployment and fear caused by COVID-19 and you have a country gone seemingly crazy. And let’s remember that people of colour in the US have been far harder hit than whites by the pandemic, both medically and financially. The situation was a powder keg just waiting to go off.

Who’s to blame for the violence?

My friends back home have witnessed some of the protests. They say the day-time protests are different than protests that have gone before. It’s not just blacks marching in anger. Rather, the daytime protests are peaceful with people from all races marching side by side for justice and that makes my heart happy. Whites are also speaking out, standing shoulder to shoulder.

But at night things sour and violence erupts.

To me, this doesn’t feel like the riots of before, usually isolated to one city. I personally suspect that there are opportunists taking advantage of the situation, fuelled by lost jobs and anger. And don’t be fooled: it’s not just blacks who are looting and burning cars. Several of my journalist friends have witnessed whites doing awful things, too — then blaming the blacks. And please note that all those protesting are not rioting. Most are peacefully asking for change and justice. Unfortunately, all it takes is the actions of a few to make the whole cause look bad, to turn opinion.

The sad thing is these riots are actually having the opposite effect of what they want to accomplish. Prior to the violence, people could clearly see that the policeman who killed George Floyd had done something terribly wrong. But now, people watching the riots are growing less sympathetic to their cause. Stores are having to board up, fearful of being looted, slowing the economy even more after COVID-19 has already wreaked havoc with 40 million people unemployed. And the fear of a second wave of COVID-19 because of all the mingling during the protests is there, too.

Like I said, I’m not so sure people want to be American any more.

The police and racism

You can’t talk about what’s happening now without also talking about the actions of the police. Of course, not all police officers are racist and horrible. A generalisation like that is the same as generalising that black people are all violently rioting. I have family members who are police officers and I know they aren’t racist. And there have been many police officers across the US taking a knee in support of the protestors. Some are even hugging the protestors. For those officers on the front lines, I can only imagine how frightening it is to be a police officer — particularly a white officer — in the middle of these incredibly angry crowds. I also saw an amazing image of a chain of black people protecting a white officer separated from the other officers. There is definitely still good in America.

But we must acknowledge the violence on both sides – and there have been some truly horrendous actions by the police over the years, including this week. This violence is not only against the rioters, but journalists, too. Police shot a rubber bullet at a journalist in Minneapolis. She’s now permanently blind in one eye. Another friend of mine covering the Minneapolis riots had his camera bashed with a nightstick. A CNN reporter was arrested while live on the air. He happened to also be black.

Where does this racism come from?

Hate is passed on from generation to generation, plain and simple. Years ago, I was a producer for Sally Jesse Raphael, a talk show that always had these ridiculously salacious topics. One particular show about racism really unnerved me. A  two-year-old toddler on the show screamed, “I hate niggers. I wish they were all dead.” The audience gasped. The toddler’s mom then yelled, “You tell ‘em, baby”, obviously proud of her little hate-filled child. That little kid still haunts me — to have so much hate at such a young age is unfathomable. The only way she could have learned to hate that much was from her parents.

As I see it, Trump has also given the haters a voice. Trump has made it okay to say hateful things because he says hateful things, too. People may have felt these things before, but they kept it to themselves. It’s almost like, because the President can be hateful, the public can be, too. I always strongly disliked Trump, but I knew who he was. What’s hit me hardest about this period of time is that people I thought I knew well are also spewing hate. My morning Facebook feed is like a civics lesson; some supporting the protests, some upset by them. Not all Trump supporters are racist, absolutely not. But those who are seem to now feel it’s okay to say awful things publicly. Thankfully, most of my friends are upset by the racism. Of that, I am grateful.

It’s not necessarily that racism is worse now, only that it’s more openly displayed and the resulting violence is worse. When these incidents happened under Obama, a calm and collected African American president called for restraint and people listened. This time, there’s no calming voice. For a while, it seemed like America was on its way to less racism. We had a black president. Though to be fair, it’s likely Obama being president stirred the racists’ feelings of hate. Somebody told me they heard a wealthy, older white man say, “The white man is down now” after Obama was elected. Trump just fanned the fire. And stunts like tear-gassing a crowd so Trump can then stand on the front steps of a church with a Bible in his hand for a photo op doesn’t help the situation at all.

So what’s the solution to racism in the US?

Talking. Open discourse. Sharing. The racism horrors of this week actually may be the start of something good. There might be a silver lining to all this. How? Because after all this violence, there will be a reckoning. There has to be. What is happening is too big to ignore. We will have to talk. We have to face an ugly reality that has been a part of America’s makeup for centuries. Hopefully, the discussion can begin. Maybe, just maybe, the country can begin to heal. We’ve come a long way from Civil War, a long way from desegregation. Yet we still have a helluva uphill climb ahead.

But where do we start? Yes, we need to take a long, hard look at our police departments, but it goes beyond that. We need to acknowledge what the other is feeling, accepting our differences and finding our commonalities. We don’t need to be colour-blind. We need to be colour-accepting. The most important thing my mother taught me was, “You can find something to like about everybody if you just look hard enough.” We as a nation need to look at people who are different from us and find something to like. Maybe it’s something as stupid as liking the same kind of ice cream. But it’s a start. As my friend told me, stereotypes are for the lazy. Don’t be lazy. Get to know people and be an ambassador for your own race and religion. 

My father grew up in the South. In WWII, he was stationed with white men. As an adult, he worked only with white people. So he never really knew any black people at all. He was a bigot in some ways, though not maliciously so; he didn’t spew hate. Rather, he just didn’t know anybody black and he believed the stereotypes. All that changed when my mother died and I moved him to an assisted living in New Jersey. His two best friends there were black and Jewish. All it took was making new friends to start his heart down an amazing journey. And then my brother married a Latina woman. My dad loved her dearly. All to say, my father grew and learned to think very differently all because of relationships he made. If a man in his late 70s can take that journey, so can we all.

What can we each do about racism?

At first glance, it seems like I can’t do much from Singapore, but I can actually. I can speak out. I can say something when I see something. I can let my friends of different colours know I see them as people. I can teach my children to be accepting. I will never understand the struggle of my black friends fully, but I can let them know I stand with them in solidarity. And I can work at being more aware every day. In his book, How to be an Antiracist, Ibram Kendi argues that to reject racism is insufficient — rather, one must practice antiracism, which demands “persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism and regular self-examination.” I’m in.

Of course, this is all easy for me to say as a privileged white woman living in Singapore. And I admit, I’m not always perfectly anti-racist. I was one of only two white people in a room when each of the OJ Simpson verdicts came back. For the first criminal trial, I was in a television studio. When the verdict came back in the civil trial, I was a reporter in a bar with my Hispanic cameraman. Both times, I felt very white and uncomfortable. And a black mob once tried to turn over my satellite truck in Newark, New Jersey. Again, I was scared. But I fought the feeling of fear and hate and in each instance listened to what the angry people said — and I learned something.

I believe we all need to start small and find commonalities. All of us hurt when someone we love hurts. All of us want what’s best for our children. And just about everybody likes ice cream. If nothing else, start there. Find something in common and try to change your corner of the world through understanding.

Final word

I still cry when I sing “The Star Spangled Banner”, but for different reasons now. I still love my country, but I mourn it, too. From the other side of the globe, I see it the way others see it now. Yet I also see glimmers of hope. White and black are marching arm in arm. That is good. I know the great American spirit will rise again and out of these ashes will come a new understanding. The riots are awful, but at least in the US, we are allowed into protest. We can speak out. And we can remember that our differences are what made our country great. Like a phoenix, America will rise. We will continue the long journey of battling racism and grow. This, I know. And I will once again be proud to say, “I am an American.”

This graphic video by the New York Times gives a minute-by-minute account of George Floyd’s death.

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