By Jyarland Daniels, CEO and Founder of Harriet Speaks
I wish we lived in a world where I didn’t have to write this blog post. But, alas, when bad ideas arise, some people need an explanation for why the idea is bad and we should just throw the entire thing away. So, here goes… For 400 years – before and since Emancipation — among Black people, there have been differing ideas on how to get free; on how to escape the system of racism that exists as a web, touching all aspects of our existence from cradle to grave. There have been those who have advocated patience, hoping that the oppressors would change their ways. There have been those like Harriet Tubman who, while willing to work with white people who supported her cause, did not seek to change the minds of her captors. Tubman, and others like her, simply took their freedom and invited other enslaved persons who understood that their humanity was neither something to be given by another nor had to be earned, to join their efforts. Today, too, those differences remain. The latest example of how to get free can be found in a networking event just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, created by a Black person, inviting white people to, “Come Meet a Black Person.”
If you haven’t cringed at the idea of such an event yet, please keep reading. In case you think this a good idea and before you rush out to plan your very own, “Come Meet a Black Person” event for local white people who do not have any Black friends, you should consider why this is a terrible idea.
Citing a study that says 75% of white people do not have non-white friends, the creator of “Come Meet a Black Person”, Cheryle Moses, told The Washington Post, “As a black person I deal with racism every day. … And I don’t think I’m alone. I want to do my part to change things. She goes on to tell local media, “If we can become friends, it will be easier. ‘Come Meet a Black Person’ is my effort to start a conversation so we can love on each other.” Yes. Really. Check the hyperlinks.
As a racial equity consultant, I travel the country teaching and talking about how to achieve a more just society. Within the diversity and inclusion space I focus on anti-blackness and how it serves as the underpinning of racism against Black people and other people of color. I focus on anti-blackness not because other forms of racism or oppression are less harmful. I do so because racism in this country (and globally) functions as a hierarchy with whiteness at the top and black at bottom, where privileges are given or denied based on one’s proximity to blackness. But, in my work, the primary thing that I stress to clients and groups is the necessity of understanding how racism operates.
We hear the term “racism” so much that we think we know what it means. But do we? Ms. Moses is of the opinion that racism can be solved if white people would just get to know a Black person or have a Black friend. This shows a misunderstanding of what racism is. Racism is not merely prejudice or discrimination shown towards a person because of the color of their skin. Racism is a system of inequities that requires power, and often operates without incidents of racial animus. Even if every white person knew a Black person, even if a racial slur was never uttered again, racism would still persist and exist in our institutions.
Allow me to illustrate one way racism works: racism lies in the fact that blacks were denied the opportunity to participate in the primary vehicle of wealth creation – home ownership – by the federal government in the 1930’s – 1950’s. As a result of this and other policies (including Black families being targeted by banks and disproportionately impacted by the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the present day), it will take 228 years for the average Black family to have the same wealth as a white family. Two hundred and twenty-eight years! There are consequences to having less wealth. Contrary to what Ms. Moses suggests, a white person meeting a Black person does not change that.
The “Come Meet a Black Person” event also ignores the fact that in many cases, especially in the greater Atlanta area where this event is taking place, if a white person does not have a Black friend it is because they have made the deliberate choice not to. What happens when a neighborhood, once predominately white, becomes increasingly less so? White people move. That a place like Lawrenceville, Georgia (where the event is taking place) exists is due to white people moving to be further away from Blacks. (There is an entire blog I could write on the psychology of Blacks who come to an area where whites have moved in order to be surrounded with fewer people who look like you and then you host an event that says, “Please come and be our friend.” But, I digress.) What happens when a school that was once predominately white becomes less so? White people move. White flight is not a requirement, it is a choice. If white people want to get to know a Black person there is one thing they can do: stop moving. The suburbs are white America’s answer to Fred Rogers’ question of, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” The answer was, “No.”
Before my ancestors were stolen from Africa, chained to the hull of a ship, and transported across the Atlantic Ocean, one thing happened before this could take place; their captors got to know them. Black people have never been unknown to whites. Before you can conquer a people you must understand how they think and then use how they think in a way that works to your advantage. During times of enslavement Blacks and whites lived in close proximity. The one thing that made escape so difficult was the slave owner had to be able to predict what the human in bondage would do – the life of the slave owner depended on it. But yet, the racist system of slavery persisted. If a solution to racism was simply knowing one another, then the history that we all know to be true would be very different.
It is time for us to discard the quick, easy fixes to racism and brace ourselves to do the work in changing policy and advancing solutions that may not be equal, but are equitable. “Come Meet a Black Person” makes us think we are doing something, but it centers whiteness and encourages superficial actions. “Well, something is better than nothing”, some might say. Well, actually no, it’s not.