Imagine trying to convince a fish, happily finning around in its native element: "You're wet!"
This image, for me, sums up the elemental condition of many white people regarding racism in the United States. And yes, this has to do with my Quaker childhood.
Within the nicely painted walls of bourgeois respectability, we were pretty darn liberal. The neighborhood we lived in in Philadelphia was integrated, if our street wasn't. Before I got to ninth grade, my private school in the city had instituted a "Community Scholars" program whereby academically motivated kids from the neighborhood surrounding the school could become students there. Ever oblivious, I was never sure who the Community Scholars kids actually were, but I did know that one of the CS girls in my graduating class was the closest thing to valedictorian that most Quaker schools have. In my family we were proud to be on the right side. Heck, my school had stayed IN the neighborhood when "the other G-town private school" had deserted the city for the litter-free safety of the suburbs.
The politics, voting record, and wallet policy in my household were "progressive." My parents supported the United Negro College Fund, the ACLU, all that. At the age of maybe 12, I took part in my first demonstration against the Vietnam War, and I developed a vague notion that policemen on the street were sort-of-bad-guys.
All the while, there was racism in my family, but I didn't notice the disconnect. I was a wet fish. Actually, with the razor vision of adolescence, I noted the racist comments made by the older generation. But not my own blindness, white-on-white, as I stared into a mirror that revealed so little contrast by way of reference points that I read it as a picture of the whole world. Racism, by our definition, could not be subtle--if it were, we would have had to redefine ourselves. Even as we unconsciously distanced ourselves from the black 'other'--there was no real socializing across racial lines--we measured ourselves, not by what we actually said and thought, but according to our distance from the racist thugs of lynchings and voter fraud.
I have read Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, three times, and each time, I might have been wearing frosted glasses. It was only when, as an adult, I read Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's essay about the book that I realized that I, myself, am an illustration of white blindness. If I were African, or descended from Africans, wouldn't I respond to their portrayal as Achebe did? How could I have missed it? It's very simple: Conrad's Africans are half-animal, dangerous, ripe for manipulation by the evil "Mistah Kurtz." Their love of evil is not rooted in what they do, like Kurtz, whose moral degeneration has led him to "the horror", but in what they ARE. They have no choice, being "dark." Isn't that a definition of racism?
Achebe revealed the contrast in things. Take the bland question that my next door neighbor asked me once: Had I noticed that the local grocery store was becoming "dark" ? If we hadn't grown up in a society tinged with racism at every level, would she have chosen a code word as a stand-in to mean "The population is changing at Acme. I keep seeing more and more black people there, and this is a bad thing"...? Would I have understood her code? Of course, I did understand, but I was too much of a coward to say anything.
Blindness. It's a privilege to be able to ignore this stuff, but it's a privilege that, with the new year, we can choose to revoke.
Achebe's essay on Heart of Darkness