I am sad and dismayed with the horrid and scary news. We see that black and brown people are more likely to get Covid – and to die. The news programs report yet another murder of an unarmed black man by white policemen; our justice system, after decades, still isn’t fair to non-whites, and protests are turning into violent riots across our country. It is more than an adult can make sense of. I think about my grand-kids and wonder how they’re supposed to make sense of all this.
I envisioned this conversation with my own two beloved grandchildren. Having this conversation in my head with them helped me sort through my thoughts.
Granddaughter: “Mimi, why did that policeman not let that black man breathe? Why are people protesting and hurting other people?”
Grandson: “What I want to know is how come they say black and brown people get the corona virus more than white people.”
Mimi: “All your questions have the same answer. This may be particularly hard for you to understand. You two go to a school and live in a neighborhood together with black and brown children. That’s good but not the case for everyone in our country. I love that you think of your friends the same way regardless of their skin color.”
Granddaughter: “Yeah. But our black friend Tasha next door lives with her mom and grandma in an apartment that isn’t very nice. Nobody reads with her the way you and our parents do with us.”
Mimi: “Everyone needs to talk more openly about race and racism. We can talk about this together now. It may take a while. We’d have to talk about some new words, some history, and a little about how our brains work. Are you interested?”
Grandson: “I’m used to your long lectures, Mimi. OK, I’m just kidding.”
Mimi: “The ‘race’ part of racism, you know. That refers to the different races of people, the different places their ‘ancestors’ came from, some long ago, some more recently. ‘Ancestors’ means our grandparents, and our grandparents’ grandparents and their grandparents. Peoples’ ancestors came from different parts of the world and different cultures. Depending on where their ancestors came from, even if their parents and grandparents were born here, today people are called Native American, African American, Latino, Asian, Caucasian (a big word for white people whose ancestors came from Europe), and other groups. The three of us are “Caucasian.” Tasha is an African American – black.”
Grandson: “Arnold is African American, but he moved here from Texas. He says he just wants to be called ‘black.'”
Mimi: “The ‘ism’ part of racism refers to the negative thoughts we have and actions we take just because someone is part of a different race than we are. There is ‘sexism,’ discrimination based on what gender you are, and other ‘isms’ that mean people are thought of as ‘less than’ and treated worse, than others simply because of the group they’re part of. Another word is ‘prejudice.’ How we think shows up in what we believe and what we say and do, and how we treat others.
So ‘racism’ is thinking less of, and often acting differently with, a person because of his or her race. Those white policemen killing George Floyd is the very worst kind of racist act. Acts are visible, but racism starts in a place that’s invisible. It starts in the way we think, and sometimes in thoughts we don’t even know we have.
The ways we think may come from what we learned as little children – and even from the ways our ancestors were taught to think. Beliefs and what’s ‘normal’ in a culture are passed from generation to generation. This is where history comes in. Racism has a long history. Black people’s ancestors came from Africa as slaves against their own will. As you know, white people bought black people to work for them – the same way they bought horses. Many of those white people thought of slaves as less than human. Slaves did not have freedom. Many were treated very badly. When you study American history, you will learn about how slavery finally ended – but black people still weren’t given full rights or treated equally. Around 150 years have passed. Some things have gotten better for black people. But they are still not treated equally.
When I was a very little girl, black people didn’t live in the same neighborhoods as white people. They couldn’t go to the same schools, use the same bathrooms or water fountains. They had to sit in the balcony of the movie theater and in the back of the bus! Second grade was the first year that I had any black classmates. It was a big deal for the whole country when that began to change.
Now today you see lots of black people that are wealthy, ‘successful’, and powerful. You see black mayors, governors, and members of Congress. We had a black US President. There are black reporters, doctors, scientists, and other professionals. Looking at them, you’d think the way of thinking that allowed slavery to happen is gone now. But black people are still less likely to be educated, wealthy or ‘successful’. Black people are far more likely to experience prejudice. White people are more likely to experience ‘privilege,’ which means not having to experience prejudice, not being thought of and treated as less than.
Now let’s talk a little about how our brains work. If you ask most white people if they think black people are equal, they’d say ‘Yes.’ And most of them would believe they were telling the truth. The problem is that we aren’t always aware of how we think. Many of our thoughts and beliefs exist in the ‘subconscious’ parts of our brains. We don’t always know what the beliefs in our subconscious minds are, but they still affect our actions. Our brains form habits of thought in an actual physical way involving connections among brain cells. Those habits of thought start when you are a baby. You hear what grownups say and see what they do. You’ve lived next to Tasha for several years. You don’t know it, but your brain formed some habits of thought and beliefs – about her and all kinds of things; your teachers, dogs, cats, how you live, camping, swimming, what your parents do at work, what dinner time is like, and on and on.
The truth is that most Americans have habits of thought that are still influenced by how our parents and ancestors thought. These ‘echoes’ from history often live in our subconscious minds. Even if we don’t know they’re there, these echoes are still affecting our lives and shaping our ‘isms’. Beliefs are habits of thought. If nothing happens to make you want to change them – they won’t change. Habits of thought aren’t easy to change. It takes knowing we have a particular way of thinking and wanting to change it. Then we have to spend time practicing a new thought.
Do you think you have some habits of thought about race?
I think I do. I have come very far, but I can’t claim to have gotten rid of all racist, or even sexist, habits of thought. Most people don’t really know they have racist thoughts or other ‘isms,’ But those beliefs have affected the lives and opportunities of black people over all the years since slavery. Because of prejudice, they are less likely to have parents and grandparents who went to good schools. Unfortunately, many black children are less likely to have parents who read to them and make sure they do their homework. So, they are less likely to get a good education and a good job and earn enough money – and less likely to be sure their own kids someday do the same. Tasha’s mom is a single parent who didn’t have a chance to go to college; she earns a low hourly wage and has to work more to pay their bills. It’s a cycle that’s incredibly difficult for people to break out of.”
Granddaughter: “So black and brown people are more likely to live in apartments like Tasha’s that aren’t so nice? That is sad. That’s not fair. These ways of thinking go so far back, and we aren’t even aware of them?! Are they the reason those policemen treated George Floyd like he wasn’t human?”
Mimi: “Yes. ‘Racism’ is the answer to this and to why Corona Virus affects black and brown people more. The history we’ve talked about, and the unconscious way that white people think about black people, have meant black people are more likely to be poor, to be in jobs where they can’t work at home like your parents are doing, or not to have a job at all. They are more likely to experience homelessness. And black people are less likely to have good insurance to help them stay healthy and get well when they are sick. That’s part of why the black population is hit harder by Covid.
Back to the police issue. Those police officers will probably swear that race had nothing to do with how they treated George Floyd. They may not know the habits of thought in their own minds. But those habits of thought had to be about not seeing George as important or as fully human as a white man. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have knelt on his neck, and surely not long enough to kill him.
You’ve heard the saying, ‘Black Lives Matter” haven’t you? That phrase came from another incident where policemen killed a black man this way. There have been lots of black people (mostly men or young men) who got shot or strangled, in cases where white men would not have been treated with extreme violence. Already in your lifetimes, 8 and 10 years, at least 20 unarmed black people have been killed by police.”
Grandson: “So it’s all from how we think – and don’t even know it? Wow. That makes me sad, too. And what happens to black people makes me mad!”
Mimi: “Oh, it makes me mad, too. Lots of people, of all races, are really mad. That’s why lots of people are protesting in the streets. They are mad about George Floyd and all the other people treated like he was and about how the government and people haven’t figured out how to change this.”
Granddaughter: “I want to be sure I’m not prejudiced against Tasha or other black and brown people. How do I change racist thoughts if I have them? And how do we get lots of people to change their thinking? How do we get rid of racism?”
Mimi: “Perfect questions. We encourage more people to ask those questions! Let me tell you, I didn’t ask these questions when I was your age. At some point I became aware of my habits of thoughts. And they have changed and are still changing. In workshops I do, I’ve seen many people begin to ‘wake’ up and become aware of their habits of thought and commit to changing ‘isms.’
There is a great book (Between the World and Me) by a black father, teaching his son that, because of the color of his skin, he must take care not to provoke policemen — because the officer may have those subconscious racist thoughts. We need more books for all children, teaching us what those thoughts can do to another human.
It’s important to talk about it like we have just now. It helps us check our own thoughts deep down. If we know about racism and other ‘isms,’ we can be more aware of our own beliefs – conscious and subconscious. We can see when someone is being treated unfairly because they are different. Then we can choose to speak up and be a part of creating a world without ‘isms.’ Looking honestly at our own thoughts and beliefs is the first step.
I’m glad we’re talking about racism openly. I want the world to be better for you, Tasha and all kids!”