Sit Down, Shut Up, and Listen

I can’t take credit for this title. My wordsmithy friend Becky came up with it after our book group read Robin DiAngelo’s, White Fragility (Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism). If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know I’m trying to figure out what to do in this toxic climate to make things better. After lots of hand wringing, I decided to focus on racism and racial justice. But then I couldn’t figure out what that means, exactly. I wanted to do something, save someone, make a big bold gesture. But guess what? That’s not how this shit works.

The first order of business is to understand racism, and Robin does a great job of breaking that down with simple clear sentences. But don’t confuse that with being simplistic. I could spend days writing about just one of her sentences, and I scribbled notes all over the book like I was a college student. Do the kids even do that anymore? What she helped clarify for me was how systemic racism is. If I try to keep it personal, as in “I’m not a racist, I treat everybody equally, and only bad people like skinheads, neo-Nazis, and the KKK are racist,” I’m missing the point, and I’m actually aiding and abetting the system racism by not acknowledging it. That lets it hide in plain sight. If I can prove I’m not a racist by being nice to Black people, it also absolves me of having to do anything to change the system. See how tricky that gets?

One of the most basic things she illuminated for me was this bad math/reasoning I and other people white people engage in:

Bad people = racist people; I am not a bad person, therefore, I must not be a racist.

But if I understand that racism is embedded in our society, then lo, I can be a good person and be a racist! Why do I sound so excited about that? Well, if I can get past my own ego and not be so *ahem* black and white, I actually have a small chance of being a useful agent of change, rather than a dreaded liberal white person who thinks they know everything and can’t own up to how we unknowingly hold up institutional racism.

So what is systemic racism? I described an example a few blog posts ago, where most skin cancer research doesn’t include Black people, but then makes blanket statements to all people about what to do to avoid skin cancer. Another example is redlining. Before I took a class for white people against racism, my definition of redlining was making red marks on a Word document. That’s not it sweetheart.

“[T]he Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created as part of the New Deal. The FHA sought to restore the housing market after the Great Depression by incentivizing homeownership and introducing the mortgage lending system we still use today.”

Okaaaaay, that seems reasonable.

“Along with the Home Owner’s Loan Coalition (HOLC), a federally-funded program created to help homeowners refinance their mortgages, the FHA introduced redlining policies in over 200 American cities. Beginning in 1934, the HOLC included  … ‘residential security maps’” used to help the government decide which neighborhoods would make secure investments and which should be off-limits for issuing mortgages.”

Um, that doesn’t seem quite right…

“The maps were color-coded according to these guidelines:

  • Green (“Best”): Green areas represented in-demand, up-and-coming neighborhoods where “professional men” lived. These neighborhoods were explicitly homogenous, lacking “a single foreigner or Negro.”
  • Blue (“Still Desirable”): These neighborhoods had “reached their peak” but were thought to be stable due to their low risk of “infiltration” by non-white groups.
  • Yellow (“Definitely Declining”): Most yellow areas bordered black neighborhoods. They were considered risky due to the “threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade populations.”
  • Red (“Hazardous”): Red areas were neighborhoods where “infiltration” had already occurred. These neighborhoods, almost all of them populated by Black residents, were described by the HOLC as having an “undesirable population” and were ineligible for FHA backing.

Holy crap! They actually color-coded these things on a map, WTF?

“These maps would help the government decide which properties were eligible for FHA backing. … It was easy to get a loan in [green and blue neighborhoods]. Yellow neighborhoods were considered ‘risky’” and red area … were ineligible for FHA backing.”

Quoted from ThoughtCo.

So Black people couldn’t get loans, and if you can’t get a loan, how do you buy a house? And if you don’t have a house, how do you stabilize your neighborhood and build up equity and assets to pass on to your kids? You don’t. You struggle, they struggle, and their children are still being denied mortgages and a host of other things we white people take for granted. Because despite redlining being outlawed in 1968, the infrastructure of who does and doesn’t get a loan was deeply embedded in the system and persists today. And now we have all kinds of fancy studies to prove it. That is systemic racism.

Once I started getting my head around how awful and  widespread all this is, I felt even more desperate to do something.

And I read the whole book waiting for Robin to offer a checklist, a list of organizations to volunteer for, places to send money.  Something. But that’s not how this works. It order to be helpful outside of myself, you have to know more about the inside of myself. Where are my biases and hidden assumptions about race and whiteness? To that end she does gives pages of books, articles, videos, and movies to watch.

That takes soooo long though, I secretly whine to myself. But you know what doesn’t take a long time? Following Becky’s suggestion. Many of Robin’s examples are about white people sputtering defenses and getting angry. But we don’t need to do any of that to better understand racism and how it affects Black people. When I am with Black people or really in any situation where things are being spoken or left unspoken, I do my best to sit down, shut up, and listen.



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