I’m changing. I lived the first 73 years of my life as a white American in white America. A few months ago, I began to change. I’m becoming an American, just not a white American. One word, but it’s a big change. The change will continue for the rest of my life.
Sometimes I ask myself, “What happened?” It was something like waking one morning with a backache that seemed to come out of nowhere. The backache lingers for weeks or months, people ask how I injured myself, and my only answer is “I don’t know. One day it was just there.” Well, one day in the weeks after George Floyd died, for the first time, I was just an American.
Still, it isn’t as simple as that. I’ll always be a white American – I’ve been in training all my life, and I’ve gotten pretty good at being a white American. Somehow, now I’m both, the white American I’ve always been, and the anti-racist American I’m becoming.
The metaphor that works for me is “through the looking glass.” I feel as though I’ve stepped into another world, a parallel universe. I can step back and forth through the looking glass any time I want. When I awake, I’m a white American – that’s my default world, it’s the world I’ve known all my life. When I remind myself that the real world, the anti-racist world, actually is through the looking glass, then I can be there.
It’s all one world, of course; it just looks different from one side of the looking glass than from the other. What’s happened to me, or what is happening, is a classic paradigm shift. I’ve been seeing the white world I’ve learned to see, but when I step through the looking glass, I see the world from a different perspective. The different perspective allows me to see white America as it is, how it manages a 400-year old caste system that white America created, how it keeps Black America subservient.
Through the looking glass, I see for the first time the whiteness of Cape Cad. Non-white people in service jobs look different to me. Homeless people collecting redeemable bottles and cans look different. The guy at Howard throwing a rock at me looks different. Through the looking glass, I see the caste system at work, the unspoken assumptions that so many of us, Black and white, organize our daily lives around.
It’s exciting and energizing to go through the looking glass. It’s sobering, and it’s discouraging. It’s hard work on the other side of the looking glass, because the world seen from that perspective asks me to do things that don’t come naturally. On the other side of the looking glass, a simple conversation with a Black man requires that I ignore the entire set of assumptions about him running in the back of my head, assumptions that tend to relegate him to second-class status before he speaks a word. It’s difficult to ignore a lifetime of cultural perspective like that, even when I see it for the unjust system it is.
It’s easier for me to live in white America, because it’s easier to live with old habits than to build new ones. Everyone in white America, including many Blacks, have those habits, have those assumptions running. We, Black and white, may understand the injustice of racism in America; nevertheless, our habits persist, a lifetime of learned discrimination persists.
Some of my friends think all that’s happened is I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid – I’ve bought the Black propaganda that Blacks are unfairly treated. By propaganda, they mean something that is misleading or untrue. That’s not it. What’s happened is that through the looking glass I can see that what Blacks have been telling white people for decades is true. Blacks have been speaking to white America from the other side of the looking glass, and the truth from their side just doesn’t seem true from the white America side. For me, one day a few months ago, I saw that truth for the first time, and everything looked different.
Each of us white Americans experiences and thinks about racism differently. There is no single route to understanding race in America; each of us follows our own path. For some, like me, there is an awakening that happens quickly. For others, the path has lead them to their understanding gradually. For still others, white America – the America where the operation of persistent segregation and discrimination is somehow invisible – is the only world they see in the mirror, or ever will see.
All I can say is that the real world looks different on the other side of the looking glass. Black people will be free only when white people see the world from the other side, because only when white people see it will they relinquish the power that keeps Blacks in their place. We each have to find our way through the looking glass. We can find it in the truth Blacks have been speaking about their lives in America. As we find our way, everything about race in America changes.