Words by Joshua Baerwald
Picture a quaint rural town hosting a pancake breakfast fundraiser for the local volunteer firefighters. The atmosphere is bustling with your run-of-the-mill fundraiser excitement. Alive with the chatter and laughter of the community, it was a success. As my family and I entered, however, I couldn’t help but sense that something felt odd about the setting. After scanning the room, with the recent events in Baton Rouge and St. Paul ruminating my subconscious, it clicked. I pulled my brother close to me, and offered him a challenge: find a single person of color in the entire building.
My brother and I quietly scanned the room, making occasional eye contact with one another to see if the other was successful. It wasn’t until after we had finished our meal and decided to walk around that we found two young children who contrasted a seemingly obvious status quo of sorts through their ethnicity. After an hour spent searching through what must have been at least 200 people, we found that only one percent of the entire group wasn’t white.
Being born and raised in Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the nation, this isn’t out of the ordinary for a white male like myself. From kindergarten to high school, I was raised in classic suburbia. Given the aforementioned circumstances, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I say that our school was a little over 80% white. Due to the racial disparity, minorities were often the butt of the jokes, often treated subpar to “the rest of us.” It wasn’t uncommon for friends to tell the one black friend in our group to relax, exclaiming that he might “go gorilla” on us. The same friend was only half black, so the justification would be the statement that “only half of him would be offended.” Being a straight white man, I can’t say I’ve had much personal experience with discrimination, but I’ve certainly witnessed it, and I’m willing to admit that I’ve even been guilty in contributing to it.
This isn’t to accuse the fundraiser, or the constituents of my suburban community, of any malicious intent. However, there is a certain sense of fear, a sense of discomfort, when it feels as though a large portion of a group is part of a collective body, and the “outsiders,” so to speak, are treated as an invasive species towards that body. This attitude is not typically a conscious one, but ruminates below the surface in the subconscious nonetheless.
I often bring this up when I get close to people who are marginalized, to people who experience extreme prejudice on a day-to-day basis. I have implicit bias. Regardless of my cognizance, it still permeates the deepest levels of my brain, through years of implied phrasing and subtle yet dehumanizing phrases. This may be because, when I walk into a clothing store, the pictures framing models will include one, maybe two, non-white bodies in which to show off their clothes. Perhaps it’s because of the various movies which have been “whitewashed” in the past couple of decades, disregarding accuracy (e.g. Dastan in Prince of Persia, Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek, or Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Maybe it’s because, in the eyes of the society I grew up in, I was told that a young black man who breaks the law is a thug, the man of Middle-Eastern descent is seen as a potential terrorist, and the young white man is a rebel. Or maybe it’s because of the fact that my schooling ignored the struggles that minorities have endured in the U.S. since its foundation. The only history relative to Native Americans that it addresses is the Trail of Tears and the forced cultural assimilation. We discussed Malcolm X in regards to the fact that he was a “violent protester,” but nothing further about his influence.
My textbooks proclaimed the beauty in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, while ignoring the rest of the narrative which went along with the civil rights movement. It wasn’t until I turned 20 that I became familiar with Huey P. Newton, or Amira Baraka, or Bobby Seale. We learn that Elvis is the King of Rock, ignoring artists like Fats Domino or Chuck Berry.
I lived in suburbia, received a good education, and assumed positions of privilege, yet I proceeded to get on my soapbox lecturing minorities on how they should react. I’ve tried to validate or invalidate emotions and reactions to decades – centuries – of marginalization. I never questioned the lack of accuracy, or the lack of attention to this issue in my own community.
It’s important to note the implicit biases which permeate American society. Whether they are conscious or not, decisions are made by people raised in various communities which reflect that, myself included. The reasoning behind these biases can be analyzed for years, but acknowledging them is a particularly significant action. By admitting our own personal biases such as these, we can work towards changing them.
In “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, he discussed a lot of struggle in with his identity, through race in particular. At one point, he put the word race in quotations, and I began to question the etymology of the word, which I soon realized was irrelevant. What was important, however, was the realization that race is not only a noun, but a command. Such a defining characteristic, which distinguishes groups of humans, impacts your place in the run of life. At the finish line stands the implied “American dream:” a life free of worries for prosecution, or discrimination. People in the white community such as myself frequently get head starts. Minorities watch at the start of the race, having to wait until the race’s creators tie weights to their bodies, filled with implications of inferiority.
So to my friends who feel like outcasts, because they are no different than the two children roaming the fundraiser, oblivious to the irrelevant otherness foisted upon them by a combination of society and circumstance: I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the fact that it took me twenty years to recognize this. I’m sorry I spent so many years doubting your plights, rejecting your voice instead of amplifying it. I’m sorry that I couldn’t understand your wish to feel like you belonged somewhere. Most universities are predominantly white; I don’t need a club for my identity. I live in a space where I feel comfortable, and at the same time, don’t have the fears of being marginalized or singled out.
And last of all, I’m sorry that the focus of this – being implicitly biased – still ruminates in my mind. I’ve felt uncomfortable when I’m walking home late at night and I walk past a man of color. The voice in my head pushes me to assume all welfare recipients are abusers of the system, because we all know how easy scapegoating can be. My heart rate rises while on a plane when I see a man with a turban. I’m naturally inclined to prescribe to the “Abigail Fisher” side with various arguments of race relations, such as affirmative action.
I hope it can be understood, at this point, that these are not conscious actions. These thoughts, which sprout like weeds in my mind, have their roots deeply ingrained in my thinking, and have been planted by the society we live in. For years, I was taught that these were not an invasive species to rid of, but rather a flower that my community and culture continued to water. I have started pulling, and the roots are slowly starting to give in, but I’m not the only gardener with this issue. I am sure that there are millions of other Americans with this same problem, in regards to many various prejudiced notions. It’s understandable where frustration may stem from with this, but I cannot stress the appreciation people (myself in particular) have for understanding and patience towards these deeply ingrained biases. I’ve left the community which cultivates these ideas, but it will take some time for me to create a true meadow.