White American children grow up being indoctrinated with the core beliefs that justify and maintain structural racism. They have no idea they are being indoctrinated. In fact, the adults who indoctrinate them have no idea they are indoctrinating, because they themselves were similarly indoctrinated.
- Black people are lazy.
- Black people are addicted to welfare.
- Black people are less intelligent than white people.
- Black people are dishonest.
- Black people are inclined to become criminals.
- Black people’s culture is self-destructive.
- Black men father children and abandon them.
- Black women have volatile tempers.
- Black on Black violence is the real problem.
This is just a sampling. I call these factoids “canards.” “Canard” means “unfounded rumor or story,” but in practical use it refers to unfounded rumors that are old and have unusual traction, unfounded rumors that seem to never go away. Any one of these canards is fairly easy to debunk, if everyone concerned is actually interested in the truth. But what makes these lies canards is that they are not easily debunked. While they seem on the surface to be isolated random nonsense, they in fact comprise a powerful matrix. That matrix supports and maintains structural racism in every area of american life. The canard you hear from your father at the dinner table or while watching the evening news is like a single shoot of kudzu. You can snip the shoot off, but the kudzu does not die. Racist canards work together, reinforce each other. If one canard is weakened by the light of truth, the others come to block that light out.
If you believe your white parents (or teachers, or adult relatives, or the television) did not instill you with these racist canards, you are mistaken. They were instilled with you as surely as they were instilled in me. In a straightforwardly racist household, these canards are conveyed without subtlety, and are generously embellished with the N word. In a liberal white household, the same canards take the form of what we today call “concern trolling.” The home I grew up in was the latter type. If I had ever used the N word, my father would have given me a whipping with his belt that I would not soon forget. And yet that same father (born in 1922) would glibly state that “those people are natural dancers/athletes, you know.”
The canards are particularly sinister because we absorb them and spew them out without question. In the white world, these canards are “common sense,” though in polite company you must of course be careful how you phrase them, and you have to make it clear that you are not a racist. We do not question their veracity, because we almost never hear them refuted. And we never hear them refuted because everyone we hear from is white. All their lives, they have heard these canards repeated by adults they respect. Why would they question them? Those adults, in turn, learned the canards from their own parents, and those parents from their parents, all the way back to the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade in the 16th Century.
The concern trolling you hear from American Democrats in 2015 is simply a variation on canards invented 500 years ago to justify white enslavement of Blacks.
What can we, as white Americans, do to end this ongoing cycle of structural racism perpetuated through seemingly innocuous canards? Clearly it is not enough to simply teach children that all races are equal. If that was all it took, you would not see 20 year-old white college students singing racist chants on chartered buses in 2015. My own generation would be utterly free of racism.
One thing we can all do is make an effort to not repeat the canards. It’s frightening, really, because they simply pop out of our mouths, like a conditioned response, without thought. Like a yawn spread from person to person. Like a “Bless you” in response to a sneeze.
First, we have to recognize that these canards exist, that we have absorbed them, and that they are literally deadly. (What was the body count in 2014 alone?) When we feel one welling up, whether in face-to-face conversation or on social media, we have to stop ourselves.
Stop yourself and ask yourself, “What do I really know about this topic?” If you are honest, you will answer, “Almost nothing.” Unless you have intimate daily contact with a variety of Black Americans—people you will get drunk with, people on whose shoulders you have cried and who have cried on yours—then the only honest answer to the question is, “Almost nothing.” (If you really had such intimate contact with Black Americans, you wouldn’t be inclined to repeat the canard in the first place.)
Think about it. Think about how often you hear white people say, “It’s their culture that’s the problem.” Do you think any of those people saying that have intimate knowledge of Black American culture? Really? Of course they don’t. Don’t tell me about your “Black friend,” unless your Black friend is the friend you call at 4 a.m. when you’re in deep trouble or you just need someone to talk to. Even if that is your Black friend, one Black friend does not a culture make. Your one Black friend may be Clarence Thomas.
You do not know. I do not know. So don’t repeat the canard.
The second and perhaps most important thing you can do is shut up and listen carefully to Black American voices. Not just people being interviewed on the TV, but a wide range of Black Americans.
The horrific and ongoing practice of “racial steering” that keeps American neighborhoods and towns segregated perpetuates a situation where very few white Americans have any genuine contact with Black Americans. But in 2015, “There aren’t any Black people around me! What am I supposed to do!?” is not a valid excuse.
There’s this little thing called Twitter. You may have heard about it. It is ridiculously easy to find a stunning range of Black American voices to listen to on Twitter. As of March 2015, one easy way to find these people is to search the hashtags #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter.
Poke around. Read. Read everyone and anyone. Don’t automatically filter out people because what they say or how they say it makes you uncomfortable. Don’t filter out because you have no idea what the person is talking about. Just listen. (Read.) Resist the urge to rebut, refute, or call out. That “But…!” making it’s way up your throat and out your mouth? Stifle it. Like you stifle a yawn. Chances are, you are just going to repeat one of the canards.
Stifle it, and listen.
And for God’s sake, don’t play “Devil’s advocate.” The Devil has more than enough advocates, thank you.
Keep listening. Keep at least a dozen diverse Black voices in your timeline at all times. University professors, high school students, hairdressers, activists…a genuine range of voices. (There are even conservative Black voices out there to listen to.)
Keep listening, and you will start to see things the way they see things. Or rather, you will start to see a bit of the spectrum of how they see things, because they certainly don’t all see things the same way. But they do see things differently from white Americans.
What once seemed obvious to you will now seem dubious, and vice versa. You will learn.
Keep stifling those canards that try to jump out of your mouth or keyboard. Don’t repeat the canards. Certainly don’t repeat them in front of children. And when you hear/read the canards coming out of someone else’s mouth or keyboard (You should now be finding them easier to spot!), call that person out. Don’t call them a racist. Just call the canard a canard. Challenge it. Tell the person that such canards serve to maintain an unjust status quo. Tell these truths to your children, so that they grow up questioning the canards they will invariably hear from others (and sometimes from you, despite your best efforts).
Kudzu covers the American South and seems unstoppable, but you can kill kudzu by cutting off what they call the “root crown.” The canards that perpetuate institutional racism in America are as pervasive and pernicious as kudzu, but they can be rooted out. It just requires a little effort from a lot of people.