Choose Your Own Reality
When I was eight years old, I became fascinated with a series of books titled Choose Your Own Adventure. The concept was fairly simple: a basic storyline split into multiple possible plot trajectories based on the choices the reader made. There were usually around 40 possible endings.
Of course, you would sometimes see favorable endings that you couldn’t seem to get to. In my case, the one that captured my attention involved a mermaid. Frustrated with my inability to make the book take me where I wanted to go, I decided to manipulate the system. I backtracked from the page with the mermaid, writing down the numbers of the pages I’d need to choose to get the solution I wanted. That way, I got to read the story that I wanted to read without all of that irritating extraneous information.
I only mention this because it seems to me that it’s a useful metaphor for the way white America talks-or, more accurately, doesn’t talk-about race.
Okay: confession. I’m in the middle of one of those periods of academic revelation that happens when you encounter a huge but undeniable facet of reality up-close for the first time. After spending a few months talking about Critical Race Theory, I’m looking at society differently, and, apparently, talking about it differently, judging by the conversations I had with my extended family at Easter. After saying something that I’ve come to accept as a simple fact-that racism is endemic to American society-in a discussion about education inequity, my brother-in-law, who is smart, articulate, and pretty well-read, commented, “Wow. You are off-the-charts liberal. Are you going to work for Jesse Jackson or something?”
I was a little stunned. I mean, this is a decent guy-good husband and father, conscientious educator-and he dismissed, flippantly in fact, an idea that seems readily apparent when you examine the data. So, I used the data. I countered with the statistics regarding race and home loans, and he dismissed that as well. “So, you’re telling me banks are more interested in being racist than making money? I doubt it.”
That was about the time my sister put a stop to the discussion by sending her husband outside to help hide Easter eggs, but I had learned, concretely, something that had been primarily academic until that point: white people, even when they’re smart, good, moral people, really don’t like to face racism unless it’s in the form of Neo-Nazis or Klansmen. “Racist” is a negative category, so it must also be “othered.” Because he falls into the category of “American,” my brother-in-law chooses not to believe that American society is, in fact, racist. By believing (as many white Americans still do) that racism is a disease carried only by the extremists that no decent person affiliates him/herself with, whites can re-write the story of our nation-our current nation-to suit their chosen reality. It’s not intentionally malicious-I think (as someone who’s in the process of trying to dismantle my own preconceptions) that it’s largely a measure of self-protection. If I, as a white woman, choose to believe that America is post-racial and everyone has equal opportunities and resources, then this is a much kinder, brighter, altogether lovelier world to live in. If I recognize the inequities, then the society I live in is much more complex-and frankly, really depressing. If I recognize my own collection of unearned privileges, I then have to process what that means both for me personally and for society as a whole. If I listen in for the racist scripts still playing in my own head, then I have to admit that they’re there in the first place-and that no matter how far I think I’ve come, the road to eliminating my own prejudices is probably without end.
That’s sad. It’s daunting. And it makes sense that, given the option of choosing which version of reality we want to live with, so many whites choose the one that comes without the pain of that recognition.
The thing is, the only people who have the option of ignoring racism, of choosing the version of the our national story where everyone is equal, are white. Because we don’t live with racism-because it doesn’t buffet us daily-we can rewrite reality, select and arrange information to construct the ending we want.
We can backtrack to get to the mermaid, but if we’re honest, we have to see that there are many, many other ways for that story to go. In a lot of those endings, we don’t get to be the hero-or even the main characters. And that, for a white person raised in culture that reflects whiteness even where whiteness isn’t, can be a pretty unsettling possibility.
Tags: Systemic Racism
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