We don't know a lot
I may get this wrong, but I’m going to try my best to talk about racism.
This meme. This is why I’m here. It’s not at all going to be eloquent, it’s going to be effort.
I was -- still am! -- afraid to write about race at this moment because there’s really no way I could do with as much insight as Melody Cooper or as much realism as Roxane Gay or as much passion as my Vanguard Public Affairs colleague, Teresa Bingman. There’s no way I can because I’m still learning and I think that’s the case with most people who are like me: a white person who grew up and became an adult always around other white people.
The saying goes, “You don't know what you don’t know.”
In 2020 in the United States, there are A LOT of white people who still don’t know what it means to be a person of color in this country. I should know because I’m one of them. I don’t remember ever having to talk about race. I didn’t have to and it turns out that I missed out on a lot.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager, when I watched movies like “Mississippi Burning,” that I discovered that the Civil Rights era was much more than inspiring speeches. It took until 2016, watching the movie “Hidden Figures,” for me to learn about Katherine Johnson and the other black women who helped get a man to the moon. Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until last year, when I saw the HBO series “Watchmen,” that I learned about the Tulsa massacre.
Instead of having black history laid out in school textbooks as required learning, it’s something many of us have to choose to learn -- and often we’re not doing it until we are adults.
What did I learn about race as a kid? I learned that the north won the Civil War. I remember being an eighth grader in 1989 and having my history textbook open to the chapter about the Civil War and, going through it, the vibe clearly was, “The north won, which ended slavery … aaaaand equality.” I remember thinking, “Whew!” Ohio was ‘The North,’ which means I live on the ‘good side.’ What a relief.”
But that’s not right. It wasn’t right in the early 1900s when redlining was keeping black families from owning homes in my native Cuyahoga County. And it continued to be wrong years later when studies showed those policies created areas of high poverty and crime in Cleveland, the county’s most populated city.
But growing up, no one talked about any of those things. I grew up in a suburb that was 90 percent white and, when I started at a Catholic high school in the fall of 1990, I remember it being notable that our class had a handful of African American students. It must have been less notable the following year when they weren’t there because no one addressed it.
Outside of seeing black athletes who played for Cleveland’s professional sports teams, our family’s television didn’t show much diversity; our must see TV was “Dallas” and “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Cheers.” The outlier was “The Cosby Show,” which was funny and it made us feel good about ourselves because we were watching a show about a successful black family.
To my white friends: We’ve long passed the time for using the “We Didn’t Know” card. We should already know these things because we have seen them time and again on cellphone videos. As white people, it’s up to us to make an effort and to drop our defensiveness when we hear words like “privilege” and “racist.”
We have to start learning about people who are different from us. We’re the ones who need an education about black history and an understanding about the experiences of people of color. And we need to start making sure our kids are learning these lessons in school -- in their textbooks and during their classes. It’s that education and awareness that will help us move from the awful question, “Why is this happening?” and toward, “What took us so long?”
Amy Bailey was a member of the Michigan Capitol Press Corps from 2000-2006. She lives and works in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with her husband, son and an easily excitable Australian Shepherd named Max. Amy's guest column, Something to Say, publishes periodically. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.