How much of what we automatically celebrate really merits celebration?
In a few days we’ll be celebrating the 4th of July, the founding of the United States of America. Surely that’s not a problematic holiday?
Weeeeelllllllll….the Declaration of Independence our Founding Fathers signed on July 4, 1776 remained silent about the enslavement of Black people—a practice begun in this hemisphere by Christopher Columbus, by the way, who enslaved indigenous people in Barbados and instituted “barbaric forms of punishment, including torture” when he served as governor of Hispaniola. Somehow, they didn’t teach us that in elementary school.
England and Europe had already outlawed the practice of enslaving human beings when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence—and, despite the fact that he “owned” enslaved people himself, his first draft condemned the practice. The Continental Congress removed that section, in exchange for votes from the colonies whose economies depended on slavery—not all of which were in the South.
Understand the past, change the future
Today, Black Americans still contend with the effects of this shameful history: how many nonviolent white people get killed by the police? And the judicial system is not the only aspect of our society that’s been shaped by centuries of reduced economic, educational, medical, and social opportunities for Black people. Or, if you’d like a more concise way of putting that, by Institutionalized Racism.
Recently, more white Americans are coming to terms with how we have perpetuated (and perhaps are continuing to perpetuate) Institutionalized Racism.
Sometimes we do it unconsciously, like by not thinking too hard about why the junior white guy got that promotion instead of the more experienced Black person. After all, if we think about it, we might have to speak up.
Or by hearing a middle-aged Black friend talk about being followed by security in a store and saying, “That happened to me a lot when I was a teenager.”
Or by ignoring a white person making a scene in a grocery store or on a sidewalk or in a park when a Black person asks them politely to follow the rules. Walking away in those situations is a privilege, one our Black neighbors do not have.
It’s easier to think about unconscious racism, because its evil twin—conscious, active racism—is an absolute stain on humanity. We have to root that out like the invasive weed it is.
Racism has a hell of a head start on us—400 years, 500 years, more—so it’s not going to disappear quickly. But with diligence and commitment, we can eradicate it. And by “we,” I mean white people. We’re the ones who invented it, after all; we have to take the lead in dismantling it.
A new holiday tradition: study racism
So as you kick back on this 4th of July, think about adding a new tradition to your holiday festivities. Celebrate our freedom as a country, sure. But remember that the Declaration of Independence didn’t free all of us.
In between burgers and fireworks and red-white-and-blue desserts, take a few minutes to think about how unconscious racism might surface in your life.
- Have I ever failed to acknowledge a Black person in the room?
- Have I ever interrupted a Black person who was speaking?
- Have I ever claimed that my experience as a white person was similar to a Black person’s?
- Do I take the opportunity to amplify good ideas offered by Black people?
- Do I devote a little time—even 5 minutes a day—to learning more about Black people’s experiences?
This exercise is not about making white people feel guilty. In my opinion, guilt is a totally unproductive emotion. The past is the past—focus on the present and on the future:
What will I do to understand the effects of institutionalized racism better tomorrow than I do today?