Racial relations and identity politics have been at the center of American life since the Revolution, when most of our founders knew slavery was an abhorrent attack on humanity, but did nothing to end the institution for fear of the political and practical consequences. This inaction along with other missed opportunities allowed us to barrel down the road, ultimately landing where we are now—in a fog of racial misinformation, half-truths and muted history. It’s become commonplace to believe that our race problems were “solved” in the 1960s and that it only takes one particular generation of Americans to die off in order for us to be rid of racism forever.
Of course we know this is ridiculous. One look at Twitter and anyone can find a barrage of hoaxes about violence at showings of Black Panther around the country1. Young people blatantly lying online to spread fear and disgust about a predominantly Black superhero movie and the people who are excited to see it. Even in situations as blatant as this people often stretch themselves into pretzels pondering whether or not these motives are racist. We have somehow gotten to the point where unless there is an actively burning cross in the immediate area, we hesitate to call bigotry by its name.
I personally believe this is because we have sugarcoated our nation’s ugliest deeds and pretended they are in a distant past. So far away in fact that they have no bearing on our lives today. Think about this for a moment. We’re coming out of Black History Month, and I’m sure if you posed the question to your kids they couldn’t tell you the significance of the Edmond Pettus Bridge, Ruby Bridges, John Lewis or anyone not in the cookie-cutter elementary school Black History lesson our children are given for one part of one day, once a year. History is not just what happened long ago, history is what’s happening right now, it’s alive, we’re breathing it in and it’s being taken down for permanent record.
Look, I want to make this clear. I’m not just speaking on the H&M controversy, or Black Panther, or Laura Ingram telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble:” I’m talking about anything along those lines, including the open and blatant racism of our current president. There’s a lot of ugly stuff in our society that too many people try and turn a blind eye to. Doing, or saying, or feeling something prejudiced doesn't make you a bad person automatically. It's how you address that behavior. If you had racial biases at one point in your life, but learned better and did better that's great! Really, that's the whole point of living and growing. No one comes out the womb perfect, the point is to address your mistakes and improve.
I have a simple request for you. Don’t be afraid to ask uncomfortable questions. You absolutely cannot be afraid. You have friends out there. If you don’t think you do, I will be your friend. Ask someone you trust privately if you’re unsure about something—Hell you can ask me. You’d be surprised how many people already do this. When things are asked openly and honestly, people are often an open book. Remember no one owes you anything, but there is much to be said for respectful and honest dialogue.
I’d also ask you to remember this.
Black people are not a monolith. We don’t have a hive mind. We do however have a lot of shared experiences because of how our world is. Just because one or a few black people want to maintain the status quo does not mean they speak for everyone darker than a Twix wrapper.
In the case of H&M, consider that before an ad goes out there are dozens of eyes looking over the product. It's damn near impossible that every one of them is THAT dense and ignorant of world history and the people around them. Honestly, you'd really have to be under a rock for a damn long time and have zero black people around you in any substantive capacity. Not just in work but it in life. If that's the case, it's very troubling. Think about how isolated from other people you’d have to be to be that oblivious. No one would think to have a Jewish kid in a yarmulke and a t-shirt that says “Sweetest Cookie In The Oven.” You immediately know why that’s wrong. It was bad. It doesn't make them evil. It was a racist image and connotation. It doesn't make them Klansmen. It means they need to pull it, apologize and move on without repeating the mistakes. Folks need to stop making excuses for bad behavior.
This is another case for more minority representation in gatekeeper positions in business. If you are consistently isolated from any sort of diversity, you’ll keep getting yourself into trouble in a diverse world. It’s not just about being “PC” or “overly sensitive.” You’re playing with your business, and ultimately with your money.
Many people in this country have been conditioned to believe that racism is an American-made product and that something can only be racist if it's filled with or inspired by hatred. That's not the case. Subconscious bias is a massive part of racism. Cultural bias. Insensitivity. This stuff exists outside of the US and anti-black sentiments are global. Cracking down on nonsense like this is the only way to stop people from hiding behind a facade of innocence because other white people are conditioned to continuously give them the benefit of the doubt. That time has to end. We need to have these hard conversations instead of brushing it under the rug and saying "I'm sure they didn't mean it that way, everything's fine" and allowing the status quo to persist.
It’s not your place to tell Black people how to feel about racist imagery. If you have no idea what it’s like to be Black in America, don’t try and speak on it. It’s that easy. Also, this goes for Charlottesville, the anthem protests, dozens of anchors on Fox News, and the H&M backlash…
Just because people being legitimately upset by blatant racism makes you uncomfortable, it doesn't mean they have to shut up or that they're wrong. It just makes you a squeamish person. We don’t have time for you to be squeamish if we’re going to accomplish our larger goals together. Reach out. Ask questions. Get better. If there’s one thing I can challenge you to do this month it’s talk to someone different than you. Really talk. If it’s someone you can trust I implore you to dig deep. If you don’t have anyone, I encourage you to make a friend. Bigotry cannot survive real contact. Log off and get out into the world for a bit. Let’s talk to each other.
Willis Gordon is a musician, stand up comedian, actor, author, essayist, activist, and veteran of the War on Terror. Gordon is committed to quality entertainment and the improvement of our communities through art, action, and inclusion. He organized the “Rock the Block” voter registration concert in 2016, and continues to register voters and fight for civil rights across Stark County. He is the author of The Long Road Home and The Empty Boulevards. His live album, Willis Gordon: Live! is available anywhere you stream music. He wrote the monthly column "The Road Forward: Practical Discussions on Seeking a Better World" for Unlikely Stories Mark V.