MAXWELL: Denial gets us nowhere when living with racism

2/11/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Many people gain great comfort in pretending that racism is a thing of the past, a moot issue, something that only the “civil rights industry” wants to keep in the public eye.

Most white people want race simply to go away without having to do anything substantive about it. They want people like me to shut up. They do not realize that silence will sink us deeper into the mire.

From where I sit, a 55-year-old African-American male with very dark skin, racism is alive and well and is not going anywhere soon.

Denial is the single biggest obstacle to discussing racism and doing something real about it. My dictionary says that denial is a refusal to admit the truth or reality, a refusal to acknowledge a person or a thing, disavowal, a negation of logic.

Indeed, when race is involved, we refuse to admit the truth or reality. We reject logic. What could be more dangerous _ and cruel?

Some of the most honest words I have ever heard about race were uttered by Columbia University journalism professor and editor Sig Gissler: “Race _ it is America’s rawest nerve and most enduring dilemma. From birth to death, race is with us, defining, dividing, distorting.”

Instead of being truthful like Gissler, most of us engage in stereotype and misinformation.

I refuse to play this game _ ever.

Race defines my personal life and my professional life. Each day is a fight to maintain individual dignity. Each day is an experiment in getting along with white people. Each day is a struggle to subdue the desire to strike back with a vengeance.

Few days pass that I am not forced to confront a blatant or a subtle form of racism or racial insensitivity. These slights and indignities _ although small on the surface and which may mean nothing to most white people _ add up to a weight often too heavy for me to carry.

I know, for example, that real estate agents have steered me away from properties in upscale neighborhoods. One landlord once turned me down over the telephone because she said I sounded black.

Store security guards follow me, a gray-bearded grandfather, around as if I intend to steal some trinket and risk going to jail. These insults cut to the quick and ache like deep infections.

If a Martian were to spend a week earnestly assessing the relations between whites and blacks in America, I am certain that he would notice the deep separation between us. He would conclude that race and denial define our national character.

The awful truth is that the findings of the 1968 Kerner Commission report _ stating that the United States was not one, but two societies, “one black, one white, separate and unequal” _ are mostly true in 2001.

Our schizophrenia on race remains much the same as it was in 1968. While we proclaim to be colorblind, we are race conscious in almost every way. Racial profiling, for example, is a despicable form of race consciousness and makes black males hate white people.

White people should not delude themselves about this fact.

I am a race-conscious African-American. As such, I must take responsibility for myself and white people.

Let me explain with a simple example: I walk five miles five mornings a week, sometimes just before dawn. Whenever I approach a white woman on a sidewalk at an early hour, I cross to the other side so as not to scare her. I do not have to cross over. But I do so anyway. Why? Because I am not a fool. I know that many white women who are alone are afraid of black men. Not just any men per se. Black men.

Furthermore, I do not lose anything by crossing the street.

As a black man _ a real victim of racism, someone who wants to survive physically, emotionally and psychologically intact _ I am obligated to manage race for myself and for white people.

I must be smart. I must know what is occurring. More often than not, a white person, who has never been a victim of racism, will be unaware of an instance of racial insensitivity.

As an intelligent victim, however, I must be careful to read situations accurately. I should not label something racist when, in fact, it may be a simple case of congenital rudeness.

Are things hopeless?

Not at all, at least not to me. In my own life, I use each day as another reason to confront my own demons. Writing about race is part of that process. I consciously work at overcoming my racial prejudices. As such, I cultivate relationships with white people who care.

The real key, of course, is getting to know people intimately, being with one another after work and after school. Water cooler chats will not get it. I do not know about you, but I have a hard time hating people I get to know intimately, people with whom I have dinner and drinks.

Things are hopeful if we work hard at confronting racism honestly, if we stop denying racism’s ugly reality and, if, motivated by goodwill, we get to know one another up close.