whites gotta open up: the willingness to unlearn racism

Yesterday an older white woman came into the bookstore and asked if I was the one who had recommended The New Jim Crow and explained the premise of the book to her a few weeks back. I said yes, that was me, and her whole face lit up and she said, “Thank You! I finished it, it was so enlightening and eye-opening, and has been so helpful now that so much is in the news. I’m able to think from a different perspective!” She said she had been debating race with her son for a while and he always used to be challenging her but now that she has read the book she sees his side.

As she walked away I thought, this is the power of writing and reading and the sharing of ideas. It shouldn’t be such a big deal that she decided to take the suggestion and buy the book. It shouldn’t be such a big deal that she actually read the book, and returned to tell me about it. But sadly, it is a huge deal, because our education system does not address race and racism in it’s curriculum in order to equip rising adults to have mature conversations about it, and the structure of our white supremacist society make it so that if a white adult would like to avoid reading anything written by a person of color or anything challenging white supremacy in general, they can certainly do so. 

The importance of this woman choosing to read the book was even more poignant because just five minutes after she left, an older white man walked into the bookstore, and after a brief conversation about the book he was buying (The Heart of Everything That Is, the story of Sioux warrior Red Cloud written by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin), and after I mentioned that a customer had just raved about The New Jim Crow (naively thinking he was interested in books about oppression and the vibrance and power of oppressed communities) he asked me what “Jim Crow” meant. Yes, that happened. And in disbelief I gave him a mini history lesson. He proceeded to say, “Well, so you’re a young person, so you think the police are horrible and are the bad guys?” and I said I do think in too many instances the police are not protecting all peoples and that it’s not a belief that necessarily comes from me being a young person. He began to push back that the robberies he hears about ARE done by Black men and so the police are not unfounded in the way they conduct business….

My stomach crumpled. I wanted to scream and I wanted backup and I wanted to be alone in a cave and I want to lock him in a closet with a pile of radical books. I had a line of customers behind him. I wrote down two book recommendations and slightly wished I had more time to give him my spiel, though I sincerely doubted whether my spiel would have done anything.

When it comes to pushing other white people to evaluate their own whiteness and challenge white supremacy, there has to be some opening in their consciousness–some willingness to maybe, just maybe, have missed the mark on this one. It is hard to be wrong. It is hard to have a paradigm shift. But I am guessing the woman who bought The New Jim Crow already had an inner willingness to change her vantage point. Without that willingness, it’s unlikely I could have changed that man’s mind, even if I hadn’t had a line of customers behind him. Even if I had had all the time in the world, and felt that debating with him was a good use of it.

This is why the attention we place on our own minds is so crucial. The exchange of ideas only works when it is actually that–an exchange. A reckoning with a different viewpoint than the one you were taught. A willingness to unlearn. 


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