REFLECTION: “Just Tell the Truth” About Race in America

By: Ray Jordan

“What’s the big deal?”

Overwhelmingly, this feels like the collective sigh of white America when, yet again, black Americans and other persons of color make demands for racial justice. No doubt, people of color and white Americans have a very different lived experience. So, this is where the conversation must begin.

It would be helpful if this conversation happened casually and frequently. It would be helpful if actual “friends” would gather around coffee or a meal to share our thoughts, ideas, understandings and misinformation without the heated fuel of anger and despair. Instead, we too often approach our differences in the wake of tragedy — tragedy which leads people of color, and black people in particular, to trauma and grief that cannot always be spoken (at least not with the kindness and understanding needed for cross-cultural conversations about race and racism).

So, in the wake of the recent unwarranted and unjust murders of Breanna Taylor and George Floyd, what should we do?

At SMU, I have taught undergraduate and graduate courses in human rights and social justice for a number of years, and have led the SMU Dr. Dennis Simon Civil Rights Pilgrimage for some 13 years. I’ve also taught similar courses at UT Arlington and conducted numerous workshops and classes around issues of diversity and cultural competency for the community at large. In each of those classes or workshops, I offer the same sentiment:

Just tell the truth.

Yes, I believe in protest — just this week I was detained by police on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge with my children and hundreds of other peaceful protestors while being tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets. However, protest is the short game and I’m in this for the long haul. So, I ask my white friends and colleagues to simply tell the truth.

Tell the truth that black people and other people of color have a very different lived experience facing painful discrimination and racism in ways white people might not understand. Tell the truth that this experience also includes merited anger about that racism. It is an experience that also includes emotional and psychological pain when people of color are constantly bombarded with violent images of black and brown life being devalued.

I ask that you tell the truth about racism in America: that racism, most specifically white supremacy, is deeply embedded in the fabric of America both institutionally and through implicit bias. However, institutionalized racism and implicit biases may not be as confrontational as the brazen racism of the past, making it “invisible” to many white Americans.

Furthermore, I ask that you tell the truth about one’s own biases: those that are spoken and those that linger in the recesses of one’s mind in ways most dare not speak aloud. Tell the truth about ways in which you have been supported by wealth and family connections you did not earn and benefited from a society that favors whiteness in ways you may or may not be aware.

Lastly, I ask that you tell the truth about the massive and disheartening disparities that exist in communities of color. Tell the truth that most of these disparities can be directly linked to the historic bigotry and legalized discrimination that placed a knee, not only on the neck of George Floyd, but on the metaphorical neck of all black folks and other persons of color. Tell the truth that our country’s wealth was built on centuries of free and exploited back-breaking labor of black folks and, later, other poor folks. Yet, the descendants of the very engineers of our wealth are largely locked out of enjoying the fruit of their foreparents’ labor.

We are all members of the SMU community and thereby a part of an academic setting. This means that we are all scholars seeking to lift our consciousness through the enlightenment of education. I have asked that we simply tell the truth. But if we are unaware of that truth, then it is incumbent upon each of us to educate ourselves. After all, we’re all scholars, right?

For example, I have just finished a documentary and a scripted series, both documenting the women’s movement of the 1970s. Why? I’m a man and the plight of women doesn’t personally affect me. So, what’s the big deal, right? It’s a big deal because I don’t want to be a misogynistic asshole.

It’s also a big deal because we live in a democracy and that requires that we adhere to a social contract. This contract beckons us all to seek the common good. The greater good. Or in the words of Dr. King, penned while sitting in an Alabama jail for peacefully protesting,“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

You may not be black, but what affects me affects you. We, together, are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Black folks didn’t create racism and we should not be solely responsible for dismantling it. White folks, we need your help. Yes, we need you marching, helping craft new policy, speaking out against injustice, voting your values and making things more equitable for those who have been historically underserved, underrepresented and marginalized.

However, before you do that, you can simply start by telling the truth.

Ray Jordan is an adjunct professor at SMU and the leader of the annual Dr. Dennis Simon Civil Rights Pilgrimage in which SMU students travel across the South over spring break to learn about the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

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