by Betsy Neale
Introduction: Carol Taylor is the Social Justice Educator at the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center of the University of Kentucky. Carol is a Black woman who is interested in helping people better understand racial issues so we can work together for social justice. I first met Carol when she came to a discussion on race with members of Lexington Friends Meeting (Quakers).
I went to see her to talk further about race and about what white folks like me need to understand about race. It was a rich, hour-long conversation. Carol shared her experiences and understandings about race and social class over her lifetime and how she sees the social construct of race operating in our culture. She also shared her ideas of things that white people can do to try to bridge the racial divide in which so many of us live.
I have written a short article about this meeting in the December issue of Peaceways. But the article really does not convey the depth of Carol’s perceptions about how race affects Blacks and people of color. I hope this blog post can give readers a better understanding of Carol’s experiences and wisdom.
Carol Taylor is a native Lexingtonian. Growing up in a middle class, two-parent family, she learned at a young age that her experiences were very different from those of most of her peers. These children of color, living in single-parent families or with stepparents, experienced the ugliness of poverty and family stress. By middle school Carol was more comfortable around white people than around people of color. She recognizes now that this was due to her economic class status. But her race was still affecting her life. She was never invited to sleepovers with her white friends. “Eventually I made the assumption that it was because I was Black. People who are part of communities and groups who have experienced oppression in particular ways, that is the common assumption you make, and whether it is true or not, in some instances does not matter, but that is the feeling that you have.”
We’re more similar than different
Early in her career, Carol worked in the child welfare system, where she began to see the racial disproportionality within that system. Working with many children and families she learned that there are more similarities than differences across different identities. “All people want to be healthy and want their children to be successful, and most all of us would like to have more money than we do. But we are conditioned to focus first on our differences, to see people in categories and in particular ways. This keeps people separated.”
Race is a social construct
A central point about race that Carol stresses is that race is a social construct, an artificial category. As an example she cited our president, Barack Obama. He is biracial – his mother was white and he father black African. Although he is as much white as he is Black, because of his skin color, he can’t be seen as anything but Black. This shows that our view of race is not based in reality, but is a socially created concept. This artificial construct affects all people, and permeates all aspects of our lives. Carol noted, “We all pay a price, but the ways it plays out in the lives of whites and people of color are different.”
Racial double standards
Sentencing guidelines at the height of the crack epidemic were a stark example of the differences between the ways whites and people of color can be treated in our society. Black men and Latino men were being sentenced to 30 years for possession of small amounts of crack, a diluted form of cocaine, while (white) people dealing bricks of pure cocaine got much lighter sentences. The difference was not in the form of the cocaine but the color of the person in possession. “If it was a Black man trafficking pure cocaine, he would get a severe sentence.” Nor was it a difference of social class. Carol noted, “Even being Black or Latino and being rich, you are Black or Latino first. Being white and rich, you are still white first. That is the system we live in.”
Carol shared a dramatic incident from her own life. “Like for me, when there is a police cruiser behind me, I can feel a difference in my breathing, and my blood pressure goes up. I’m middle class, and the worst thing I’ve ever done is speeding on the interstate. I’ve never been arrested. But I get scared to death. About 6 months ago, I was on my way to work when I noticed a police car behind me. I got so nervous that I turned off into a parking lot so the police car would be in front of me. Then I thought to myself, ‘I just really did that.’ I was very disturbed by the fact that I felt I had to do that.”
She went on to explain her perception, as a person of color, of the double standard between the way whites and people of color can be treated by law enforcement. “I was nervous that if he stopped me, he’d find something because you can always find something if it’s a Black person, a person of color. That’s the fear. It’s irrational, but he could type up something, and who are they going to believe, the cop or me? I’m Black, he’s a cop. They are always going to believe the cop.”
The stress of living under the double standards
Carol reflects on her reaction to that day. “When you think like that, it makes you do weird, irrational things. I’ve never been pulled over by the police for anything other than speeding. ‘But just the thought of it. We’ve seen it all over the place. Law enforcement gets the luxury of murdering Black people where they stand. Could it happen to somebody white? Yes. Likelihood? Slim.
"Law enforcement is there to protect and serve. To think that the person who is supposed to protect and serve you might kill you is not a rational thought. But it is rational because it’s the truth. And I’m a Black female, so I can only imagine what it’s like for a Black male -- my nephew, my brothers, or even for my own father. That’s why people of color are stressed, because that’s what you have to think about.”
She went on to note how this fear of unequal treatment affects her on her job. “I have to be on time to work, I can’t make a mistake at work, and I have to work 1000 times harder than anybody else, just to be viewed as average as a white person. I have to say yes to everything because I don’t want anyone thinking, ‘Well, you can’t ask Black folks to do anything.’ When you are part of a group that has always been marginalized, you can feel that you are carrying the weight of the world for everyone. It’s not just that you can’t disappoint yourself, you can’t make every other Black person in America look bad. That’s a lot to carry, and it’s stressful.”
Carrying this stress has serious consequences on the health of people of color. “A Black woman with a college degree is more likely to have a low birth weight baby than a white woman who has not graduated from high school. This makes no sense, but when you factor in what it is like to be a person of color in this country, it makes total sense. This is due simply to the stress of being a person of color in our culture.”
Intersection of race and class
Carol returned to the issue of the intersection of race and class. “And then, there are class issues within the African American community. If you grew up in a poor neighborhood and you manage to get yourself out, you have to leave some people behind, and those people can feel that you are abandoning all Black people. Like you think you are better than them because you don’t live in the projects. I went to college so I didn’t have to live in the projects. Sometimes you feel you have to make a choice. Are you still going to be good and have your ‘hood pass and be cool with Black people, or are you going to have them take your pass and view you as some bourgie person who is disconnected from Black people? Even that is stressful. So those are some of the things that people who are white don’t have to think about in that way, on that kind of a scale. That’s part of the privilege of being White. White is the absolute standard for everything. It is the standard for beauty, it is the standard for morals, it is the standard for everything. Everyone else is compared to that.”
“When you get invited to play the monopoly game two hours later than everyone else, there’s not a whole lot of good stuff left for you when you get there – jail and terrible property. That’s it. That’s what you get. That is what makes it difficult to be part of a group who was never really meant to be part of this society from its very inception. Black people weren’t even considered as people at one point in time. They were considered as property. So, how do you make up that gap?”
“And then on the flip side, when you’re white and the world plays out as it does if you are white, it is so difficult to see that it doesn’t play out that way for everybody. Why wouldn’t it play out that way? You go to college, you get a job, everything’s great. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Because of institutional racism, it is difficult for white people to see outside of their own scope because that’s the majority. ‘What do you mean? There’s inequities in where? I don’t understand it. I don’t see that.’ You’re not supposed to because you have the privilege.”
I asked Carol about guilt. “Isn’t guilt part of what causes white people to deny there is a problem because there no longer are cross burnings?”
Carol acknowledged that white guilt is a problem. “It’s part of what keeps people from having conversations. It is telling when people avoid situations where they might feel guilty. ‘I’m okay with other people being uncomfortable. But I’m not going to be uncomfortable and have to acknowledge that things are different for me. You can be uncomfortable over there, but I’m not going to do that because I don’t have to.’ I think it’s unfortunate that white people carry that guilt, but I think that is part of the price that white people pay for living in a society that was based on racism. Racism is in the foundation of our society. That’s the price that white people pay. So, none of us walk through this world without paying a price for it. Some of us pay a much higher price, but all of us pay for it in some form.
“If you improve things for people of color, it’s not that you’re taking something from white people and giving it to someone else, it’s that you’re improving things for everybody. Include everybody and everybody wins, and then we have equity. Then we are judged on the things that matter, like how we treat each other and how intelligent we are. Can a person do this job as opposed to can a Black person do this job?
“When I think of everything that goes on in this world, to have to think about something (race) that is not even real. So much of what we do as a nation and as a society and as the human race we base it off of social constructs that are not real. Viewing people based on something that unimportant is heartbreaking. It causes so much destruction and damage. I wish we realized that we are better than that and that we have other things to be concerned about than the color of someone’s skin. What does that have to do with anything? I’m concerned about the fact that all these people are homeless. That seems to be a bigger issue, much more of a social justice issue than what color skin I have. That should not matter. We should not be assigning worth on social constructs, but that’s what we do. Until we stop doing that we will continue to have to have conversations about it.”
I asked Carol what white people need to understand and do to help heal racial inequities.
Carol urges white people to make relationships with people of color. “You have to have courageous conversations where we genuinely want to understand each other. If we can speak openly about our experiences and perceptions and be heard without defensiveness, we can know each other, and healing can happen. Then we can move on to the important issues like working to end poverty. Poverty does not care what color you are. Anyone can find themselves in poverty. That’s a shared enemy.”
But in order to have courageous conversations and honest relationships white people have to resist the impulse to deny or minimize the negative impacts of race. She discussed several ways that whites often seek to avoid considering the effects of racial inequity or racism.
“In conversations about race, we have to be honest. As the person who is experiencing the slight, if I feel something is due to race, that’s what I feel, that’s my perception, that’s my reality. I think white people sometimes make the mistake of challenging the way people of color see things because white people see it through their own lenses. Like it’s not supposed to play out the same way for whites as it does for people of color – by design. It’s been my experience that this is what’s really difficult about getting white people to recognize issues of racism. If it’s not a cross burning in your yard or someone swinging from a tree, then that (racism) is not what it is.
Carol cautioned, “It is difficult to have good conversations without acknowledging the historical things that have happened. When we gloss over them, it is a further assault on those who have suffered oppression and marginalization. It is a denial of someone’s experience.
“When a person says to me, ‘I don’t see you as a Black woman,’ what I hear is ‘In spite of your Blackness, I still think you are a good person.’ I understand the intention, but people need to think about how that falls on someone else’s ears. A distinction I’ve learned recently is the difference between intention and impact. If your intention is good, but the impact is bad, the person does not care about your intention. They only care about the impact.
“It’s easier to have conversations with white people when they recognize that yes, race does matter, and it matters in ways that white people do not always understand. The privilege of being white allows people to say whether an issue is really about race or not. A person of color does not have that same privilege. So people of color often feel we have to prove that something is an issue of race. If there is a white person in the room who says, “No that’s not about race,” then it diminishes in lots of ways the power of what the person of color is saying because then other people in the room may think it’s not about race. This is a Black person who is always talking about race. Why do we even have to think about race? That’s the privilege of being white, not having to consider race.
“In my strong, long-term relationships with white people they understand that they have a level of privilege that I do not have, and it’s by design that I don’t have it. You didn’t design it so that I don’t have it, but you certainly benefit from it. Some of the most powerful conversations I have had around race are with white people who understand that. White people have to challenge themselves to think about race differently and to see race through the eyes of people who are impacted the most by it. I don’t know that there is a way for white people to understand what it’s like to be a person of color, but I don’t find that necessary. What I do find necessary is for white people to understand is that this world works differently for people based on race. That’s what I think is most important.”
The need for collective action
Carol is hopeful that we will get beyond seeing skin color as significant and all the negative consequences of that. She notes that there has been progress, and sees her own life as an example of progress. “Progress has been made, but there is still so much more to do. We have to do it as a collective, though. It’s not the role of people of color to right the ship. It’s everybody’s role to right the ship. People of color don’t have that power, anyway. And then we just perpetuate the separation. It’s a collective thing, and I hope we can get to the point of seeing that but not expecting everyone to have the same thoughts about it. You don’t have to have consensus, but people working together in partnership, on a shared goal, is a beautiful thing.
In the meantime she hopes that we can talk to each other, listen, and really hear what each other is saying without becoming defensive. “At their core people are good people. No one is born racist. They are taught that.”
The White Privilege Conference
Before I left I asked Carol what she knew about the annual White Privilege Conference, which will be held in Louisville in March 2015. http://www.whiteprivilegeconference.com/
“I have not attended, but I appreciate that it’s happening. You can’t get more intentional than having a conference on white privilege. It’s not sugar coated. For people who really want to understand how all of this plays out in the context of their whiteness, the White Privilege Conference seems the best way to go. Based on my experiences, there are some things around race and racism that can’t be delivered to white people by people of color. The opportunity for white people to explore their privilege, understand their privilege, and learn how to use their privilege to benefit everyone is a beautiful thing. The conference creates a safe place to explore these things. I’m very pleased that the conference is happening in Louisville next spring. Attending is a sign of intent and intent that speaks of potential impact. That’s going to be a challenging conference, especially for white people. To talk about all the ways your whiteness is advantageous while my Blackness is not advantageous for me. How powerful and courageous to have those conversations. Once people can see it from a different perspective and through the lens of their own privilege, then you can get even more work done and build more relationships.
My hour with Carol was delightful. I felt we enjoyed and respected each other, and I learned a great deal from her. She was honest about the stresses and hurts of the racial inequality that persists in our society. I inwardly flinched as I recognized myself and my own biases in some of the examples she gave. And yet I felt Carol wanted us to get beyond that and that she appreciated my interest in better understanding institutional racism. She treated me as an ally. I look forward to further courageous conversations with her.