Changing institutional racism | Guest column

by Analisa Lee

Special to the Sounder

As the newest wave of the civil rights movement in America intensifies, the imperative for white people to do something about it is put before us as an ethical and moral fact.

Every few days, another incident of police brutality against black people is in the news and social media. Many of these encounters culminate in the murder of unarmed civilians. All of them entail the disregard for basic civil liberty, and so many of them begin with the so-called crime of “driving while black.” How will this change? Is it a matter of some “bad” cops going through sensitivity training? Or are those racist cops and the courts that support them a glaring cultural reflection of the larger legacy of institutionalized racism that has plagued America for the last 300 years?

The need to change institutional racism in our country presses upon every single white person as an ethical obligation, because this culture is still owned and operated by the institutionalized racism that benefits us. So how do we begin to change it? One proven way that change happens is initially through experience and feeling. It has been shown again and again that racist attitudes are changed most radically and thoroughly by personal experiences that allow the “other” race to be known not as a disembodied idea, but as real individuals with feelings, aspirations, depth, humor and care. How did the Nazis convince so much of Europe to hate and kill their Jewish neighbors? Through campaigns that portrayed Jews as sub-human, unfeeling, separate from the human race. When you really care about another person, you become invested in how they are treated, and the Nazis knew this.

So, what do we do here in San Juan County, far from the racial riots and open-fire shootings of Dallas, Ferguson, or Detroit? First, we white people do the work to become more intimate with the experiences of people of color. We try to understand what it might feel like to have the police break into our house in the middle of the night, taser our 17-year-old sleeping teenager, and haul both ourselves and our child off to jail (with the taser probe still in the thigh of our child) for no reason whatsoever. And when we sue the police department for this egregious conduct and the police department is found guilty in court, but the damages that we are awarded are $1 (no that is not a misprint), we try to understand in our hearts and souls what that must feel like to be told by the country we live in that we don’t matter.

I encourage white people to first begin educating ourselves about racism and white privilege. Learn, and then begin talking to other white people about it. Lately I have been reading an online thread written by people of color called “What is Your First Race-Based Memory” at www.africanamerica.org. It’s a good place to start. Hopefully when it breaks your heart, it will break it open.

Analisa Lee, MA, MFA, LMHC, lives on Orcas Island.