A white person, trying to be friendly and reach out, makes a small comment to her black friend about hair, music, politics, any number of things. But since one of the consequences of the racial divide is the majority's lack of contextual understanding, her comment sounds insensitive, rather than engaging. And again, because of this basic ignorance, the she is caught completely off guard when, rather than an enthusiastic response, she is met with outrage. Now the white chick's head is spinning with a mix of pain, indignation, exasperation, and a strong lesson to not to ever engage in racial dialogue again. So she avoids entering into conversations about race, never mentions the topic even among other white folks (who also never bring it up), perpetuating the divide of misunderstanding. What results, is a hostile impasse in which inter-racial conversations stall out: one side feeling attacked and silenced, and the other side feeling, well....attacked and silenced.
There are so many missteps here, it's hard to unpack, but let's try (broken up into a couple week's worth of posts):
First of all, let us recognize that at the root, white folk have the huge privilege of never having to learn about other cultures if they don't want to do so. We can arrange to be in the company of our own race most of the time, we can avoid other groups we don't like, we can access desirable housing within the comfort of similarity, we can easily find news, TV shows, and magazines that only talk about people similar to us (Yes, blatantly borrowing from McIntosh's Knapsack).
The consequence of this privilege is that not only do we say offensive things, but we don't even know why they are offensive. It's a terrible place in which to find ourselves, because the very act of self-education is bound to bring pain to the very people with whom we are trying to reconcile. So why bother?? Maybe it's better to just ignore the whole thing so as avoid further injury to self and others. And this is what many white folks do, forgetting that ignoring a problem does not make it go away.
The result is a deafening silence in the white community when it comes to race. It's not that when we are among ourselves we all sit around snickering at racist jokes and derogatory slurs.* We just don't talk about race at all. Ever. Never EVER. We don't even use the word 'black', and you'd better use a wispier and quotation if you've got to say "African-American." Race is far too contentious of a topic and someone is liable to call you a racist, so it's better to just be quite about the whole thing!
White folk don't talk about racism, so we think it is over. We stay silent, which means we also stay ignorant.
And this is why no white person thinks she is a racist. How can I be a racist when I never talk/think about race!?! Of course, we know that this lack of involvement in the racial world is, in fact, an act of racial injustice. But to the racially-privileged, it feels healthy, post-racial, 'colorblind,' which means we are totally unprepared for the passionate responses we receive in a conversations about race. To those that never talk about race at all, suddenly encountering someone's deep pains and anger about centuries of racism can feel out-of-the-blue, disproportionate, and unjustified.
This is the moment that white folks so often label as "reverse racism." It is the false premise that arises from the belief that we have reached a state of racial equality, and therefore any aggression from POC must be the result of an overcompensation, rather than the legitimate reaction to centuries of abuse that remain unrectified. But denying the truth of this pain and its roots only breeds more hurt and frustration. Not only do we remain ignorant, but in doing so we belittle the feelings of those with whom we are supposedly trying to build relationships. How would you feel in a marriage, for example, if your spouse dismissed your anger and pain as being unfounded? And then said it was all in your head? Trust me, it doesn't work so well in building unity. Part of breaking out of our own silence is remembering not to silence others.
*Sure, you sometimes get the crazy oddball that say something stupid, but that is how that person is seen: as a crazy 'racist.' Not at all like we who are 'post-racial and colorblind' and know better than to say stuff like that...right...
Does 'Intent' Matter?
I Don't Know
Justice vs Reconciliation