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My Turn: To be free from race

  • A replica skull of a species belonging to the human family tree whose remnants were first discovered in a South African cave in 2013 is held at the unveiling at the Maropeng Museum, near Magaliesburg, South Africa, on May 9. The species lived several hundred thousand years ago, indicating the creature was alive at the same time as the first humans in Africa. AP



For the Monitor
Sunday, August 13, 2017

Recently I sat in the DMV waiting for my number to be called so I could to renew my license. Waiting with me were people with different shades of skin from diverse economic, ethnic, regional and country backgrounds.

To distract us from the long wait was an overhead screen displaying a series of slides. One of the themes was the organ donation check off option on the driver’s license application. One slide explained that matches for organ donations are not related to skin color or regional, national or ethnic origin. Therefore matches for donated organs can be identified across the spectrum of humanity. It seems we are one people, worldwide. This simple affirmation concerning organ donation challenges the commonly accepted concept of racial divides and the hierarchy of white privilege.

However, the concept of “race” still dominates our social narrative.

Historically, the concept of “race” was developed to establish a “white race” as dominant. The construct of “race” was from its inception, and still is today, about who has the right to privilege, power, status and wealth, and who does not. It has become ingrained in our psyches.

Contrived racial divides tyrannize us. The white privileged in our society decide who’s in and who’s out, who’s a criminal and who is not. People with dark skin are followed down store aisles as subjects of possible shoplifting. Their lives are at risk when they are stopped for a driving violation.

We read stories of violent reactions to imagined threats from people who do not fit the privileged norm for skin color and clothing. People speaking with foreign accents or Arabic sounding language are feared to be terrorists. Many groups of people are considered untrustworthy as viewed by people with power and privilege.

We have checkpoints at border crossings and airports rife with similar mistrust. Our Congress has voted large sums of money to extend the wall between the United States and Mexico. President Donald Trump has issued an executive order temporarily banning travel to the United States from six mostly Muslim countries. (The Supreme Court has ruled to put limitations on the ban until the court can take up the case in its fall session.) Now he is attempting to revise U.S. immigration policy with rules giving priority to English speakers and those embodying certain values of the privileged. The lesson being learned, it seems, is that Muslims cannot be trusted and foreigners must be carefully scrutinized.

As an elder white male, I live in this world of privilege. I can talk to the police without fear of being misinterpreted. I’m waved through border patrol checkpoints in Arizona. I’m frequently directed to the fast lane at airport security because of my age and profile as a white person of northern European descent. I can walk up and down the aisles of any store without being followed. I don’t have to worry about wearing the right clothes to avoid appearing suspicious or dangerous.

However, in this social paradigm, we are all boxed into a contrived system of purity, superiority and privilege for one particular group. The questions become, how black is black enough to relate to the pain in the cries that black lives matter? And how white is white enough to claim privilege and power? The answer to the second question is, any person with other than entirely white ancestry cannot claim to be white.

The tradition in our society, and sometimes in the law, assigns all people of mixed unions to “races” defined as subordinate to the standard of the white privileged.

The way out of this box is to move into a new paradigm and live in a place where racial constructs are an absurdity. It will be like moving from a “Flat Earth Society” to a global community where there are no “pure” Native Americans, whites, blacks, Arabs, Asians – only human beings.

It is time to embrace a future where people from different cultural, ethnic or geographical origins are free and encouraged to express openly the richness of their languages, cultures, spirituality and historical origins without the stigma of coming from an inferior place.

Of course, while this paradigm emerges, continued support must be given to affirmative action and the Black Lives Matter movement. A growing awareness of the absurdity of racial constructs will serve as a corrective to the white privilege from the old paradigm. Recognizing that there is no such thing as different races of people is a tool to be used to pry away white privilege anytime it surfaces in jokes, fear and social interaction or in access to education, equal justice, jobs and housing.

The foundation of white privilege, like a house built upon the sand, will sooner or later fall. The reality of a common humanity is the way into the future of justice and dignity for all. It behooves us to make it sooner.

(John Buttrick lives in Concord.)