Let me start with a story that is actually embarrassing for me.
For most of the 1960's I lived in a town in East Texas of about 40,000. I don't know what the racial breakdown of the town was at the time, but what I do remember is that there were two high schools - one for black students and one for white. Of course I attended the white school. All of this was after Brown vs Board of Education but just before our schools were forced to integrate. So I never knew or talked to any black kids in town.
Just a few years ago I pulled out my old high school year book for some reason and started looking through it. I was shocked to see how many black students actually attended the so-called "white school." It wasn't near parity, but there they were!
What was difficult for me about that is that I never saw them. Let that sink in for a moment...I never saw them. For me it was as if they didn't even exist. It is only in retrospect that I can imagine their stories - what it meant to chose to go to that school and why they would do so.
But I have to ask myself how that happens. How is it that a living, breathing, thinking young girl can go to school with black students in the 1960's south and not know that they exist?
The only answer I have to that so far is that it was some powerful conditioning - most likely on both our parts. I wasn't taught just that black people were inferior. I was taught to not even see them right in front of my face. And they were taught to lay low enough so as not to be seen.
There are other examples of this silence and invisibility that shaped my racial thinking. For example, I now know that all around me the terrorism and violence of Jim Crow was taking place - especially as the Civil Rights movement was underway. And yet I remained blissfully ignorant about it all. I heard nothing about Malcolm X or the Nation of Islam or Medgar Evers or Loving vs the State of Virginia or Fred Hampton. I do remember hearing that Martin Luther King had been shot. But that was usually paired with talk about how he deserved it and then dropped.
What I'm still unpacking is to identify what forces were at work that kept me so blind - whether it was to actual people around me or historic events taking place. I don't think it was me. One of my strongest traits - especially as a child - was to be an observer. Instead I'm thinking that this was all part of what it meant to be white in the south those days. Its what segregation and Jim Crow were designed to do...keep black people and their lives silent and invisible.
I'll invite you once again to watch this video of Jonathan Odell talking about his experience growing up in Mississippi.
Here's how he ends:
It's the silence and invisibility of black people in America today, and how that gives us white people our privilege. Its the silence.
Perhaps this gives us some idea of why President Obama is such a threat to racism - whether he talks about it or not. It is impossible to maintain the silence and invisibility when a black family lives in the White House.
It also points the way for those of us white people who want to know what we can do to combat racism...start seeing and hearing.