Columnist Tolley M. Jones: Valley’s covert racism is the most dangerous kind

Published: 6/16/2020 3:53:32 PM

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, a friend of mine changed her Facebook profile picture to a sign that said “STOP KILLING BLACK PEOPLE.”

Immediately, an older white woman commented “Yes, Stop killing ALL people. Sadly, black-on-black crime continues to happen.” Another person countered by explaining that the term black-on-black is racist. Instead of listening or hearing, the woman insisted that she was right.

I read this exchange to my 16-year-old, and she said, “How is ‘STOP KILLING BLACK PEOPLE’ a controversial statement?” She articulated so succinctly the underlying incredulity I and other people of color feel when listening to white people respond to inequitable treatment by police and others. How is this a controversial idea: “Stop Killing Us! Stop treating us like lesser people! Stop treating us worse than you treat animals!”?

But somehow it is.

Black lives matter … no ALL lives matter. Stop systemic racism …. but things are better now than they were before. Stop police from killing black people … but not ALL police are bad.

By refusing to agree to simple, yet profound, statements, anyone who throws in a series of qualifiers to ease their own discomfort is actively maintaining a system that minimizes the responsibility of the aggressor and maximizes the responsibility of the victim. This happens despite evidence showing that these deflective statements aren’t even really true.

“Well they shouldn’t run from the police/commit a crime/question the authority of the officer.” But George Floyd didn’t run. Philando Castile didn’t commit a crime. Breonna Taylor was asleep in her bed. People of color point to continued deaths of other people of color to counteract these justifications. Still, the “Yes, but ...” minimizations continue.

As a person of color who has lived in this area for 30 years, I have encountered a fair amount of what I call covert racism. Most white people in this area would be the first to protest if, say, a truck flying Confederate flags drove by my family and the driver screamed racial slurs out the window. But people in our community who hold positions of leadership and power over people of color actively perpetuate systemic and covert racism.

Schools drag their feet about dismantling their inequity that prevent students of color from having access to technology. School districts ignore people of color’s own experiences with racism in classrooms or from administrators, like the time my daughter was asked by her substitute teacher in front of her whole JFK class if anyone had ever called her mulatto. Businesses brag about how they address racism yet have a staff roster that is predominantly white.

Aversive racism is subtle racism against a particular group by another group that rationalizes their deep-seated aversion to that group; covert racism by white people who soothe themselves into believing that they can’t possibly be racist. Aversive racists often present a list of credentials that “prove” that they can’t be part of the problem. They list their black spouse, their black children, their black friend, or their participation in a committee organized to address racism.

However, when someone questions their treatment of people of color in their position of power, or questions the lily-white makeup of said committees, they get defensive and hide behind their cloak of activism. They wear their banner of melanated associates draped across their chest as a talisman, to prevent themselves from having to admit and address their own choices and behaviors that continue these systems. They persist in their shrugging acceptance of situations that they might be able to alter.

This is the most dangerous form of racism that I and my family encounter. I have heard people in power announce that they are anti-racist while putting policies into place that actively harm people of color. I have seen people of color speak up about specific racist policies at their jobs and be bullied back into silence. I have watched white people in school districts and other agencies affect policy changes they insist are the best for people of color in the area without including people of color in the conversation, or while ignoring their input.

I have spoken about my own family’s experiences of being racially profiled on multiple occasions in multiple towns and noted which friends were silent. We are surrounded by people who are aghast at the idea of people of color being killed by police, but are complicit in other forms of racism. People who feel that they can tell us how angry we should be and dictate how we should express that anger. We can try to avoid racist cops, but we can’t avoid the number of people in this area who help to keep us in our place while congratulating themselves on how woke they are.

Because in western Massachusetts, “Stop Being Racist” is still somehow a controversial statement.

Tolley M. Jones lives in Easthampton with her two children. She has worked with children and families in western Massachusetts for over 30 years. She is currently an intensive care coordinator.

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