Columnist Karen Gardner: Change is hard

Published: 4/9/2019 7:00:17 PM

We humans have a hard time with change. We want things we love to just stay put. But change comes in many forms, some just annoying as when our favorite stores like Faces and Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium disappear from Main Street, and some quite painful like the loss of loved ones, jobs or health.

Those last changes are hard ones to deal with, no question. But there are other changes that are sometimes forced on us as well, such as when we, white people, are asked to change after being confronted with our racist biases and beliefs, and when our white blindness is called out and our white privilege is exposed.

This is when we might close our eyes and our minds and refuse to see or hear how our actions and our words may be hurting others. “Change the way we behave? Really, you’re asking us to change? We’ve suffered too,” we say in response. “We don’t see anyone changing for us.” But I see that change must start somewhere and why not with me?

What’s brought this to my attention is a recent experience and its aftermath that have opened my eyes to the pain I have caused. As much as I would like to believe that I’ve worked hard to understand the racism endemic in our country, I discovered that I have been blind to my own participation in it. And the shock of that discovery has led me on a painful personal exploration of where I went wrong and what I can do about it.

As a white person living in our overwhelmingly white community (Northampton, 86.7 percent white, with surrounding towns even whiter — Boston Globe 2014), it’s easy to not recognize the systemic racism and bias that exists in our country and in ourselves. Most people around here look like me and I can ignore how different life might be for someone of color in my midst.

Research shows that systemic racism exists in education, housing, health care, economic opportunity, the judicial system, police departments, employment, and elsewhere. As an example, one study shows that when nearly identical resumes are sent in response to employment ads, those sent with black sounding names were passed over in favor of more white sounding names by about 50 percent.

The story of Michael Abels, who is black, shows how systemic racism can play out. As the gifted composer who scored the Academy Award winning film, “Get Out,” he had previously been unable to break into the Hollywood film business. He was only “discovered” when the film’s director intentionally searched for an African-American composer and that finally landed Abels the job he should have had decades before but for his skin color.

By now most people have heard of the “crime” of “walking while black,” which is all you need do to get the attention of the police in many parts of the country. This racial profiling of blacks has resulted in multiple police shootings of unarmed black men and an incarceration crisis in which blacks make up nearly 40 percent of America’s incarcerated population. Blacks are more than five times as likely as whites to be behind bars.

The thing is, if we grew up white in this country, then we grew up biased toward black Americans. Stereotypes run deep and leave a filter through which we view everything. Howard Ross, the author of “Every Day Bias” tells us that, “Human beings are consistently, routinely and profoundly biased.” And the insidious thing about it is that we aren’t necessarily aware that we are biased.

Working to deconstruct my biases is a step in the right direction, but even when I believe I’m being aware of how much harder it is to be black in a country that came into existence on the backs of enslaved African-Americans, I can’t know what that’s really like, can I? Which brings me to a book I’m reading, “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas. It’s the story of the pointless killing of an unarmed black teenage boy by a white policeman and the torturous path that must be traversed by the black teenage girl who is the sole witness to the shooting.

I had read before that black parents, in order to keep their children from being arrested or shot, teach them how to act when confronted by police: Do whatever they tell you to do. Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.

Being immersed in the life of this book’s family, as it struggles to deal with these issues, has driven home to me how incredibly different my experience has been compared to theirs. I never felt the need to teach my sons these lessons and that says a lot about the state of racism in this country.

There is still so much about racism and its effects of which I am ignorant, but, nevertheless, if I don’t speak out against it, am I not complicit in its continuation? Change is hard, but when the stakes are this high, then change it must be.

Karen Gardner, of Haydenville, a retired computer programmer, is a bird watcher, nature photographer and ukulele player. She can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.


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