Picture yourself as a little kid. It’s bedtime, you’ve just been tucked in and as your parents make their way toward the door to turn off the light, a sudden fear starts to grow inside of you. There’s a tension in the air. You flinch at every abnormal sound: a creak in the hallway floorboards, the tree branches scratching the window. As your eyes gradually begin to adjust to the darkness, the objects in your room that appear normal during the day morph into the unimaginable. Monsters? Ghosts? It scares you to even think of what might be lurking in your room, so you tuck yourself further beneath the warm sheets of your bed, close your eyes tight and wait until the morning comes.
Now, most of us over the age of eight are no longer afraid of the dark, but it’s funny how when we grow up, our fears grow with us. They have a way of manifesting themselves in whatever we’re afraid of the most: our future, our past, maybe even our present. Whatever it is, most fears have a common theme: the unknown.
There is a certain sense of unsettlement when you encounter something for the first time or when you are faced with the task of interacting with something you’re unfamiliar with. And these fears can be harmless, but when your fears involve people who may not look like you, it can be dangerous. The bottom line is that, until we learn to fully understand the experiences of the people around us, the fear of the unknown will continue to paralyze and endanger us.
If I haven’t made myself clear by now then let me: I’m talking about race relations — the subject that 58% of Americans perceive to be, generally, in a bad shape. Opinions on race relations split the nation nearly half, which contributes to making it one of the more difficult and uncomfortable discussions to have. But if just talking about racism is uncomfortable, imagine how uncomfortable it is for the people who experience it on a daily basis.
When we don’t talk about race in a constructive manner we allow harmful stereotypes to perpetuate themselves. These stereotypes allow people to make statements like, “See, Black people live in poor neighborhoods” instead of, “The nearly 21% of Black Americans that live in impoverished neighborhoods can’t get homes in the good neighborhoods due to practices like pocket listing, zoning laws and higher property taxes.”
Like discussed earlier, our fears have a strange way of growing up with us. Kids that once associated invisible monsters with people who don’t look like them grow up to be lawyers, politicians, judges, lawmakers, police officers and doctors that have unconsciously let their fears turn into biases. These biases contribute to disparities in policing, housing, healthcare and many other areas. We can’t afford to be uncomfortable having conversations about race because it implicitly and explicitly influences everything around us.
But all hope is not lost. I found an example of how understanding our differences can help us understand each other in my life. I usually keep my 4C hair in twists, but every now and then I like to wear it out in an afro. On one of these occasions, a classmate of mine seemed infatuated with my hair. Of course, she asked if she could touch it, and in this case I allowed her because I wanted to see where it was going to go. She said how it was “so beautiful” and “so soft.” Then she asked: “Why don’t you wear it out more?” So I took the time to explain to her how wearing it out in an afro every day would make my hair more susceptible to breakage, how it can lose moisture quickly and how protective styles like twists help prevent my hair from unnecessary damage. And that was pretty much the end of that conversation.
Fast forward a few months later and I’m wearing my hair in an afro again. The same classmate gives the usual compliments, she doesn’t ask to touch it (thank goodness), but she does have more questions. What surprised me was that she was asking me different questions, seemingly remembering the details that I told her months ago. And she wanted to learn more. In both instances, my classmate was able to gain a new perspective and understanding of something that we both share: hair. If employers had this same understanding, they wouldn’t be firing Black employees for wearing twists, buns, locs or braids out of fear of the different.
The same understanding of those who look different than us should have stopped a white man from kneeling comfortably on the neck of a Black man for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The same understanding that should have stopped a white man from grabbing a Black man by the shirt and putting seven bullets in his back in front of his own children.
For those who have never dealt with race before, it is going to be hard, but you have to keep at it. Sign petitions, support community organizations and, at the very least, educate yourself on the history of race in this country and how it affects everyone today. Just do something. We can no longer hide behind “All Lives Matter” as a medium for true equality, we can no longer give the terms “peaceful protester” and “rioter” the same value, and we can no longer turn a blind eye to the things we don’t like to see because we are no longer children hiding underneath our bed sheets from imaginary monsters. The morning has come, America, so we need to wake up.
Anne-Marie Atanga is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.