The premise is simply that the problem is deeper than racism, which “fails to fully capture what black people in this country are facing.”
According to Dr. Ross:
Anti-blackness describes the inability to recognize black humanity. It captures the reality that the kind of violence that saturates black life is not based on any specific thing a black person — better described as “a person who has been racialized black” — did. The violence we experience isn’t tied to any particular transgression. It’s gratuitous and unrelenting.
The use of the term racialized interested me. It caused me to understand what is a common behavior with most of us. We immediately assign race to every new person we encounter, either consciously or unconsciously. Before we hear a name, appraise their mode of dress or behavior, assess their level of education, or even notice the color of their eyes – we determine (that is, assign) their race.
No one ever questioned that the child of a white woman from Kansas, was black for the simple reason that he inherited enough of his Kenyan father’s characteristics to be more easily racialized as black than as white. Why? Because of the old southern “one-drop rule” – a single drop of African blood makes you forever black.
Of course that is nonsense. But the practice persists and we all do it, even those of us who accept that race, while a social reality, is biological fiction. Even those of us who cheered for Dr. King and who voted consistently for people we thought would bring about justice for all Americans regardless of race. Yes, we all do it.
Dr. Ross’s article reminded me of something I observed about myself when I was in high school. I spent the summer between my junior and senior year working in the lay-away department at the W. T. Grant store on Main Street in downtown Houston. (Children, lay-away was what we did before we had credit cards. It was our way in 1960 of doing our impulse buying. But the store didn’t let you have it until you paid for it. At the time, their seemed to be no injustice in that. And it provided a wonderful summer job for me taking people’s payments and running upstairs to the stockroom to grab their package and slide it down the chute when they made their final weekly or monthly payment.)
What I observed about myself was that, at the end of the summer, I could not detect a person’s race or, maybe more correctly, I didn’t much think about it. The city presented me with such a softly blended range of skin colors and speech accents that, by the time my three months at the lay-away window were finished, my habits of sizing people up on first meeting had changed. I was so rushed and focused on meeting customer needs that I had no time to observe or, more correctly, assign a race to each person I met during the day.
That is something that happened to me unconsciously as a teenager. Of course, at the same time this was happening to me in the summer of 1960, America was about to enter into a great struggle for civil rights in the South. Lunch counter sit-ins had begun and a very young man named Cassius Clay was about to head off to the Olympics where he would win the gold medal. We would all become fully conscious of race all the time and in almost every personal encounter.
But I know that what happened to me quite by accident when I was a teenager is something that we can all do willfully now. It just is not necessary to assign race to every person you meet. In fact, it is debilitating to the conduct of proper human relationships.
So, this is the least I can do. I shall to the best of my ability abjure the practice of racializing. It springs from a dark place in our hearts and it provides no classification that is useful in any way and which is harmful in many.
If you do this your action probably will not be noticed by anyone. You won’t win an award for it. But neither will you be pepper-sprayed nor billy-clubbed. Maybe, if citizens model the behavior, it could be incorporated into police training. And if we all worked on that little project together, we might make this a better world for everyone.