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People of Color Learn at a Young Age That They Must Be Twice as Good. Now White People Need to Be Twice as Kind

6 minute read
Nolan is Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law. Her new book is Don't Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender and the Body. You can follow her on Instagram and on her blog.

I’d just finished a long evening walk in my neighborhood and was relaxed for the first time in days when I saw the white woman washing her Lexus. She probably didn’t know she was about to throw her whiteness at me like a rock—nor do I think she meant to. I paused to wave as she sprayed water across her soapy SUV. I didn’t want to startle her with my large, black presence. She made eye contact but didn’t wave back. We were both on the sidewalk. I motioned to ask whether she’d take a few steps back into her driveway so I could pass while preserving social distance. My alternative was to step into traffic on a curved street. She rolled her eyes, sighed, and walked wearily into her driveway, making a little room.

Maybe she was just frustrated—as we all are—by how COVID-19 has shifted the formerly straight-forward rituals of our lives, like taking walks or washing cars. Maybe she was tired. Maybe she’d had a bad Zoom meeting. There are a million reasons why she might have been rude. The reasons don’t matter, though—the impact does. And what I experienced was a white person being ticked off by my black presence in front of her house, and exercising her privilege to make her annoyance known. How else could I experience it? We relentlessly teach people of color that their non-whiteness is the most salient, determinative thing about them, and, indeed, lived experience frequently confirms this—of course we view what we experience through the lens of race. (Paradoxically, we simultaneously teach white people that race doesn’t matter and they should be colorblind. No wonder we struggle to make progress.)

The woman’s snide, disgruntled manner ruined my night in a very particular way: it made my blackness feel like a problem and left me to absorb and metabolize her (white) irritation. I desperately needed the peace my walk gave me—the golden grass blowing in the wind, the scent of eucalyptus trees, and the bay shining in the distance were a balm. But peace is fragile these days. Months (decades, really) of witnessing black and brown death, denigration, and pain have me enervated and depleted. It doesn’t take an overt racialized encounter to bruise me. As she stood in her driveway, I walked on with my heart racing and tears in my eyes.

Still, I wish I could speak to this neighbor, because people of color have a golden rule that would be useful for white people, too. Our rule says be twice as good. Starting when we’re children, people of color learn in overt and subtle ways that we must often be twice as good (and work twice as hard) to get half as far as our white counterparts. This adage is a way of recognizing how systemic racism impacts our lives, and it encourages us to keep pushing against it.

I’m calling for white folks to adopt a version of this rule for themselves and their anti-racist work: be twice as kind. This is a way to recognize how systemic racism works in your lives. Be twice as kind, thoughtful, and peaceful to the Black and brown people you encounter these days. Because you may harbor unconscious bias that gets in the way of being kind, particularly with black and brown people you don’t know very well. We see this bias in everyone from doctors to employers, from teachers to strangers on the street, and even in children. And because right now we are the walking wounded. We’re not just that, it must be said. But we are so very, very tired. We’re grieving. We’re recovering. We’re freshly injured almost every day. And it would help to have white people practice extra basic kindness with us even in the small interactions between neighbors, strangers, and colleagues. Yes, we need systemic change, too. But our lives are made of moments (and memories) like what I experienced with my neighbor. They add up.

This rule would mark a shift, and shifts are hard. White people aren’t raised to think constantly of how Black and brown people feel, while Black and brown people are accustomed to considering white people’s feelings at every turn. We make our bodies smaller in elevators so white people won’t be intimidated. We make our hands visible so white people won’t be scared. We ignore racist comments because we are trained to protect white feelings (and because, as a culture, we sometimes act like it’s worse to be called racist than to experience racism). And on and on. Strange though it may be for white people to begin adding extra kindness to their interactions with black and brown people, it’s time for this shoe to be worn on the other foot, too.

A warning, though: the white kindness I’m calling for is not shallow or performative. It can’t be like what I’ve witnessed on trips to the Deep South, for example, where raging racial inequity is papered over with politeness, providing a veneer of gentility to a society still bombed-out by racism, past and ongoing. No, the kindness I’m talking about is an outgrowth of the deep anti-racist work so many white people are undertaking. Along with learning about things like white apathy and white fragility, redlining and convict leasing, and the over-policing and under-resourcing of Black neighborhoods, white people’s work should include a heightened standard of kindness toward the Black and brown people they run into in life. Consider it an intentional counterweight to the unconscious racism that is almost certainly present in your mind and heart. Consider it a version of brotherly love and good citizenship. Consider it a form of reparations, which should be personal in addition to structural.

If this proves impossible—if white people decide they cannot or will not bring an extra layer of kindness to interactions with black and brown people—then I worry for the future of the budding multi-racial movement toward racial equality. If it proves too hard to remember, too uncomfortable to practice, or too strange to get used to, then we have deeper problems than we realize. But I’m hopeful. Most people want to be kind.

Practice makes progress.

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