It’s black and white

Bicycling in Southern California is not always fraught with racial issues. They exist, but cyclists from different backgrounds spend most of their time talking about bikes rather than race.

But even though this topic isn’t addressed much while riding, it sometimes makes its way into the cycling community via current events, which are then “discussed” on fora like Facebag. The discussions follow a familiar pattern. Someone remarks that an action (shooting an unarmed kid in the head) is racist. Then someone says it isn’t. And things go sideways from there.

No resolution is ever reached, it seems. The black person remains convinced that the event in question was racist, and the comments of the white person usually end up coming across as racist as well. The white person denies being racist and gets furious at being called one, even as he suggests reasons why black people are “the way they are” or why they are in “the situation they are in.” For good measure he might say “you people.”

This hurts our cycling community, some of whose most successful and illustrious riders are black, and injects doubt and suspicion into relationships.

I don’t think it has to be this way.

Part of the reason we have such a hard time resolving racial issues is because we — and I mean we white people — are not very good at talking about race. Most white people, whether they believe we live in a racist society or a fair society, when they talk about race they talk about black people. They analyze black communities, they criticize, the explain, they give advice, they compare statistics of blacks versus whites, they talk about black culture, and they may even talk about black history. The worst ones will quote Martin Luther King to try and prove some essentially racist point.

This to me is bizarre for two reasons. First, white people really don’t have anything to contribute to the analysis or understanding of blacks. Whether you think racism is rampant or whether you think this is the most equal country on earth, as a white person you don’t have anything to add about what it means to be black. So when you talk about black behavior, you’re already losing the battle of discussing race. You’re talking about something you’re unqualified to speak on, and you’re talking in way that is offensive to the very people you’re supposedly trying to convince.

As a white person, the thing you should have expertise about is being white. But white people are strangely unable to articulate how their race affects their life. Unlike blacks, who seem keenly aware and articulate when it comes to talking about their black experience, I’ve never heard a white person talk about what it’s like to be white.

So the conversation is terribly one-sided, with blacks talking about their racial experiences, and whites talking about blacks’ racial experiences. It’s ineffective and it’s insulting.

How can you start to understand race as a white person? It’s pretty simple. Ask yourself what kinds of things happen to you because you’re white. Everyone’s experience is different, but here a few that apply to me.

  • Because I’m white, I’m not afraid of the police if I’m not breaking the law.
  • Because I’m white, people assume I’m a law-abiding citizen.
  • Because I’m white, people assume I’m hard-working and smart until I demonstrate otherwise.
  • Because I’m white, I can buy or rent a home in almost any place that I can afford one.
  • Because I’m white, potential clients trust me.
  • Because I’m white, when I lived in Asia I was treated well.
  • Because I’m white, when I travel in most of Europe I blend in until I open my mouth.
  • Because I’m white, none of my forebears in this country were slaves.
  • Because I’m white, my great-great-grandfather was a slaveholder.
  • Because I’m white, I’ve always been free to vote and encouraged to do so.
  • Because I’m white, no one ever called me a racial epithet.
  • Because I’m white, I graduated from a good college and a very good law school.
  • Because I’m white, I live in a neighborhood with lots of other whites.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. “Those things didn’t happen to you just because you’re white. They happened to you for other reasons as well. You worked hard, your parents helped you, you’re financially responsible, etc.”

And you’re right. There are lots of factors that have made my life the way it is, dumb luck being the biggest. But we’re not talking about those things, remember? We’re talking about race, and we’re trying to understand its importance for ourselves. How has it helped us? How has it hurt us? Has it hurt us? How has our racial identity been used to hurt others? Would our daily experience be the same if we weren’t white?

The best explanation of white racial identity I’ve ever seen was the satirical blog, “Stuff White People Like.” It was good because it talked about race from the standpoint of white culture — making fun of it, to be sure, but couching the discussion in terms of what white people think, how they are treated, how they behave. Although much of it was silly, all of it was racial without pretending to talk about what black people like, or how black people are, or worse, how black people should be.

It viewed the world from the satirical perspective of how being white shapes our lives. It was wildly successful because of its rarity. Thinking about our advantages and disadvantages from the lens of being white was out of the box.

Unfortunately, most white people take their race for granted because it’s rarely an issue. Instead, they use “race” to mean “other people’s race.” And when terrible things like Ferguson or Trayvon Martin happen, what’s needed is for all of us to try and understand how our ethnicity plays a role.

Rodney King asked, “Can’t we all just get along?” Apparently not. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.



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30 thoughts on “It’s black and white”

  1. Interesting and valid. But probably more accurate if you wrote: ‘Because I am a White Male…’
    A lot of those statements would only cover White Women recently and some still don’t.

    1. We should first stop to consider race if, as white people, we want to isolate (to the extent possible) how race shapes us. Same for discussions about gender. Women are articulate about how gender affects them. Men, much less so. Whatever it takes to get a real dialogue going, rather than the typical white-guy-with-answers-for-someone-else.

    1. That’s the ultimate challenge, to get people to see the other person’s viewpoint. But it’s hard to do in race discussions because white people tend to start off with positions about other people’s race without having analyzed their positions about their own race. It’s like getting angry cagers to ride a bike in traffic. The dream!

  2. I like what you wrote here Seth. My only issue is your grammar labelled Trayvon Martin as a thing rather than a person. I don’t mean to be dickish in pointing this out. But it’s a thing that bugs me because I think it’s important. And it bugs me also because I’m conflicted on these things. Because, I think I understand how Trayvon getting shot by some idiot made a thing, or made identification with a thing, that gets power through identification with Trayvon the person, shot and killed in the prime of his life. I apologize, for writing so much, I blame that I shouldn’t be reading and writing in the morning before coffee and a bike ride.

    1. Nothing dickish about it! I was trying to describe Ferguson, Mo., and Trayvon Martin as events that sparked racial discussion. Let me go back and reword. Hope the ride goes well, and everyone who thinks about these things should be conflicted, because they are conflicting.

  3. I had no idea I was a racist until I moved to the U.S. in the 70s. Let me explain.
    On a trip through Texas I went to a convenience store and a sign posted on the door read “NO MEXICANS OR DOGS ALLOWED”. I’m not Mexican but I am Hispanic and I knew well that the sign included me, so I didn’t go in. But at that time I was a teenager and afraid (today I’d rip up the sign and go in). A year or two later I read the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee that tells the story of the Native Americans from their perspective. Many incidents and reading the writings of Malcolm X and MLK followed and at that’s when it hit me. In my home country we treated the natives (Mayans) in equally or more despicable ways than Blacks were treated here. But I was born into that scene and it took being on the other side to fully understand. An epiphany. Needless to say that changed my perspective on race profoundly.

    1. It’s all about trying on the other guy’s shoes. Then walking in them. Thanks for this cool comment.

  4. Very well written and thought provoking!
    Seth you need to give yourself more credit than dumb luck. I know your humble but I worry about your self esteem NOT.

  5. Not being born in the US mainland, I was a minority as a white in an area, and at a time, where whites were not treated very well.

    Then, I had the good fortune of having Scientologists for parents. I spent most of my life trying to hide that fact. I would hear lots of jokes and slurs and quietly feel humiliated and embarrassed for who I was. I would hear stories about how my older cousins were routinely beat up in school for being “Scieno’s”. Teachers would do nothing. We were white. They were white.

    Later in life, I spent time in Africa, not on a resort, not on an expensive safari. I wasn’t there long but long enough so I got a small taste of the real deal. Racially, I was a minority but, in theory, I was untouchable. Except for when I had that AK47 jammed in my face in the jungle in Mozambique. Had he pulled the trigger, nobody would have ever known what had happened to me.

    I saw the places where Africans chained other Africans to reefs so they would drown as the tide came in. It was the same place where you don’t dare take a single step off the beaten path for fear of stepping on a land mine. I mean that both literally and figuratively.

    I have had gay friends throughout my life whom I have loved dearly. I have seen the pain on their faces when their sexual orientation became the topic of conversation.

    I’m not sure how any of my personal experiences contribute to this conversation. I don’t dare compare my own to any others’. In fact, I think they pale in comparison.

    However, based on them, it strikes me that “racism” is but a single symptom of intolerance. Intolerance is the real problem.

    I think it’s one of the flaws of being human. Caught between being animals and gods – we are prone to confusion. We embody the battle between Darwin and Christ. I offer this not as an excuse but as an identification.

    A problem must be accurately identified before it can be solved.

    Our problem is that we have the flu – not simply a fever.

    Our downfall will be that we believe we simply have a fever.

  6. Very very good writeup Mr. Davidson. We have a word for what you describe. It’s called White Privilege, or as it is known by default: Privilege. Because of White Privilege, opportunities to succeed were never really every shutout of your realm of possibility. Because of Privilege, your parents lived in a neighborhood where Privilege could benefit you the most.

    Unfortunately another White trait of acknowledging White Privilege is to think that we are asking white people to apologize for being white. To apologize for being successful. I never really understand the basis for that argument, because I never asked them to apologize. I ask only to acknowledge that White Privilege exists, and acknowledge that it was a factor in their success.

    Thanks for a great piece today.

  7. WOW. Best article about race I have read so far. Gonna make all my friends read it. Thank you!

    Sent from my iPhone


  8. Great write up. Unique perspective and thought-provoking, as expected. Another example of how pervasive racial bias is with us whites is the amount of myriad ostensibly “harmless” racial jokes we all know or have heard. Try asking any of your non-white friends how many white jokes they know and it will pale compared with the amount we’ve all had whispered to us at some point, any ethnicity included.

  9. Well written Seth and very thought provoking, thank you. We differ on many perceptions about the world and I enjoy the personal conversations we have had about those differences and what we learn in those discussions. We share deeply the believe that it is important to strive to be a good man and do what we can to help those that are in need, no matter their background or orientation. You are a good man, and I am proud to know you.

  10. Because I am white:

    I can go shopping by myself, whether it’s Walmart or Barney’s without being followed or harassed;

    I can speak in public without putting my race on trial;

    I am never asked to speak for all whites or for the white perspective.

    Thanks for penning a thoughtful piece about such an incendiary term without ever mentioning it by name. If more white people had the concept explained to them this way, without the incendiary term, more might actually grasp the concept. Like climate change, just because one is in denial, does not make it any less real.

    1. The things you just listed are exactly what I’m talking about. Things we don’t think about but that affect how we go through life.

  11. I grew up in a mostly white suburb of Kansas City, Missouri in the 70s and 80s. I remember when a policeman who lived on our street moved to further outlying suburbs when a black family moved onto our street. Black people would routinely be stopped for the “crime” of driving while black through the town at night. Being a kid, I didn’t quite understand, especially because I wasn’t taught to dislike people because of the color of their skin. I went to Raytown South high school. On days we had football games, the pep band would walk through the halls playing our fight song, Dixie, and people would carry confederate flags. There were black students at my school, and while I can say that playing that song or carrying that flag was not intended to be racist (we were Raytown “South”), I can only look at that situation through the lens of white privilege. Nowadays, I will argue against anyone who chooses to display or defend the confederate flag. The events in Ferguson over the past week, have made me sad that not much seems to have changed in Missouri over the past 30 years. Or, have they not really changed anywhere?

    1. Or what about all of the Robert E. Lee high schools around the country?

      Things have changed a lot, and many of those changes have been for the better. Others, not so much.

  12. I remember back in my early twenties when a older gentleman told me that there are two types of people. Nice ones and assholes. He said to surround yourself with the nice ones and it doesn’t matter what they look like. Master that and life is simple.

    That was 30 year ago. It seemed like yesterday.

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