why you didn’t care, not why you didn’t see “it” (aka racism)

Mark Konig

The first 2020 presidential debate got us deconstructing disagreements in its various forms — verbal, philosophical, ideological, political, experiential, historical, and yes, even physical. We often frame conflict as generative and evolutionary; conflict is change trying to happen. We still believe that. However, discerning the kind of conflict is the difference between self-protection and trauma, particularly for historically and presently marginalized identities.

As a society, we’ve normalized that it’s somehow okay to debate or question someone’s experiences with racism because of ideological or intellectual differences and perspectives (read our original short rant here). We’ve accepted “agree to disagree” as a norm for repairing relationships and facilitating safe spaces, while not fully feeling the underlying trauma of what “agree to disagree” actually means for us, our histories, and our relationships to white supremacy. For instance, can we agree to disagree on how our families — a Black woman and a Southeast Asian woman — arrived to this country and that violence, erasure, and mourning aren’t part of our stories? Unlikely, but people and institutions have certainly tried. As 2020 continues to unfold with small glimmers of hope, (White) people are finally agreeing that racism is real or at least no longer up for debate. Well, some (White) people. 

We (Dena and Connie) have spent our educational and professional journeys dedicated to healing and justice. Fast forward two decades, we’re now processing the emotional impact of watching Whiteness (in its many forms) finally wake up to racism in the year 2020. Let us repeat that: BIPOC folks spent most of this year watching White people (and some non-Black POC) just realize that racism is real in 2020. That heck, we weren’t actually lying about “this stuff” for the past four centuries as a figment of our imagination (and c’mon, we have much better things to daydream about than our own oppression!). There are parts of our trauma that want to respond with: 

“It’s too late now.”
“F@%k off.”
“Now? Where have you been?!”
“Your allyship is performative.”
“I. Just. Can’t.” 

What we’ve realized over these past couple of months is that underneath these reactions, underneath our individual and collective racial trauma is disconnection and confusion because the question we keep returning to over and over again is, “I don’t understand why you didn’t see racism until now. Why do you see it now?” 

We get why White folks are insulated from the real impacts and experiences of systemic and structural racism (#whitesupremacy101). We know the history, the politics, the policies, the institutions, the relationships, and the psychology behind racial insularity and racist segregation, big and small. And sure, we can connect the dots and give ourselves an answer that is complex and robust. But while everything as we know it has changed in the year 2020 (#facemasks and #socialdistancing), nothing at the core is truly different. Racial violence and oppression is what this country was founded on, and if nothing else, that has remained steadfast as part of our national identity. 

It turns out we’ve been asking the wrong question. 

What we should be asking is this: “I don’t understand why you didn’t care about racism/us until now. Why do you care now?” 

And that opens up an entirely different conversation about where we go from here. Because remember, not seeing (and its distant relative, agreeing to disagree) is a symptom of not caring — whether unintentionally, implicitly, unconsciously, or *insert any #bias101 lingo here*. 

[Related tangent: Connie credits “Jig-a-Bobo,” episode 8 of Lovecraft Country, for this epiphany. Tiny spoilers here. Watching the characters of Christina Braithwhite (who is White) and Ruby Baptiste (who is Black) debate over how Emmett Till was murdered and why White people don’t/can’t empathize is unfettered White honesty at its finest.]

So going back to our original framing around disagreements, we stand in what James Baldwin wrote over fifty years ago: We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.

The next time you find yourself “disagreeing,” “debating,” or “agreeing to disagree” about BIPOC experiences and perspectives on racism, ask yourself, Why do I not care enough about this person to de-center myself and let them be in the center of their own experiences? What does my disagreement tell me about myself, my relationships, and the spaces I inhabit? 

And from here, we can have an entirely different conversation.

and, now