The conversation about race relations in America is having its moment in the media, and in a lot of ways, the media is starting to get it right. “We are not defined by the [Trayvon Martin] trial and verdict; we are defined by how we respond to it,” according to The Daily Love. So, how are we responding?
Millions of people are beginning to hear and understand that we live in different worlds—that it’s not right that an African-American teenager minding his own business walking home from a convenience store can be stalked, confronted, and shot, and a jury can conclude the shooting was in self-defense. That if he looks to us like the kind of person who commits crimes, we can just treat him as a criminal suspect. We’re learning, that’s not right (but it happens).
As was speculated in the media, if Trayvon Martin was white—or “whiter” than George Zimmerman—then the case might have been about immigration; that George Zimmerman was the racial outsider and that he was the kind of person who commits crimes and should be treated as the criminal suspect.
What millions of people are starting to learn is that we live in different worlds. Years ago, I was on a “Diversity Council” which a major media company had put together to study this issue and learn how to make the culture more inclusive by recognizing and embracing our differences. The first big lesson we were shown was something called “white privilege”—that being white bestows certain privileges that are so fundamental, you wouldn’t even realize that others don’t enjoy these same privileges. For example, you do not realize that you can be hunted and killed for wearing a hooded sweatshirt. If you are being followed in a store, you know it is so the sales clerk can provide you with better service—you do not even consider that they are treating you like a shoplifting suspect. And if you get pulled over by the police, you assume you can sweet-talk your way out of a ticket; never in your wildest dreams would they drag you out of your car, shove you on the ground and handcuff you.
UPDATE: President Obama just explained what millions don’t understand about “white privilege” to the press corp today.
There are two worlds and we don’t realize that others don’t share our point of view. We don’t realize that people learn to behave in ways that make sense, given their view of the world. We don’t realize how great the opportunity is for the media to enhance our worldview, and that we can—and must—do better.
Switch gears now and look at the reality show Big Brother. This season, racism was brought to the forefront when two white blond female contestants started using racial slurs towards other cast members. When confronted about appearing to be racist, neither one showed remorse; one, a (former) model, responded, “I wish I cared, but I don’t.” Both girls have been fired from their real-life jobs after their employers heard the racist comments on the show. It’s easy to imagine that when they learn their fate they will be shocked to discover that their comments were perceived as insensitive and racist.
And we can’t close this piece without touching on the other racial story in the media: the Cheerios commercial. Much has been made about this commercial in which a white mom and her cute daughter discuss the benefits of eating Cheerios, and then we see that the father/husband is African-American and realize the little girl is biracial. This was so shocking to thousands of people who wrote nasty, racist comments about the video that YouTube had to disable the comment feature. And people on both sides are shocked that other people don’t see their point of view.
Someone asked children about this commercial, to see how they felt about it. What they said, and the look on their faces as they’re told why grown-ups find it offensive will shock you. As one kid said, “I thought Martin Luther King spoke against this and fixed this already.”
And, meanwhile in Chicago 54 people, mostly male, mostly black, were shot and killed while the Zimmerman trial was happening.