Some 40 years ago, I was 20 years old, standing in line at the grocery store with my fraternity brother Stuart, checking out our groceries. The cashier finished checking Stuart's groceries, took his money, then pushed the groceries aside to make room for mine. We waited for the cashier to bag Stuart's groceries, but that never happened. The cashier started checking my groceries and Stuart bagged his. When my transaction was over, the cashier bagged my groceries and said "Have a great day." I was stunned and confused about what had just transpired. I had never witnessed such an act before, and still not believing what I saw, I asked Stuart what that was all about. He said without hesitating, "Every day, someone reminds me I'm a Negro." He didn't use the word Negro.
In my 62 years of life, I have never been reminded that I am white. I have never been pulled over for a broken taillight, never been ignored in a store, never had people cross to the other side of the street, never been afraid of the police, never called a racial slur or been attacked because of the color of my skin. Yet all my minority friends can list dozens of personal experiences of racism, both overt and subtle, perpetrated by people who look just like me.
Just because racism doesn't touch us personally, it doesn't give us a pass to idly stand by.
It's obvious that racism in this country is not a Native American, African American, Hispanic American, Asian American, or any other ethnic minority-group problem. It is a white American problem. It is up to white America to help end racism.
And while many white Americans are standing up to racism, clearly we are not doing enough. We say we are not racist, and we may believe in our hearts that we are not, but until we take direct action against racism, we are part of the problem. When we watch hundreds of young white men marching with torches through Charlottesville, Virginia, spewing hate and venom against our brothers and sisters, as did the youth of Nazi Germany, then clearly we are not doing enough to teach our children of the evil of racism and bigotry.
We don't have to look far to see an example of how racism and hatred was defeated by a group of brave and committed people: those who took down Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations in North Idaho. While racism will never be completely extinguished, it can be marginalized in so many ways. Whenever we hear a racist remark, we must respond. Whenever we witness a racist act, we must act. And when we hear the cries of our minority friends needing help, we must listen, and we must stand with them. We must not deny the experiences of our minority friends when they display the courage to explain them, simply because we haven't "seen it" ourselves. No one can say now that they haven't seen it in plain "torch-enhanced" view.
A friend of mine says, "The world is run by people who show up." We simply have not been showing up with enough numbers, enough leadership, and with enough determination to make a difference. This is not a liberal cause or a conservative cause: It is an American cause, because we are all Americans, and we all belong to one race, the human race.♦
Jeffrey Bell worked as a public affairs consultant in the Northwest for 20 years. He is a resident of Pend Oreille County.