“You’re being racist.”
Why do some white people react so negatively and get their backs against the wall when something like this is said to us? Why do we instinctively get defensive? Why don’t we instead think about how the person who has called us out is feeling? Why don’t we stop and think about how our actions or words might have hurt another human being?
Is it because we can’t take having done something wrong? What about the person that we’ve wronged? Weren’t we taught as kids to think about the other person?
Similarly, why do some white people not want to talk about institutional or systemic racism? And when we bring up past or current racist failures of organizations or systems, why do so many of us refuse to recognize those failures?
Maybe the answer is that we have belonged to or relied on these organizations or systems for so long or because the organization or system has served our needs and agenda so well. Some people believe that talking about such failures will turn off folks from considering the changes that need to be made. Honestly, I have been one of those people.
You may have heard me talk about my 20/60/20 theory relative to people’s willingness to work on anti-racism efforts: 20% are already doing the work, 20% have no interest/don’t believe in it at all, and 60% might be amenable to being educated. While espousing my theory, though, I’ve been worried that the 60% will tune out if we talk too much about past racist wrongdoings.
Why do I think that? Don’t we need to explore past wrongdoings in order to understand what needs to be changed? Sure, no one likes hearing that they or their organization is doing something wrong. But the only way that we can achieve real change is to recognize our behavior and how that behavior affects others.
I also wonder how I missed so many things before now. For instance, how did I not know about Tulsa or about Juneteenth until last year?
Why did I never learn until last year that an African-American neighborhood existed next to my Washington, D.C. high school until the early 1900s when the government took the land to make room for the then burgeoning white federal workforce and to build my school?
Perhaps most importantly, why did I never take the time to learn about the places that other kids in my high school lived? I knew that charter buses took Black and Brown kids to parts of the city on the other side of Rock Creek Park from where our school was located. Why was I not interested in learning about those other sections of the city back then?
While I’m not sure what the answers are, I do know that we have much work to do both as individuals and as a legal community — especially in our willingness to have real discussions about racism.
Bradley Kammholz is the 2021-22 President of the Monroe County Bar Association and is a partner at Kammholz Rossi PLLC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.