Last Friday I decided to go for a run to Lake Michigan before embracing my inner Dude and celebrating my final Halloween at Marquette.
As I stood by the Milwaukee Art Museum, staring across the water and pretending I was brooding, I noticed a man walking quickly behind me. My hand moved toward my pocket before I remembered I wasn’t carrying a wallet or any other valuable possessions. The man was black.
Moments like this are difficult to come to terms with. Like most people, I like to think of myself as an open-minded and accepting person. I am proud to have friends of different races, cultures and religions. Last year, I spent five months working and studying in South Africa, a country as famous for overcoming apartheid as it is for the vuvuzela.
And yet, the sight of this particular man, who gave me no reason for suspicion, caused subconscious fear.
My inclination — and I would argue most of our inclinations — is to push experiences like this aside and pretend they say nothing about who we are.
But this is exactly what is wrong with the way we view race in this country. We are wonderful at measuring our progress toward becoming a more equal society in terms of our achievement of tangible goals like the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, the nomination of the first Chinese American to a cabinet position during President Bush’s administration in 2001 or the election of the first black president in 2008.
We are not as great, however, at noticing the nuanced role race continues to play in our everyday lives.
Take a study published in the journal Science just 11 days before President Barack Obama’s inauguration. The researchers studied how two groups of participants reacted to a racial insult made by an actor playing another participant.
While the group that was told about the interaction or saw it on videotape generally expressed discomfort and an unwillingness to work with the participant who made the comment, the group that saw the encounter in person was less likely to feel troubled and more likely to accept the participant and disregard his remarks.
In other words, we may be more prejudiced than we’d care to acknowledge.
I am not suggesting the strides we have made as a society are unimportant, nor am I saying there is no point in continuing to pursue racial equality on a large scale. What we also need, however, is to be honest and pay closer attention to what race means in our own lives, whether reflected in the offhand jokes or the prejudices we suppress. As long as we are indifferent about this, the ongoing disparity in employment between whites and blacks and other racial issues that are less enthralling than the aforementioned accomplishments will fail to grab our attention.
As I said, it is hard to accept that we all may subconsciously bear some racism. A story in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book “No Future Without Forgiveness,” however, may provide some comfort.
In the story, Tutu recalls feeling great pride when he was on a flight piloted by a black African man. At some point during the trip, the airplane began experiencing turbulence, and as his seat shook, Tutu was surprised to find himself wishing a white person was the pilot. This is Desmond Tutu — a man who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent leadership in the anti-apartheid movement. If he is struggling with deeply-held racial prejudices, at least we are in good company.
So yes, we must acknowledge that we may be more discriminatory than we thought. But we also must recognize this as a problem we all share and, as the cliché goes, realize we’re all in this together. Because that understanding, more than historic elections and laws, will ultimately be the way we move forward.