When I started volunteering at a youth detention center, whose incarcerated population was entirely African American and Latino, I was told by an Africana Studies professor I respected that I should focus on my own community — white people — instead. He said this after I asked whether my presence in the detention center was fostering cross-racial solidarity. Despite respecting his knowledge and experience, I took exception to his advice then and still do now.
My reason for taking exception is purely strategic: I am not sure that a white person can convince another white person to be less racist. This is, in effect, what it means to be a “white ally” in the grassroots left. White allies take their marching orders from people of color, and then reenter their own (presumably white) communities to conduct missionary work in reverse: instead of racist attempts to “civilize” darker-skinned peoples, white allies conduct anti-racist attempts to civilize their lighter-skinned neighbors. This is well intentioned but somewhat misguided in my opinion.
I am a believer in the mere-exposure effect because it worked for me. To give just one example, I studied abroad in China as an undergraduate student and grew so accustomed to seeing mostly Han Chinese people everywhere that, upon my return home, diverse crowds of Americans seemed strange to me. People were larger, louder and more intimidating than ever before.
But Chinese people not only became more familiar, they became more attractive. A similar change occurred in my psyche when I lived and worked in areas with more African Americans than whites.
I am not arguing that racism can be eradicated solely by (positive or neutral) exposure or that racist white people never encounter people of color on the streets or at work — but I am positing that exposure is a necessary condition for abolishing racism. Racism cannot be resisted in the abstract: it must be addressed practically and contextually.
If ‘Racist Rick’ were replaced in his job some time ago by a person of color, and this was his only experience with an individual from said community of color, he would likely remain racist — especially if the media he consumes, the education he recalls, and the friends he keeps cast further suspicion on the black community. He would need a positive experience to shift his thinking.
I met a Palestinian man in the historic town of Beit Sahour a few years ago who allowed me to stay in his home for the night. He told me he opened his doors to just about anyone who wanted to visit — including Jewish settlers who laid claim to his land and denied his rights. When I asked him why, he recounted a story about an Israeli (Jewish) man: a stranger who had given him a ride when he was stranded and desperate.
The man took him to his home, introduced him to his family, and served him dinner. My host said this experience changed him and that henceforth he was committed to exposing even the most reactionary Jews to Palestinians (himself and his family) by hosting them so that their minds would open the way his did. He bragged that he had even convinced a Jewish-American guest to reject an offer to settle in the West Bank out of respect for the Palestinians living there.
My Palestinian friend did not refuse the ride or his potential guests — he did not tell said Jewish guests to go home and lecture their (Jewish) friends about Palestinian rights. He made bold attempts at integration and (willingly) put himself in a vulnerable position in order to do so. The man who gave him a ride did likewise. The context may be different, but the power differential between Israelis and Palestinians is comparable to whites vs. (some) communities of color in the United States. The level of segregation is also comparable in some respects — and it will be more so if Trump gets his wall.
Exposure, however, is not as easy as it sounds given continued de-facto segregation in America. And this segregation is only one aspect of a larger system of racial oppression that most whites are loath to address. That system will have to be dismantled for racism to die, but in the meantime, we should allow ourselves to be exposed.