She was in the meat department of Hannaford this past Sunday. She sneezed.

“Do you have Ebola?” the white woman next to her asked. My friend is black and from South Sudan, a country in east-central Africa thousands of miles from the current Ebola outbreak. Not to mention that my friend has lived in Maine for 20 years and has not touched African soil since she was a little child.

This sort of microaggression – “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership, such as race, gender, culture, religion, and sexual orientation,” as defined by psychology professor Derald Wing Sue – is almost incomprehensible to me. Sadly, it is often an everyday occurrence for my friends of color here in Maine, and it’s what finally got me “off the couch.”

I am embarrassed to say that I have not written in before now as I have looked on with sorrow at the state of racial affairs in this great country. Of course there is much to say about modern-day racism, and I am no scholar – not even an expert. However, I am white, and this is what finally motivated me to speak.

Racism in America has become such a flashpoint that most white people will not talk about race publicly for fear of saying something inadvertently, or blatantly, racist and thus facing judgment or social retribution.

While I do not condone any acts of racism, I think we have done a grave disservice to the dismantling of racism in our communities by generally avoiding talking about it. The moments when we are publicly talking about race, we’re doing so because another young black man has been killed by a white police officer, or because a white celebrity has been outed as a racist.

Behind closed doors and in our public educational spaces, we rarely talk about race either, unless it is relegated to Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Black History Month and even then, we as white people rarely talk about our role in racism, either past or present. We don’t have safe spaces to talk about race and we don’t teach our young people to talk about race or ask tough questions of themselves and others, especially if they are white.

While I think we must also work toward transforming systemic racial injustice, I believe that justice and injustice start with us and begin (and, hopefully, end) with moments like the exchange in the supermarket. We as white people must start to recognize our unexamined assumptions and think more deeply.

We must start to see that those seemingly minor occurrences, like the one in the meat section, that most white people don’t think much about and mostly brush off as “no big deal” – or perhaps don’t even notice – are, in fact, a very big deal.

They are harmful; small yet powerful building blocks, laid on a foundation and history of racism, that can create modern-day Ferguson, Missouris.

White people need to stand up and start talking, but mostly to each other, no longer letting ignorance or thoughtlessness be a viable alibi. Even if we’re intimidated, uneducated or seemingly uninterested in the topic of race, it is time to start a dialogue with each other.

Perhaps you see the white woman’s question about Ebola as an innocent inquiry into a relevant pressing social concern. While it might not have been the intention of the woman in the meat department to be racist, the impact of the statement is harmful, remaining long after with those on the receiving end.

Not being aware of our impact, not being cognizant of our role in racism and not thinking about race are advantages of being a member of the majority race, and while you may feel fine with that, I worry that if we don’t begin to dissolve the barriers between races in this country, we may face an epidemic far deadlier than Ebola.


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