Recently, in liberal, enlightened Ann Arbor, at a home accessory store, I was in the checkout line behind an older black couple. The cashier asked the man for ID as he paid with a credit card. She took my credit card without question. I noticed this small difference, but didn't ask the clerk why she made the distinction. I didn't invite the clerk into conversation about racism and stereotypes. I was silent.
Last week, Sen. Barack Obama asked Americans to acknowledge racism's divisive presence and enduring impact in our society and individual lives, and to join a conversation. He invited us to participate in a process of reconciliation.
Accepting Obama's invitation to discuss race and racism in America requires reflection about privilege and "otherness," cultural constructs that rationalize and maintain systemic injustice. Now, let's talk. What are your experiences of privilege and prejudice? What are you doing to help bring forth policies to improve equality?
According to George M. Fredrickson, a historian who specialized in racism and white supremacy, "Racism exists when one ethnic group or historical collectivity dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate another on the basis of differences that it believes are hereditary and unalterable."
Obama tried to illustrate that racism is the complex product of a historical process that is still unfolding. And that we are all participants regardless of our depth or lack of self-awareness. We can't disavow or disown each other even when our views are repugnant because we are ultimately aiming to become We.