THE BLOG

It Is Time to Come Out of the Closet About Racism in America

07/22/2013 09:03 am ET | Updated Sep 21, 2013
  • Michele Hunt Strategic Advisor, author of DreamMakers: Putting Vision and Values To Work

The Trayvon Martin tragic injustice has sparked a long overdue conversation in America. What is at the heart of racism in our country? Why is the fear so intense between the black and white communities? Why can't we find the courage to authentically talk about it?

I am so proud of our president for calling on us to engage in thoughtful conversations in our homes, churches and communities across the nation. He is asking us to talk about why an innocent young black male has to fear for his life walking home, why he becomes a suspect when he enters a store, or feared when he steps into an elevator -- normal activates most of us take for granted. He is also asking us to go deeper, to get to the heart of the matter. I was very happy to hear the president talk about the need to understand the "context"; the background and circumstances that got us to this horrible place. Context matters, it gives us the framework to begin to understand. We cannot begin to heal and grow without first understanding the problem. We cannot understand one another until we share our stories.

I don't believe in the saying "Familiarity Breeds Contempt"; I believe familiarity breeds understanding. Remember Aesop's fable The Fox and the Lion:

"When a fox who had never yet seen a Lion, fell in with him by chance for the first time in the forest, he was so frightened that he nearly died with fear. On meeting him for the second time, he was still much alarmed, but not to the same extent as at first. On seeing him the third time, he so increased in boldness that he went up to him and commenced a familiar conversation with him." - Acquaintance softens prejudices. (Translated by George Fyler Townsend)

People started to understand same-sex love when their son, their daughter, a family member or a friend, came out of the closet and told their story. Many people's first reaction was fear, which translated into hate, prejudice and sometimes abuse. The more people came out and shared their stories, the less people feared and judged; that put us on a path to collective understanding. That understanding grew to a critical mass resulting in the transformation of our social acceptance of people who love someone of the same sex. Laws across our country (and the world) are beginning to bring justice to people who are a part of the LBGT community and their families.

Most of us can relate to women's rights because we were all birthed by women and many of us have sisters, grandmothers, nieces and female friends. Even with this intimate familiarity, our society did not progress on women rights until women came out of the closet of what Betty Friedan called The Feminine Mystique. When women found the courage to tell the truth about their lives and share their hopes and dreams, society began to liberate women and girls.

The state of young black men in America is a symptom of a large, deep, complex issue that we have been tiptoeing around for a very long time. I believe most of us, black and white, have colluded in suppressing this critical moral, ethical and legal national dilemma. The more we suppress this conversation the worse the problem becomes.

We in the black community have failed to sufficiently share our stories with the younger generation. Like many of my Jewish friends whose grandparents experienced the Holocaust, we did not want to burden our children with the pain and abuse we experienced growing up. We were wrong. Yes, we talked about race, we had to prepare our children for what they would face being black in America. Where I believe we failed is that we did not give them enough "context." We need to share the history and the journey. We need to talk about the great sacrifices and discipline it took to get this far. We need to hold up the courageous hero's and heroines, black and white, that led the way. We need to tell the whole story, the good the bad and the ugly. If we had done a sufficient job of this, I believe no self-respecting black person would ever use the "n-word" -- spelled with "er" or with an "a." Telling our stories helps to mold the culture, passes on our legacy and builds pride.

Many in the white community have colluded in suppressing the true story of black Americans. Beyond the systemic issues like poverty, education, housing and crime, ingrained prejudgments about blacks, lie in the hearts and minds of many people. There are also the more subtle ways of suppression like accusing blacks of playing "the race card" whenever color enters the conversation or expecting blacks to simply"get over it". The most insidious way however, may be the denial that racism exists and the refusal to talk about it.

We all need to talk about it. It is not about blame, it's about understanding. When we take the time hear each other's stories, we begin to understand and understanding opens the door to empathy and mutual respect.

I am a Baby Boomer raised in a time when the leaders of the civil rights movement were courageous, insightful visionaries, who led with their heads and their hearts. Martin Luther King held a compelling vision born out of his deeply held values of love, truth and faith. Many people, black and white, embraced Martin Luther King's vision articulated in his "I Have A Dream" speech -- "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

I took Martin Luther King's vision to heart in spite of the fact that growing up I was called the "n-word" 40 to 50 times a day -- and not just by children. Parents, teachers, and people just passing by seemed to be compelled to shout the "n-word" at my brothers and me for no apparent reason. We were often the only black family living where we were stationed because part of my father's job was to help bring racial harmony to the troops on military bases in the 50's and 60's. Overt racism and abuse was a part of my daily life growing up in Alaska, Arizona and Kentucky. Fortunately, dad and mom taught us to never hate. They reminded us every morning to love and to pity those who choose hate and ignorance; most important, they taught us to love ourselves -- it worked. That's what I call leadership.

In 1968, my father produced a record entitled I Am An American in response to the state our country was in at that time. The country was reeling from the 1967 race riots, Martin Luther King was assassinated that year (and Bobby Kennedy the following year) and the country was deeply divided. My father wanted to do his part to pull people together, as he had done the 27 years he worked helping to bring racial harmony to the United States Military. The last stanza on his record goes like this

Now if America is not what it could be - let you, and you and you and me, join together and make it what it should be. And then we can say as that grand old song says - In the streets and in the homes and even in crowded places, you can shout wherever you may be. - I AM AN AMERICAN!

Let's come out of the closet about racism and work together to help realize the American dream. As Martin Luther King so eloquently put it :

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men (and women) are created equal.