THE BLOG
09/11/2014 10:50 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Tired of All the Talk About Ferguson?

Scott Olson via Getty Images

I am.

But what I'm really tired of is the unfair treatment of African-Americans by mainstream America that is still so pervasive.

I'm tired of conversations about race and racism that go nowhere, or worse, push us deeper into our silos.

Somewhere along the way, I got tired of being tired, and decided to do something about it.

For a couple of decades, I've been exploring my own identity as a white person, and what it means in racialized America. I've been talking about race and racism, and working with others to do the same. I've been practicing speaking up and acting when I see racial injustice, at least sometimes. In doing these things, I've stuck my foot in my mouth, tripped and fallen, and nearly lost my resolve more than a few times. But you don't learn to ride a bike without falling off. And I've learned some valuable lessons along the way.

The following lessons are particularly relevant for white people seeking a starting point to address issues of race. You don't need to be a radical activist to model civility and fairness. You do need to commit to paying attention to the world around you, perhaps in new ways. Here are five simple steps we can all take toward making the tragedy in Ferguson a meaningful catalyst for change.

1. Know your history.

Racism has been embedded in the laws and practices of this country since its founding. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the infamous three-fifths compromise was struck between southern and northern states for determining population, enabling the south to count each slave as three-fifths of a person and thus boost the South's representation in Congress. Laws that discriminate based on race were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court 50 years ago. But the effects of 300 years of discrimination don't magically go away at the stroke of a pen. The cumulative benefits to whites, and cumulative barriers to people of color, created a vastly uneven playing field that persists today. More recently, several major banks have been found guilty of racial discrimination in their lending practices. These practices of the last decade triggered the most precipitous widening of the wealth gap between black and white households since these data have been tracked.

2. Go outside your comfort zone.

The U.S. has become increasingly racially segregated, which means that many of us don't interact much with people of different races. This lack of contact fuels stereotypes, which in turn feeds prejudices. Extensive research on unconscious bias shows that we all have it. And that getting to know people who are different from ourselves goes a long way towards reducing racial bias. Next time you go out to eat, or to the library, or for a walk, consider going to a community different from your own. Seek out opportunities to build relationships across race. When I began to do this, I had to push myself. I was uncomfortable. But this is how changes in our attitudes begin.

3. Don't take it personally.

When we take it upon ourselves to interact more with people of different races, we are likely to say or do something that exposes our lack of understanding. We are likely to upset someone who is the recipient of such words or actions. Sometimes, the reactions feel much greater than the perceived slight. "But I didn't mean it that way!" I've lost track of the number of times I've said this, and walked away confused and hurt. Accept that people may get angry at us, and we may deserve it. And often the anger is about something much greater: the cumulative injustice that a person of color has experienced, throughout their lifetime and for generations. Viewing the anger within this larger context reminds us to focus on the larger context that needs to change rather than our own hurt feelings. If you wonder why some people of color get offended at what you might consider a small thing, watch this video where the tables are turned and similar "micro-aggressions" are inflicted on white people.

4. Hold up the mirror.

So often, when we talk about race and racism, the focus is on people of color as the problem. Racism was not made up by people of color. Forty-five years ago, a national commission charged to analyze the racial unrest of the time came to the following conclusion:

"What white Americans have never fully understood, but what [African Americans] can never forget, is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."

In other words, the real work of dismantling racism lies with white people -- our attitudes and our ability to influence the still largely white-controlled systems that maintain it.

5. Stay in the game.

There've been plenty of times when I wanted to crawl in a hole and leave all this messiness behind. Sometimes I did, for a short time. And I learned that my return is what earned the most respect of people of color. People who do this work understand that it's messy, and that many of us have a steep learning curve. The "test" of our commitment is not that we get it right every time. It's that we pick ourselves up and keep at it.

Remember that old saying, "liberty and justice for all"? We've somehow allowed liberty to overtake justice. Now is as good a time as ever to reclaim the principal of justice on which this country was established.