My sister and brother in law have a Subaru Outback. I wasn’t particularly familiar with that make and model of car when they got it. In fact, it kind of surprised me, because the advent of minivans and SUVs had led me to believe that the station wagon – along with my childhood – had largely disappeared sometime in the mid-90s. But there it was, a very handy vehicle; and when my mother’s car was totaled in a horrifying multi-car accident, I found myself driving the Subaru quite a bit.
That’s when a funny thing happened. All of a sudden, I kept seeing other Outbacks on the road. They were everywhere, in every kind of color. I started recognizing different styles, and I started to be able to distinguish between older and newer models. Apparently, these cars had been all around me the whole time; I’d just never noticed them.
And that’s structural racism for white people. You’re familiar with the vehicle you use to drive through life every day, and you recognize what it looks like when you see another one drive by you. You recognize the difference between your version and the version someone else owns; you know the particular dents and scratches that make your car unique. You probably recognize the types of cars owned by your friends and family pretty easily, too.
But there are millions of cars out there; and most of them you barely see and wouldn’t recognize if they passed by you again. You might notice an exceptionally attractive model, or an antique, or one with a distinctive mark or color. But the rest are a blur, and you’re not paying attention to them.
That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Those cars are there, all the time. The manifestations of structural racism are there, all the time. People are riding around with them daily; and you’ve never driven or ridden in that car, you won’t have much of a sense of how it looks or feels or how difficult it is to get in and out of or whether the brakes stick. You might make some assumptions about whether or not it’s a good car by looking at it; but if you haven’t been in it, you don’t really know.
So if you want to understand what its like to be a person of color experiencing structural racism, you have to follow the car ad’s advice: ask someone who drives one. Ask people of color what they go through trying to navigate through this society and its systems. Listen to what they say – and believe them. Ride with them, and see and feel what it is like to get the looks, hear the comments, be followed, be disregarded, be attacked. Offer to take the wheel sometimes: you be the one who pushes back against a racist comment, or pushes to make sure that the voices of people of color are heard and respected, or puts your reputation or safety on the line to defend the rights of their family or friends or community.
There are cars everywhere, and people in them trying to make their way through the world. It’s time to look closer and see those around us.