Can White People Understand African Americans?

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Can white people get to a place where they understand everything African Americans who have been oppressed have been through? That is the main question I have been trying to find the answer to with this project. Martin Luther King is a man who stood up for what he believed in and gave a powerful speech years ago in 1963. In his speech, he talked about his dream for equality and his hope to end racism in the United States. MLK along with other philosophers believe we are all interconnected and exist within an “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (King, 500).

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To find out how other individuals feel about this topic, I conducted an experiment where I spoke with five different people to hear their opinions on certain questions about MLK, with-ness, and diversity. To conduct this experiment, it was important to talk with people that I knew and others that I do not know. It was also important to make sure there was a mix of white people and people of color that I spoke with to get different perspectives. When talking with fellow students and friends, I asked them a set of around 3-4 of the same questions and took notes on their responses. The results I received were all insightful, and doing this experiment helped me to see how different races view these topics.

Before beginning my interviews with people I went online to gather some data on race in the United States. An article I found talked about different facts about people of color and the criminal justice system here in the United States. While reading this, some of the facts surprised me while some others I did know about. Here I will list some of the facts that I found in this article. “According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime” (Kerby). This is a big problem and could be due to racial profiling that occurs in our world today. “Students of color face harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated” (Kerby). This is something that I have never personally seen take place, but have heard about in the news or heard about from other people. Going along with that, “The data showed that 96,000 students were arrested and 242,000 referred to law enforcement by schools during the 2009-10 school year. Of those students, black and Hispanic students made up more than 70 percent of arrested or referred students” (Kerby). Knowing students of color are an easier target makes it hard for them to live an easy life and it is simply not fair. Personally, I have heard about how people of color are given higher penalties for drugs so this next fact was not much of a shocker to me.

“The war on drugs has been waged primarily in communities of color where people of color are more likely to receive higher offenses” (Kerby). While it is known that both races use/sell drugs it is not okay for one race to be targeted more just because of their skin tone. The last fact that I found that was very interesting to me was “Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission stated that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders for the same crimes” (Kerby). To me, it is quite ridiculous that people of color have to worry they are in more danger than white people whenever they are out in public or just living their life. Unfortunately, both races commit crimes, but just because black people are different, they are always more strongly targeted against. Knowing that these problems exist, I think changes need to be made in our world. “Theses racial disparities have deprived people of color of their most basic civil rights, making criminal-justice reform the civil rights issue of our time” (Kerby). I think it is extremely arrogant when white people think they are superior due to their skin color. It is just blatantly rude and puts people of color at a disadvantage in life.

In the textbook, there are many powerful quotes about King’s message to try to reduce racism. A specific quote in this text by King that stood out to me was:

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension of the South is merely a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, where the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substance-filled positive peace, where all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. (King, 505)

Here I believe King is trying to express his frustration with whites who are ignorant towards black people. King wants white people to understand how hurtful their words and actions can be towards African Americans. Overall, King wants there to be equality amongst all races in the world. I feel that today more white people are becoming educated and considerate of everything black people went through in earlier days, but there is still room for improvement. There is still much hate and cruelty in the world, but to become a better world, it is important for all people to learn how to respect one another. Being racist should not be tolerated any longer. In order to grow from the racism and hate in the world, I think as a community we all need to work together to learn about everyone’s different background, understand each other’s stories, and then work together to respect everyone. Once we learn how to fully do this, the world will become a safer place and we will be following MLK’s teaching.

Going into the interviews, I met with multiple different people on different days and asked them a set of questions each. I gave them the option to choose one of the two sets of questions that were provided. Option 1 included: MLK argues we are interconnected and exist within an “”inescapable network or mutuality (500). This condition of with-ness is an idea we observed in the ethical philosophy of Kant (“”Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals”). Both philosophers argue for a foundational togetherness while allowing tensions and differences to be worked among the individual and institutional actors. What does with-ness mean to you? Where do you see instances of this today? Option 2 included: MLK argues that white moderates will have a hard time “”understand[ing] or appreciat[ing] the pain and “”passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed,”” and few still have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action”” (507). What do you think about this statement? Is it difficult for white or black people to get to a place where they can come to understand the passions and pains of a black person, and on that note, persons of different cultural affinities? Why is this or is not the case do you think? While most people chose option 2 and only one person chose option 1, all of their responses were very different and interesting to listen to.

To being, the first person I interviewed was one of my friends who is a junior here at Bryant University. She is a marketing major and is white. She decided to talk about option two. When talking with her she discussed that she did agree with the statement and thinks it is very hard for white people to understand where black people come from due to white privilege. This is the case because as whites, we are the majority and do not know what it is like being the minority, and this leads to a huge issue on how we perceive black people. For any other race, it is hard because every race has their own way of doing things. Since each race is different, white people will never fully be able to understand exactly another race. She believes the only way to understand another culture would be by immersing yourself in that culture by talking with people and hearing about their life/background. Personally, I agree with these statements and think it is important to try to understand other cultures as a sign of respect. I also agree that white privilege is still real in our world today.

The second person I interviewed was a girl I did not know who is a sophomore accounting major and is also white. She also decided to talk about option two. She somewhat disagrees with the statement. She does believe white people can be sympathetic towards black people for what they are their ancestors have been through, but cannot truly understand what they have experienced because they have not been in their shoes. She believes it can be a bit difficult for some white people to understand the pain of a black person and thinks there is a big difference between showing remorse and saying you understand something you clearly could never comprehend. This could be the case because as whites and a different race, we can see there was and still is something wrong going on that should have never occurred in the first place. She also made it a point to note that whites have never first hand experienced what black people went through, and to fully say we can understand how they feel is wrong. Personally, I think her last statement is very accurate. I do not think it is right for white people to say they understand what black people have been through because they are not living in their position.

After talking with two people who are white, I decided to switch things up. The third person I spoke with was a junior I did not know who is a person of color and plays football. He decided to talk about option two. He agreed with the statement from MLK. He thinks it can be very hard for white people to understand the struggles that black people have faced/still face today. He believes to an extent that most white people nowadays were not educated in all the struggles African Americans went through so they brush it off as being “not that bad” or “so long ago”. He thinks there are also some people who simply do not care and are arrogant about learning about the past and everything that occurred before their time. He thinks this could be the case due to white people still having a sense of supremacy from when they were controlling things. Another reason could be because they do not know how to co-exist with other races or care enough about cultures that are not their own. Personally, I grew up learning a lot about history and slavery and even have done research of my own, so I think I have had a good amount of education on these topics. While some people might not care to learn about this history, I think it is a good way to learn about the struggles that people faced years ago.

The fourth person I spoke with was my best friend who is white, a journalism major, and goes to school in Boston. She also decided to talk about option two. When beginning to talk, she told me she agrees with Martin Luther King’s statement. She thinks she believes that while white people understand that people of color face prejudices, we will never fully understand the oppression that they experience every day. This is because we do not live in their skin and have the same interactions that they have. An example she gave me was us, as whites have the privilege that we do not have to fear for our safety when interacting with police officers. She also agreed that not everyone is able to see that this system needs strong action to be eradicated. Many believe that by not being racist, that is doing enough to end oppression. However, racism is rooted in our country’s institutions and will continue to exist until white people acknowledge this and begin to use our privilege to initiate action and change this. I think I agree with her opinions the most. Since white people do not live the lives of African Americans, we are not fully able to understand what they have been through/currently still go through. I thought it was also quite ironic that she gave an example with a police officer since my data on race talked about this as well.

Lastly, I spoke with one of my friends from my communications class who is white, a junior, and a marketing major. He actually decided to speak with me about option one which was able to switch questions around. To him, with-ness means being joint together for one common cause. While there can be a difference in fundamental opinion, which is necessary, incorporate all perspective, those who are working together put their bias aside for the greater common good. He sees instances of this displayed today in organizations such as UNICEF. Through their efforts, different nations are uniting for a common cause that extends beyond their special interest. He also gave me an example of this that included the UN’s efforts in fighting the AIDs crisis in Africa. In this circumstance, the focus is not on political gain, but instead on the humanitarian cause. I thought his answer was very thoughtful. To me, with-ness means being tied together when you share the same ideas. His idea of with-ness ties in with King and other philosophers who believe in an interrelated community.

After analyzing the notes from my interviews with people it was clear that everyone had their own different opinions on each topic. I was a bit surprised because I did think some white people would have said they think it is possible to understand everything that black people have gone through. After interviewing everyone, my results showed that all white people believe it is difficult to understand the struggles African Americans faced in their lifetime whether it be due to being the majority, not being in their shoes, and not having the same interactions as them. On the other hand, when I spoke with a person of color, he talked about how white people purely do not care about everything that occurred in the past or are not educated enough on the topic. Since I spoke with both races, I thought it was interesting to see how different their responses could be. I do understand why the responses are different though. Being a person of color, you are actually living the life of your ancestors and have a deeper connection to the history and culture, while for white people, they are not able to entirely understand what that life is like since they themselves and their ancestors did not go through that. I think it is good that white people try to put themselves in the shoes of an African American as a sign of respect, but they will never be able to thoroughly understand their struggles. While racism does still exist in our world, I personally believe it is getting better. I think that nowadays there is a mix of races in classrooms, jobs, etc, and this helps because whites are immersed in different cultures and are more understanding when they actually hear people’s stories. Especially in school and work settings, we try to come together as one and work towards a goal. Like Martin Luther King had a dream for equality, I also hope that one day the world is able to come together and appreciate each other’s differences. We are all human and I believe we should all learn that while it may be hard for some to believe, no person is better than another due to the skin tone. There is too much hate in this world today and if we all work towards this goal, the world will become a much happier and safer place for everyone.

Like King, Socrates is a philosopher who believes we exist in an interrelated community. Both philosophers believe we all have the right to express our opinions on topics that we are passionate about:

Do you imagine, then, that I would have survived all these years if I had been regularly active in public life and had championed what was right in a manner worthy of a brave man, and valued that above all else, as was my duty? Far from it, fellow Athenians: I would not, and nor would any other man. But in any public undertaking, that is the sort of person that I, for my part, shall prove to have been throughout my life; and likewise in my private life, because I have never been guilty of unjust association with anyone, including those whom my slanderers allege to have been my students. (Socrates, 30)

Socrates was a man who was accused by Meletus of persuading people into believing his teachings when really he wanted to promote the common good. In this quote, Socrates is trying to prove to people that he is not guilty. He also mentions that he would not have survived if he was really guilty of what he was being accused of. He tries to tell them he did not intentionally persuade other people. Ultimately, Socrates does not believe he is guilty of what Meletus is accusing him of. From Socrates, I learned that when you believe something, it is important to try to prove your point and get it across to others. When you are passionate about a topic, you should always fight for what you believe in, just as MLK did. This quote ties in with King because it shows both philosophers believe in a means of togetherness that everyone in the world shares. I believe that King and Socrates are quite similar because they both were passionate about what they were fighting for and did not want to be stopped.

Another part of this project also involved choosing three different people to say sorry to, say thank you to, and someone I wish to forgive. Once I narrowed these people down, I chose the person I want to say thank you to and how they have impacted me. I decided that the people I want to say thank you to my mom and dad. My parents have been very influential people in my life and I owe everything to them. They have raised me to become the person I am today and have made many sacrifices for me. Growing up, I was raised in a Polish household and was always around a lot of family. My parents have made the sacrifice to send me to Catholic school my whole life so I was not always around much diversity. Although I did not grow up around too much diversity, my parents have always made the point to make sure I grew up accepting everyone around me. After graduating from middle school, I went on to a Catholic high school that was mixed with many races. This was a bit of a culture shock to me since I grew up around mostly white people. Although it was a bit different than what I was used to, I never felt that I was better than anyone or that I should be treated with more respect. I soon grew a tight bond with everyone in my class since I had only around 100 classmates and their skin tones did not impact anything. I am glad my parents raised me to not be racist and treat everyone equally. I hope that one day when I am a parent I become just as loving, caring, and respectful towards everyone just as my parents are.

Nowadays we see news articles about black people being shot or targeted due to the color of their skin when at times they are completely innocent. It is disheartening to hear about tragedies like this that occur. When I think about the families of these innocent people it makes me want to make a change in this world because it is not right that people experience tragic events like these. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come” (King, 506). This quote speaks to me and I think it is very powerful because MLK is advocating that there needs to be a change in the world. Everyone should be treated equally and it is not right that white people seem to remain superior. To answer my beginning question, yes white people can try to understand what African Americans have been through, but only to a certain extent because they are not able to walk in their shoes. Overall, from my interviews, I discovered that everyone I spoke with had a different opinion about how white people feel about those who are oppressed, which is a good thing. I don’t think there is one right answer since everyone has their own experiences and opinions, but the fact that everyone can see that racism has been a big issue in the past and thinks a change needs to happen is a step in the right direction. Philosophy is about learning to become a better person, and learning to accept everyone is a step in the right direction to better yourself. With philosophy, it is important to go deeper and find the root meaning of things. This project was not only interesting, but it also helped me to see the different perspectives people have on diversity and race in the world we live in today.

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Can White People Understand African Americans?. (2019, Dec 24). Retrieved from