Our Different Realities

On this Martin Luther King Day, I acknowledge a truth. The years of us white folks embedding racism in American society has warped our perception. We whites see different realities from Black folk, every day, day-by-day. If I’m inside the white community, I experience life in America differently than those who aren’t.

How Different Realities Came to Be

For centuries, white folks worked overtime to create these two different realities. We did it with laws and customs. Covenants and billboards. Jokes. Tone policing and real policing. Violence. And movies and TV and myths and whatever else we had at our disposal. We counted on never having to see the different Black reality because we were in charge—we only had to see our reality. 

In contrast, to survive in the dominant world, Black folk had to see both realities. They had to understand their reality and the white reality and to see both. (The “double-consciousness” of W.E.B. Du Bois). So we have a situation with two different expectations of what is real in America. And, for the most part, white folks only see their own. 

The Prognosis for Different Realities

Sometimes in small, fleeting moments, I catch a glimpse through the scrim. I can see how the way I see defines what I see. But it’s really hard because science tells us our brain aren’t cameras. They’re predictors. Our brains see as reality what they expect to see. That expectation is based on past learnings. So to see a reality other than the one our lived lives lead us to expect involves an active battle against our brains. And our brains usually win.

In other words, we dug the hole, we fell in. 

Here’s the fear: now that we liberal white folks want to understand Black folk’s reality, we might not be able to.

Which is why whenever I’m in conversation with Black folks about their experience of racism, my job is to sit. Absorb the truth. Thank them for being gracious enough to share. And do my part to change the wrong.

If that feels like ceding too much, we have only ourselves to blame.

Thumb Prayers illustrating our different realities
If only we’re willing to see each other’s different realities

antiracism, double consciousness, WEB Du Bois

Comments (10)

  • If only it weren’t…
    And if only frogs had wings, Mama said, they wouldn’t bump their tails so much.

    Thanks for raising these issues so that we can be more aware and do better.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Ha, ha. This is a version of a saying Tom has but it involves pigs. I’m gonna remember your mama’s saying when I need a more-safe-for-work version. And it came from your mama–love that! <3

  • Equality, true equality (depends on perspective what this is) will likely never come to be. All we can do is open our own hearts and minds to hear another’s truth. Such a sad state we are in, even after all these years. We had such hope back in 1961, when affirmative action appeared, and more hope when Obama was elected. Moving like molasses, we are, toward a true equality.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Yes, open our own hearts and minds. To hear what God wants us to hear from others and within ourselves. That’s where I am right now, it seems. Thank you for being a mentor and companion along this path.

  • As it happens, I was just reading about how the AP course in African American Studies currently being piloted won’t be able to be taught in Florida because of the laws that Gov. Desantis championed against “woke-ism.” How can we move toward greater justice and healing if we aren’t open to listening and learning? Yes, rhetorical question, but something that emphasizes your point in the post and the obstacles in the path.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Well. That’s a strategy that depends on white folks continuing to control “the” definition of reality, isn’t it? Saying whatever your different reality was, it will not be recognized. Kind of like sticking your fingers in your ears and saying, “La, la, la” until it all goes away. But without justice and healing, as you say, it will never go away.

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