She calls it the ugly mirror. I’ll say something, and she’ll look at me and shake her head. “You’ve held up the ugly mirror,” she’ll say.
The first time my colleague said it, I didn’t understand. She explained that something I said had caused her to see something she thought or believed or did in a new and, sadly, unfavorable light. It was like looking at herself in an ugly mirror.
Having recently finished Jodi Picoult’s 2016 bestseller, Small Great Things, I’m seeing myself in the ugly mirror a lot. It is a brilliant, powerful, troubling, upsetting, inspiring, offensive story. Every one of the leading characters contemplates an ugly mirror framed by race. Not simply overt racism (though there’s plenty of that), but the power of race to define the terms of engagement even as we deny its power.
That’s not mere fiction.
The State of Florida is about to make racial history. Apparently for the first time, we are going to execute a white man for killing a black man.
Almost 300 people, more than 50 percent of them black men, have been executed by the State of Florida since 1924 (the earliest date for which data is available online). And until Mark James Asay (who has yet to be executed), not one white man has been executed for killing a black man.
For the record, I am adamantly opposed to capital punishment. But that’s not the point here.
Can anyone seriously believe that, for almost 100 years, no white man in this state has ever committed the premeditated murder of a black man and been identified as the murderer, making him subject to possible prosecution?
Can we just hold up the ugly mirror and acknowledge that, in the area of the imposition of capital punishment at least, race unfairly tips the scales?
And if it tips the scales here, where we as a society strive most mightily to ensure that justice is done, does it not seem likely that it continues to tip the scales elsewhere, where the processes are less public, the insistence on justice less determined?
I know it does for me.
I know that the three black teen male buddies in my neighborhood elicit a different response from me than various groups of white teen males I have known.
They’re fine young men. I know their families.
But my first reaction when I see them still is influenced by racial stereotypes.
When an organization hires a person of color for a significant position (perhaps for any position), doesn’t the organization make a point of race, at least on many occasions?
When a person of color makes a bid for high office, do we not make note of race?
So yes, race still matters.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It is a good thing when we stop pretending that we don’t see color, instead speaking of the unique dignity of each person, including their color.
It is a good thing when we reflect on the significance of race and honor that significance with a desire to understand and appreciate similarities and differences.
That mirror won’t be ugly. It will be honest. And maybe, just maybe, someday, it will be just.