By Elena Delavega, PhD, Hooks Institute Associate Director
When I first arrived in Memphis, I was awe-struck by the racism. I everywhere, and it was visible. I could feel it. I could smell it. It was so thick, one could cut it with scissors. At first, I could not put my finger on it, but by paying attention, I was able to observe that people’s position in society seemed to be determined by their race. I also paid attention to how well the city took care of white areas, and how poorly it took care of African American areas. By carefully paying attention, it became clear to me that oppression and exclusion were a feature of the community.
Fast forward seven years, and the racism does not feel so awful in Memphis. This is incredibly dangerous and it is the lull that leads us to accept the racism as a natural part of life. It does not “feel” so awful anymore because I have become used to it and inured to it. It is still there. It is the same racism and the same oppression that existed seven years ago, that has not changed. I have to conclude that what has changed is my perception.
Humans have a great ability to adapt and to accept new environments. It is this ability is not accidental, but necessary for survival. However, that which is adaptive in an environment and would have allowed our ancestors to survive changing conditions can have horrible and maladaptive consequences in other places and times.
That is what has happened here. Our ability to adapt to circumstances has led me to accept racism as a natural part of the community and to not even see it anymore.
I fight against this. I recognize the awfulness of the still existing deep and noxious racism in Memphis and in the State of Tennessee, but I wonder how many people, otherwise good and decent people have become so well adapted to Memphis that they have stopped feeling and seeing the awful racism that pervades everything here?
This is a call to examination and to critical consciousness. We need to become careful observers of our environment and to recognize the need for awareness and for attention. Racism has not gone away. Just our ability to see it has. If you open your eyes with honesty, you will see it. It is there and it must be fought, lest it takes over and destroys our souls.