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White people acknowledging racism exists is an important step for change, experts say

Wausau residents participate in a Black Lives Matter protest on May 29, 2020. (WSAW photo)
Wausau residents participate in a Black Lives Matter protest on May 29, 2020. (WSAW photo)(WSAW)
Published: Jun. 5, 2020 at 9:51 PM CDT
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A Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Pamela Oliver has spent the last 20 years studying the issue of racial disparities in criminal justice in Wisconsin. She is also an expert in social movements and currently in the process of doing a study of black protests in the United States.

“It’s been a long time since there’s been so many protests in so many cities all at once,” Oliver said in response to the reaction to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25. “The protests also seem really continuous with what’s been happening in the past. In many ways, to me, it feels like we’re picking up where we left off in 2016. It feels continuous but, of course, there’s always new elements.”

Leaders and members of the black community have been vocal regarding the need for white voices to stand alongside their black neighbors, fighting for an end to injustice and racism in America, and throughout the world.

Oliver echoed black leaders like Darrell Keaton, Sr., who told NewsChannel 7 in an interview on May 29 that “Black people can’t do this alone. We need good white people to stand alongside us.”

“White Americans are still the largest group in the United States and still control the political institutions,” Oliver said. “That’s why what white people decide to do is so important.”

Many white leaders around the country have acknowledged that there is a problem with racism, including right here in central Wisconsin. Those leaders include Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg and Wausau Police Chief Benjamin Bliven.

Other members of the white society have chosen to voice their support for the Black Lives Matter movement by participating in protests and rallies, social media campaigns, or by donating to organizations that advocate for black rights.

The amount of support for the Black Lives Matter movement can vary.

“There are some white people who are actually advocating white supremacy,” Oliver explained. “There are other white people who are trying their best to be allies with black people; immigrants; other situations; other groups of people. And there’s a bunch of folks in the middle who are kind of, not anti-black, but also kind of confused about why people are asking them to support these movements, and I think it’s the people in the middle who are the problem.”

Dr. Brian Weiland is a clinical psychologist at Behavioral Health Clinic in Wausau. He says that the choice to not acknowledge racism can come from a variety of factors, including a term referred to as ‘confirmation bias.’

“We see what we want to see,” Dr. Weiland explained. “If we think that there’s nothing going on, we’re not going to see anything. If we’re uncomfortable with the fact that there may be something going on, we’re going to prefer not to see anything.”

Dr. Weiland says that race can be uncomfortable for a lot of people to talk about because of the fear that you could get it wrong.

“You don’t want to show your ignorance in a situation like this,” said Dr. Weiland. “It’s difficult to admit because you’ll have to say that there is, there are lots of people who are at a disadvantage compared to you, and that doesn’t feel right for you to acknowledge and say that you have had an advantage in this life. That’s not a very comfortable thing to have to admit to.”

The ability for white people to step out of that comfort zone, acknowledge the problems that are prevalent in our society today and show support are important steps to help initiate change.

“Let’s move past that shame that could exist from admitting that ‘I chose to turn a blind eye,’” Dr. Weiland said. “Let’s try to take this moment and do something different so that it affects tomorrow.”

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