Close your eyes. Imagine that you are the average white American in the early 21st Century. You can visualize yourself as president of your country (or country club). You can see yourself as the object of widespread adulation for winning an Oscar or Olympic gold. You have no difficulty picturing yourself as a graduate of Stanford or Harvard or Duke, as an inventor, as a diplomat or a thousand and one other achievements. But when you focus your mind on your fellow Americans of African or Asian or Native or Latin heritage, what do you imagine then? What images spring to mind?
Does your mind constrict? Does your vision become cloudy? Do you have great difficulty imagining your classmate who was raised in Koreatown or on the “rez” as Commander in Chief of our armed forces? Be honest with yourself. Do you struggle to get your mind around the idea of a governor or chief justice who pauses to pray five times each day as an article of her faith? Can you accept a brother-in-law who is black? Can you embrace and applaud a brother-in-law who is black? What about a daughter or granddaughter who is biracial? Your upbringing and social conditioning do you no favors.
For a country that prides itself on its liberties and freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom to worship, the right to bear arms, the right to be all that you can be—our biggest challenge may be to free the imagination of our white American citizens. Can they imagine that black males have value in our society, that they need not be viewed with suspicion, inferiority, viewed with a patronizing attitude or fear? That they don’t deserve to be lynched, run over, locked-up or gunned down? Can they imagine women of color as powerful, intelligent, capable, and non-threatening? Can they envision them as partners, nay leaders, in the advancement of civilization in America? Can they see a Sikh or a person in robes or a chador and imagine them as a comrade in arms or a teammate?
In the early days of our country the average white American could not imagine his own prosperity without the enslavement of Africans who were only valued as property. Unity? Unimaginable! This was true whether he or she personally owned slaves or tolerated the “peculiar institution” as a necessary evil.
For more than a century after a bloody civil war white Americans still could not imagine blacks as their equals, as their neighbors, as their classmates, as their family, or even as the star of their favorite TV show. This lack of imagination flew in the face of reality, yet still persists. We have passed new laws and established new practices to perpetuate myths and stereotypes that cloud the vision and imagination of white Americans. Indeed, through decades of internalized oppression, people of color even struggle to imagine what might be—to imagine an America without caste or prejudice; to imagine an America where they can trust white people and trust their imaginations.
Now open your eyes. Imagine one nation under God with liberty and justice for all. And once we can really imagine it, we will be well on our way to bringing it from the realm of imagination into reality.