more on racism (can’t unring the bell)

In the aftermath of yesterday’s column, and the high personal costs for me, I stand by what I said. Because, as I tried to say in the column, my own personal feelings about racism in the larger scheme of things should be moot. I won’t use that public space to write a personal journal entry about my own relationship with racism. It’s not about me. I don’t suffer the injustices, the crimes, the vitriol of racism.

Even here on my own personal blog, telling my story seems uninteresting. A distraction from the real issues. It’s the same story we read all the time. White woman means well, liberal, Democrat, wants to be anything but racist, becomes an activist in college fighting apartheid, attends conferences trying to find solutions to racism, reads Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr’s later writings, falls in love with Audre Lorde/Maya Angelou/Zora Neale Hurston in some segregated literature class, and in all that time, racism was still all about me and my own experiences and feelings.

Knowing I will lose friends because they don’t want to associate with someone who has come out publicly with racist thoughts is a price I’m (mostly) willing to pay. Some losses are more costly than others, and I certainly have questioned my priorities. But, again, it’s nothing in the larger scheme of things. Racism doesn’t hurt me on an institutional or daily-living level.

The irony for me is that as I came out with those awful “hidden brain” thoughts, I was describing lessons I’d learned that had helped me get past that tedious “white guilt.” And, again, my own white woman experience seems unimportant but I’ve hurt someone I love and I can’t say nothing. After I accepted that I will have these horrific thoughts, so fleeting they can nearly go unnoticed, I stopped feeling that anxious “please like me” feeling. How angry some people will be when they read this, because it may sound like I think I’m impressive. I don’t. But, being around Black, brown, “other” people hardly phases me at all. It’s ugly to say that it could, or that it did, but this is the United States. It’s one of the most brutally racist countries in the world. (I’ve thought about that qualifier, as if “racism” needs “brutally” in front of it? It doesn’t.)

I’m owning those disgusting thoughts. The key for me, though, as I’m writing about my own story, is that as soon as I got honest that those thoughts go in and out of parts of my mind, I was able to say “fuck you” to them and be just a person being with other people. I see race, I love differences, I see skin colors and hair textures and facial shapes. I see that in all people, equally. Because I know those asshole thoughts will rear their ugly heads, I’m able to dismiss them. They don’t take up energy, guilt, shame in me. And it’s only after I stopped making my racist thoughts all about me (I’m so terrible, I’m awful, how can I think those terrible things) that I’ve been able to stop thinking those thoughts.

Those thoughts still come to me on occasion. Riding the train in Boston, I enjoyed being around so many different skin tones and styles of clothing and languages. I appreciate true diversity. And, while I still think of Boston as a “white town,” it calms be to be in places where people’s differences are apparent. I couldn’t identify to you specific racist thoughts, but I can tell you I’m sure I had them. I had them so fast I don’t know what they were. But, again, now that I understand how cognitive functions work (“the hidden brain“), I notice the uncomfortable feeling, I catch myself and I correct myself almost as subconsciously as the racist thoughts appear. It has become easier over the last few years, too.

Before I started reading about how human brains work, I was one of those white people who would get giddy if a Black person seemed to accept me. I even hid from public display an important relationship of mine at times because I wanted to protect it from that “badge of not-racist” I know so many white people do as they trot out their Black friends as evidence. That friendship was one place where I was able to find trust and love and it was, for me, truly beyond race. Not ignorant of it, but open and honest about it. Mostly, race didn’t come up because our lives were so rich and full of other stuff.

Still, with the exception of that friendship, until a few years ago, I got nervous people with significantly darker skin than mine. I freaked out inside wanting their approval. I didn’t understand why, but I knew I was somehow wrong about something and I needed them to make me feel better. Despite learning intellectually that racism isn’t about my own feelings, and despite knowing in my heart and gut that it isn’t up to anyone but me to get that shit out of my system, I’d get fluttery and self-conscious about every word I spoke. That may be an exaggeration, but it’s not far off.

After writing that column, I have noticed in people’s responses that many people say, “We all have racist thoughts, but…” What’s different in my column is that I articulated with fierce and ugly honesty two examples of those thoughts. I truly believe this discussion should not be about me and my own relationship with racism, even here on my own blog. I intend to keep that to myself and my closest friends. If there are particular public conversations where my experience is relevant, I will contribute. I encourage other white people to dare to face what those racist thoughts actually are. Face it.

I think it’s wrong for white people to get caught up in trying to prove we’re not racists. Down to the smallest interactions between well-meaning people, there can be an awkwardness when the guilt and self-consciousness about those shocking and painful feelings/ideas/thoughts flash in and out of minds. Fuck that. Own it. Know there are parts of you that are horrible. Know that, if you are white, finding solutions for the effects of racism is not about you.

In my experience, getting really honest with myself—with the help of serious study of how brains and minds work—my own personal solutions involve acceptance. It was only then that I was able to start moving past them and changing my thinking.

For what it’s worth, I have received an enormous amount of feedback on this column. More than 30 messages in my inbox, most of which I read a sentence or two and then deleted (many were defending Zimmerman, some were calling me a racist, some were thanking me). It seems there are about 100 comments on the newspaper’s site. I know people have been personally hurt and deeply affected by my words. I have also received many notes on public forums saying they found my column brave. I have heard from white people things like, “We all think those thoughts,” “I’ve never thought the ‘monkey’ thought, but my thoughts have been just as awful.” The hurtfulness of the words, like those at the beginning of my column, defy description. They are more than pain.

The reason I stand by my column, though, despite the fact that many people couldn’t get beyond the hate in those first two sentences (and the lame and muddled wimpy offers of solutions) is because writing my column is a part of what I can to help fight racism. By discussing these things in ugly ways, I am certain that ugliness will come from it, but I am also certain there will be lessons learned that can help make positive change.

21 Comments

Filed under activism, mindful living, politics, racism

21 responses to “more on racism (can’t unring the bell)

  1. I have not weighed in on this issue in public and commend you for your honesty and bravery. I grew up on a small town in central Maine, in a town and school system that was totally white at the time. I went to college in Maine and stayed in Maine, having few opportunities to meet and talk with people of color until I was well into adulthood. I think that Zimmerman should be in jail, that most – or perhaps any – white people cannot truly understand the black experience, and that I am largely ignorant. For the past three years, I have been living in the Caribbean where I am a minority — socialising for the most part with other mostly white cruisers. Still, we sometimes are able to become friends white, black, and brown locals. I am learning. I care. I try. That’s all anyone can do.

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  2. Deb

    Have you read Native Son? I assume you have. I hadn’t until a few years ago, and it profoundly affected me, precisely because it describes so well why people like you and me can just NEVER understand what it means to be black. If you haven’t read it by some weird off chance, you should.

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    • I haven’t read it, no. I’ll add it to my goodreads. I know I can’t understand the experience of being Black, but the book does fall in the list of “classics I should’ve read.” Thanks.

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  3. A fan in Watertown

    When our children were young, we had a good friend who was a professional poet. When one of his books came out I thought, “Oh, wow! How must be handling this?” There were poems about marriage. I have no idea how closely, if at all, they reflected their joint reality. It made me appreciate the bravery required of good writers to reveal how much they know about life. I could never do it. But I don’t think the alternative is for good writers not to tell the truth.

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    • Thank you. The impact of my writing on my personal life is something I think about a lot. Especially when it could affect my friends or family. It also does feel like I have no alternative but to write my truth. Thanks, again.

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  4. Don

    It’s too bad people were narrow-minded enough to be offended by your honesty. Our inner brains are full of all sorts of stuff and if we never plow it out, some of that stuff will continue to inform us. You do well to see it and hold it up to the light.

    The people you describe, well-meaning anti-racists who never the less modify their behavior to overcome their white guilt, are just the sort of people I got real tired of when I was a teenager. I grew up in a diverse city of many so-called races and was long over all that and just interacted with people as people when suddenly I encountered suburbanites who were still wrestling with it, and unintentionally demonstrating that anti-racism, while on the side of the light, was still a form of racism. It’s good to see people on the right path, but unfortunately they were (and still are) quite capable of misunderstanding those of us who are further along. As you seem to have discovered at your cost.

    Believe it or not, I didn’t follow the Zimmerman trial and know almost nothing about it. I honestly don’t know why race is considered a factor.

    I disagree that ours is “one of the most brutally racist countries in the world.” We give racial issues a lot of attention because of our unique history and heritage, but if you travel to other countries and extend your perceptions beyond the tour stream, you find racism in many forms to be terribly common. Look deeply into other racially-diverse countries such as Mexico or Brazil, or struggling countries such as Italy or in the Arab world, and the racism you find will make you glad you are an American.

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Don. I’m glad you mention the racism in the US thing because I haven’t traveled anywhere to speak of, so I’m only going on a feeling when I say that. What you are saying feels right, though, again, I don’t have facts to agree or disagree about it. :-)

      Race is considered a factor because the unarmed child who was killed was Black.

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      • Don

        Surely there’s more of a reason that that. Did perp or police say it made a difference? Was the law written to benefit white more than black? All the hysteria makes me wonder about the awesome power of white guilt merged with supposition, but again, I don’t know anything about the case other than that it was in Florida, which has I guess all the usual Southern problems.

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        • A friend of mine said “everyone knew he shot him because of racism, we all knew it because we’re racist so we could imagine it.”

          The fact that people with brown skin are much more likely to be hurt by police, put in jail for things whites aren’t, etc. probably played into it, too.

          I don’t feel I know enough about the case myself to discuss it. I got my “news” from my liberally-biased friends, anyway.

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          • Don

            I love the irony. Liberals just “knew” he shot him from racism. Racists just “knew” he shot him from racism. But this is an individual and specific case. These suppositions make me thankful we have a court system.

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            • Jesus, fuck, Don. Really? You think the “suppositions” are the problem? Please. The suppositions are not the problem. The problem is the “suppositions” exist because it’s a fact that the odds are it was a killing motivated by racism. You have to know that, right?

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              • Don

                I don’t know enough, or the people involved, to know that. When something happens in my world across racial lines, it has nothing to do with racism until I am shown otherwise. Maybe this is a benefit of living in N CA rather than FL? It may be a fact that “the odds are” but that fact doesn’t apply in the world I inhabit (whether geographical or just inside my head).

                I have not researched the case. Maybe there was racism all around. But when people “know” it was a racist act because they are able to see racism when they look inside themselves, I’m obviously not going to be convinced. No one should be, based on that.

                The fact black people are jailed and otherwise hurt for things more than whites, that’s a very serious issue, but a different one than whether or not a specific act was motivated by racial fear. It is, however, connected to the response of law enforcement. That’s another set of details I don’t know anything about.

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                • I think the two (in your last paragraph) are inextricably intertwined. And in your first paragraph, “unless you are shown otherwise,” Don? Really? Again I say, really? It’s times like this that I want to just give up on the conversation. How you can say it has “nothing to do with racism” is your default just sounds so privileged, arrogant, and naive. I’m not claiming things happening “across racial lines” inherently must involve racism, but they are certainly more likely to than they are not. Even the description “across racial lines” describes a conflict of people who appear to have different ethnic backgrounds which is a part of our country’s foundation of racism (indigenous people’s holocaust, slavery, and on). It really sounds like you’re making the claim, “I don’t see race” in all its offensive glory.

                  But, oh, Don, I really can’t get into this anymore. I see you commented on another one of my replies and I gotta not respond. Too much, too many pulls from life.

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  5. Thanks for writing this. It’s really important and scary and brave. The process you describe in grappling with your own racism and privilege has a fair number of similarities to mine, and it’s tough to own the racism you were taught at the same time that you’re trying to dismantle it. It’s worth doing, though, and I think it’s the only way. If I don’t know what I’m dismantling, I could end up just slinging hammers this way and that, hoping I knock down the right thing. Thank you for doing this work and sharing it.

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    • Thank you. This means a lot to me.

      It’s ironic (I googled it to be sure) that the column I meant to be not about me—in fact, that was the whole point, that racism isn’t about me and my feelings—ended up being about me, if that makes sense, because of my choice of racist words and the structure of the piece.

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  6. toni

    I think maybe you should stop thinking…clearly, you’re not very good at it.

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  7. Don

    I had other thoughts. You opened with your ugly “racist” reactions to people of a certain appearance. But we all recoil in some way from people who are ugly. “Ugly” is a crazily subjective term. Not one person is ugly to everyone else. But people less like us are more likely to seem “ugly” than people more like us. An athletic person is attracted mainly to other athletic people. A rotund person does not fall in love with another rotund person because that is all they can get, but because familiarity lowers barriers to seeing the beauty. Blacks typically are more attracted to more blacks than to more whites. Whites are typically attracted to more whites than to more blacks. Thus, it is reasonable and not necessarily racist for a white person to see more black people than white people as “ugly” and to have reactions such as you describe. The exact same applies across color lines in all directions. I see this as true for me upon reflection, when I actually notice race, but race is not the first thing I see, rather the cues that a person is or is not of my culture (bunches of white people are not), is or is not an apparently kind or threatening person, is or is not “attractive”. I sometimes think a hallmark of our “more racist” society is that we are led to think we are more racist than we are.

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    • You missed the point of my column and this follow-up piece. Those thoughts were, and I will not be convinced otherwise, racist. The point of my column and this follow-up were that we all have the “hidden brain” going all the time that gives us feelings we don’t understand. Those feelings aren’t based in logic, but are based in illogical biases that our mind requires to make sense of the world.

      I’m going to write a tiny bit more about it.

      You know I’m always honest. I’m having a hard time even reading your comment because it turns my stomach. I’m not saying there’s no truth in there, but it’s frosted with defend-racism feelings for me. I have the luxury of saying “I just can’t deal with that right now.” So, that’s the scoop.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you read and commented. But I can’t give more time to this than I already have. I hope you understand.

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      • Don

        I don’t see any defend-racism feelings. I’ve no idea how anyone would. Maybe a factor is that I don’t always register race first when I see someone new? I’ve had experiences of monkey-brain distrust when meeting white people with certain accents and no such reactions whatsoever when meeting black people with my regional speech patterns. A huge amount of hidden brain reaction is only to body language too. In fact, most of it, I bet.

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