After I read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, my conversations about racism with my children (we’ve had such conversations since they were able to talk) were much more informed. I don’t believe in sugar-coating the real world, or glossing over truths that make some people uncomfortable. Of course, I do want my children to live in a world that feels safe and I want them to have hope. How deeply I go depends on the moment, how ready my daughters seem, and whether or not I can get myself to shut up.
One thing I tell my daughters is I will always prefer stating my opinion and offending rather than staying quiet when it’s a time for me to speak. They know I write a newspaper column and they know people don’t agree with things I say. In particular, I wrote a column about racism in the Bangor Daily News that starts with two overtly racist and ignorant statements. The intention was some shock value and that may have been a stylistic mistake. The column wasn’t a mistake, though.
Adding to the theme I set out in that first column and in “Ending racism: What White People Can Do,” I want to add this suggestion for white people who, like me, haven’t spent much time with people of color. As I’ve said in my columns and in this blog, I believe a lot of why interpersonal micro-level racism sticks around is because authentic communication is limited by white people’s desperate desire to be not racist.
Does this sound familiar? You feel mildly awkward talking to a person of color and are really angry at yourself for the mild awkwardness but you can’t figure out why you feel weird and you really want to not feel weird because you know there’s no reason to and no matter what you say or do you can’t seem to just be a regular person because you’re so self-conscious about your mild awkwardness and it all becomes a stuttering hyper-friendly over-the-top polite exchange. If it sounds familiar and you hate it, I have a suggestion for you:
Go to twitter, or other social media sites. Do this when you are alone. Search for the hashtag “blackoutday.” Spend time looking at the pictures. Then, look some more. See the variety of people? Look! There’s no awkwardness as you look, the pictures are there for anyone to see.
In the late 80s, I started learning that black and brown people can’t fix my own personal racism, and it’s not their job to tell me what I can or should do. What I do, instead, is look at my own racism—as I tell my daughters, I believe all white people are racist because we benefit from our systems that are inherently racist (we discuss prejudice and bigotry, too, which are different)—and work on it. After all this time, I was surprised that looking at the #blackoutday pictures was such an eye opener for me. The images are powerful and beautiful and surprising. (Tip: just look, don’t try to be involved in the hashtag. It’s not a white people thing.)
Get that awkward staring and fascination that you may experience and so desperately want to resist when you’re with another human being out in meat space. You can help yourself realize that there is an infinite number of different ways to “look black.” It can help you relax and just be with people of color without struggling to be not awkward, or “not racist.”