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.