Listening to the podcast “Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race” (or, “About Race”) I was cringing. I felt my body seizing up. The white guy, Tanner Colby, was embodying exactly what the other co-hosts were describing as infuriating and exhausting about white people. It was the episode called “Will you be my black friend?” (As of 9/2021 the links have expired.) And OH MY GOD I felt so much empathy for the co-hosts who were people of color. It was surreal, though I know it happens all the time. I’ve done it, for sure. The people of color were talking about their experiences, and the white person was saying, “But look at it the way I see it and feel differently about it!”
The conversation was about how, since #BlackLivesMatter began and especially since the Presidential election, white people are waking up on some levels to the realities of racism. Many are seeing how bad it is, how bad it’s been for a long time. So, the people of color on the podcast were talking about how white people would tweet at them, email them, talk to them at parties, all wanting to talk—to learn—about race. I had empathy for the lost souls (the white people) wanting to do better. I want to do better in that same way, and I’ve done what the co-hosts were complaining about.
When I was in college, I went to a workshop called “All Whites Are Racist,” put on by Tony Harris. I’ve written about it before, but I’m not sure I’ve written about the experiences that followed. There were two pivotal moments in the months following the workshop that were the cornerstones for the inner work I’ve done with my own racism.
The first was in a meeting for the group that brought the workshop to campus. The group was called “Society Organized Against Racism,” or SOAR. My campus was mostly white people, and there were several of us white people in the group, but more than half of the members were people of color. I had never been in such proximity to so many black and brown people. I was excited that I was going to be a part of this group that was fighting racism.
We were talking about plans for the group. I’m not sure what exactly we were talking about, but, I clearly remember one exchange. I was pleading with some group members, “How can I stop being racist if you won’t help me understand it?” I wanted to understand. I felt it made complete sense to go to the source: people who have been oppressed by racism every day of their lives had knowledge I felt I needed to stop being racist. And that’s really what it was about at that point. I wanted to be a better person. See? It was about me.
I’m forever grateful to the woman who seriously lost it on me. I don’t remember her exact words, but her meaning was “oh my god I am so tired of people like you, don’t expect me to fix you! it’s not my job!” I think I even cried. Yes. White women’s tears. (If you’re not sure why it was so bad that I was emotional in that emotionally heavy conversation, check out that link or google “white women’s tears.”) I needed that kick in the pants to start realizing it wasn’t about me and my feelings, that racism was much bigger and more than how I felt as a person.
The second turning point moment was also a SOAR-related event. We went to another college for a conference on racism. In the workshops, I was one of only a small handful of white people in rooms full of people of color. I was hyper-aware of being white. I was also hyper-aware that this must be something like what the black and brown kids on my college campus experienced all the time. Always not the dominant race in the room. Wow. Wow! The interpersonal skills required to be a part of that would be omnipresent and overwhelming. I became keenly aware of the psychological energy required simply to be in a room full of people where I was the “other.” I felt immense empathy for the students at my college who had to deal with that every day. I began a timid understanding the reality of what must be required for people of color to survive in the white world that dominates every facet of our society.
I haven’t written much about those earlier days of my own awareness because I don’t enjoy writing things that might seem like I think I should be applauded. I’m nowhere near “done” with my own work on racism and what I’ve done so far is not noble. It’s human. But, when I see people just starting out in their own awareness, I want to help. I want to say, look out! are you expecting a complete stranger to help you feel better, to help you feel less uncomfortable just because they are black or brown? That, right there, is part of the problem. Do you see? Can you see how you’re looking at racism in terms of how uncomfortable you feel and how that means you’re making it about you?
I think my racism story part 2 will be about feeling uncomfortable.