Changing our systems (built on white supremacy) requires great imagination. Versions of community most of us have never experienced. I saw these images on the Internet yesterday and had to share them. They got my imagination going. If we took the money spent on militarizing the police and spent it on (see below), our communities would start looking very different:
Surely most of you by now have seen the footage of the White woman in Central Park calling the police on the Black man who asked her to follow the law and put her dog on its leash. We White women have a long history of getting Black people killed. I won’t write much about that here, but that’s a truth we White women need to face.
I want to share with you (my fellow White women) one small aspect of anti-racism work I’m doing in response to this latest example of White women putting the lives of Black people in danger. I’m noticing how I feel, in my body and mind, when I think of that woman and her reprehensible behavior. I’m noticing the draw to distance myself from her; I find myself wanting to focus on the fact that I’m not like that.
Digging deeper — and I’m noticing feelings of shame as I write this, knowing it’s ugly and I’m sharing it publicly — I also find I’ve had brief flashes of “I wonder if she’s mentally ill, perhaps we should have compassion” or other excuses.
I’m relieved to be able to say honestly that these pulls towards racism (excusing her racist behavior) are only flickers. Barely milliseconds, more of a whiff rather than long inhales of scent. I’m almost entirely centered and clear about the truth: this White woman responded to a Black man’s request with violence; she was entirely in the wrong.
But, as a White woman, it’s been my experience that one of the most powerful ways I can be a better human being is to interrogate the full experience in my body and mind when I consider other White people’s overtly racist behavior. Do I look for excuses? Do I “other” the White person so I can feel less a part of the problem?
The reason I want to notice these tendencies in me is that it is whiteness, the support of white supremacy, wants to keep me (a White woman) comfortable. It wants me to feel like the problems aren’t so bad. It wants to soothe me when I’m faced with racism so I don’t get too upset about it (which might lead me to wanting to change it). Whiteness is a seductive opiate-like drug.
This noticing is just one part of anti-racist lens I use to live my life (to be clear: I try to live my life through that lens, I never do it perfectly). But, I’ve found it emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually freeing. I’ve been able to get more active in anti-racist work since I’ve incorporated this noticing into my everyday life.
I look for ugly truths in myself. I listen to myself, I feel my body’s response. And, these days, I simply notice them and let them go. I know those tendencies are my addiction to whiteness rearing its devious head, wanting me to not continue working in solidarity with other people on the paths to liberation for everyone.
Getting to the point where I simply notice and let them go has required some years of practice and study, learning from Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color how our systems in the USA are built on racism and how I benefit from the systems. Noticing what’s really happening in my mind and body has been one of the most important steps in bringing anti-racism into my daily life.
As Rev. angel Kyodo williams says: “”love and justice are not two. without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.”
If you are interested in Buddhist ideas, I recommend highly Rev. angel’s Radical Dharma. It’s through Rev. angel that I got clear about the racist junk in my mind/heart’s closet that I needed to clear away.
* I usually capitalize White just like Black is typically capitalized, following the lead of some Black people I’ve read online. These are socially constructed labels, and it seems right to treat them the same. On the other hand, I don’t capitalize “whiteness” or “white supremacy” because that doesn’t feel quite right. I’m not exactly sure why I’ve made these choices. There’s not a standard consensus about how to do this, though, so if you are not White and have feedback about it, I’d be grateful if you’d share it. If you are White and have feedback that you’ve learned from BIPOC, I’d love to hear that, too. (Thank you!)
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?” 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.
these dots and words are meant to keep the wordpress ads away from my post :-)
There are lots of sources of information out there on the Internet, so I usually resist the temptation to recreate the wheel. But, I’m going to go ahead and share a few of my favorite books that have informed my experience as a person who benefits from white privilege (because I pass as white*). These are books related to why I understand the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the our modern day Civil Rights Movement.
“What would you do if the Civil Rights Movement was happening today?” It is happening now. We must act with our neighbors across the country.
I won’t summarize the story/content, I’m just providing links for my white peers who are interested. There are many other books (I found great lists by googling “what white people should read about racism.” Here are a couple shared by women of color: 16 Books About Race That Every White Person Should Read, 18 Books Every White Ally Should Read) and resources online, of course. But here are a few that have helped me especially in the last few years:
* Because “white” is a social construct, I’m exploring what it’s like to talk about myself as someone who “passes” as white. I know there is a deep and painful history of “passing” in our culture for people who are born into black and brown families, so I’m not sure if I will stick with this phrasing; I don’t want to minimize those experiences as I pass as white without any effort. My thought is if I don’t just say “I’m white,” then perhaps I’m pointing out the fact that it’s really only because of our country’s foundation (slavery) that we have such a divide based on “race;” that identifying as white and being able to pass as white (without any effort and only positive consequences).
A good friend on Facebook is an activist for animal rights. Another spends her time fighting for the rights of trans* people. I also have friends who raise money for good causes, friends who focus their energy on their children, or use all their energy just getting through the day.
There isn’t time in the world to be an activist in every cause. We have to pick and choose where we spend our time.
Black and brown skinned people don’t get to choose whether or not racism affects them, but even they, to some degree, can choose how much time they dedicate to the “cause” of fixing our system.
I care about getting clean water to all the parts of the world where people are dying because they simply don’t have clean water. I care about stopping Apartheid in Palestine. Some issues spark my passion and some issues, like clean water and Palestinian rights, I have to put aside and say, someone else has to do that.
I was thinking this morning about how much #blacklivesmatter, #sayhername, and ending mass incarceration means to me. I wrote about realizing that people fighting global warming are also social justice activists. In that same vein, I want my friends to know that I recognize we choose our battles. I don’t judge you harshly for your apparent lack of interest. When we are watching our children play, or enjoying a potluck, or chit-chatting online, I enjoy you and your life with all of your varied choices.
I won’t be quiet about the issues that matter most to me, but I don’t expect you to make the choices I make. I respect your right to focus your energy in different places.
I believe everyone—and I mean everyone—does what they need to do to make the world a better place. Keeping lines of communication open feels more important to me these days than force feeding my beliefs into other people’s life choices. We are all in this together.