check yourself, my white friends

Since the late 80s, I’ve been working on and through my own racism. I’ve written about it on my own blog, before it was called a blog, and I’ve written about it in my newspaper column at the Bangor Daily News.

As the news coverage of the Department of Justice’s study of Ferguson continues, I’ve caught myself in old patterns of translating the facts. I invite my white friends to listen to your inner voices. We want racism to be not as bad as it is. We want that so much. So, to make it easier, when we hear shocking statistics we may translate them into less devastating facts. Maybe you don’t do it, but I know I have.

As I wrote in one of my BDN columns about racismthe one with deeply offensive thoughts as the first sentences—I think we well-meaning white people get so caught up in wanting to be not-racist that we aren’t able to engage in authentic relationships with people of color which means we can’t take or even support real action to change (institutionalized) racism.

Here’s the translation I’ve had to use over and over again as I listen to the news stories, using one statistic as an example:

news story: 93% of summons issued for jaywalking were issued to black people.

me: (for a millisecond) probably more black people jaywalked. maybe that’s something that happens more often in black neighborhoods and maybe there’s a non-racist reason why it’s considered such a bad thing.

me: *checks myself* the police are targeting black people for “crimes” and they are not targeting white people for the same “crimes.”

I’ve had to fix my thoughts again and again as I listen to the news. Each time I hear a statistic, my millisecond “please make this not as bad as it is” thought is louder and more easily detected. It flashes away faster, too.

Just like my work a decade ago getting beyond the “please consider me one of the GOOD white people” nonsense, the desire to have our racist systems be not as bad as they are leads me to an easy way out (hearing the statistic and thinking probably they deserved it).

Please consider reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, or listening to the audiobook, or simply listening to Michelle Alexander’s many public presentations. It is the knowledge of her work resting inside my gut that helps me face the ugly truth that I am still trying to avoid the ugly truth about racism in our country.

privilege = having options.

In the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy examining my own role in racism, classism, and genderism. What I’ve learned is both disgusting and not surprising. I did much of the “work” on racism in the 90s. But then, I stopped.

I get to “stop” if I want to.

As I’ve re-focused my attention (again on racism, more recently on socio-economic class, just touching on genderism), I’ve found myself utterly and completely exhausted by the whole thing. Right now, I feel like retreating into my own little privilege bubble where everything is easy.

I have a choice.

In the 90s, I felt “white guilt” because I didn’t want to be racist. I was out of touch with the actual issues because it was all about me and my experience.

These days, the bell still can’t be unrung. I know that when I retreat into the easy ways, it’s a choice I get to make without many direct consequences. Many, many people don’t have the choice. They have to live with racism, classism, and genderism every day and it’s inescapable.

I’m not sure what I’ll do on a daily basis. I see now that the only way I can really make change is to: 1) listen to people who experience it without the option to take a break *without interjecting my own experiences/perspectives*, and, 2) uncover ways I can help make systemic, institutional level changes and do those things.

But, my god, it’s not easy. I literally can’t imagine how “not easy” it would be if I could never escape the fight.

no groceries challenge 3.1 (update)

As I dumped out my tea because it was too bitter without milk, I thought about going to the market. Eggs, milk, and some fresh vegetables (maybe fruit, though I have a few apples and a grapefruit left). I have to decide how firmly committed I am to my current no groceries challenge. It’s only been 10 days. But, it’s been 10 days.

My younger daughter was vomiting last week and I got an “oral electrolyte solution,” oyster crackers, and ginger ale. It was cheating on the challenge, and I knew it. I valued my ability to make that choice. I thought of people who would find themselves unable to buy things for their sick children. Maybe they don’t have the money, maybe they don’t have a co-parent to help with transportation, or maybe their own health issues meant they needed to stay home. I felt grateful.

I’ve reached the point in this challenge where I have been looking at my pantry with more interest. While the girls are with their father, what meals can I prepare ahead and freeze? What treats for lunch boxes or after school snacks can I make now for later in the week?IMG_0101

On Friday, I picked up the final share in my “meat share,” from Wolf Pine Farm in Alfred. I paid for it over the year last year, thanks in great part to my SNAP benefits, back when I received more than $14/month. This means I’ve got more meat than I feel I know what to do with. Thank goodness for my deep freezer. Again, I feel grateful.

I have pantry space, freezer space, and I know how to use food strategically. Flinching feelings of “deprivation” or frustration only make me more aware of how much I really do have.

Limiting it to milk, eggs, and fresh produce, (and maybe some chocolate), I will go to the market today. I get to do that without serious consequences. I’m very lucky.

SNAP reduction crisis

After receiving notice that my foodstamps (SNAP benefits) have gone from $234/month to $42/month, I’ve had on my mind what this means for other people. If I had received this notice when things were at their worst, it could have had serious consequences. I was barely holding it together at that point (summer of 2011). Setting aside my beautiful daughters, the benefits I began receiving were one of the only bright spots in my life back then. I clung to what felt like a gift as it gave me the sense things could get better.

It happens that my life is much more stable and my income is beginning—only beginning—to come close to providing what I need to make ends meet. In fact, I had in my mind that in the next six months, I would be able to terminate my participation in SNAP. (The ACA health insurance options played a role in that plan, too.)

It’s not time for me, yet, to be done with SNAP. $42/month does very little relatively speaking. But, because I am no longer in a true crisis, I believe I will make it through. The stress and worry of it (I still have MaineCare) aren’t overwhelming.

The people out there who are living in crisis-mode, with constant scarcity, are surely being crushed by these reductions. It’s devastating that our political priorities put corporate (military) spending and Wall Street bailouts above these important human assistance programs.

I am very lucky. But, if this reduction had happened at a darker time in my life, it could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. I suspect some people won’t survive the near-elimination of SNAP.

speaking the unspeakable

It was the hidden brain I was writing about. The way our minds work, using unconscious biases to make it through our day-to-day lives. We have gut feelings we rely on that don’t express themselves with language or logic.

Here’s an article (Psych-Out Sexism: The innocent, unconscious bias that discourages girls from math and science) written by the author of The Hidden Brain giving a practical example of our our cognitive functions affect us in significant ways.

Why was it I chose such racist and specific examples to start my column? I did it to attract attention, of course. I also did it to demonstrate how ugly those fleeting thoughts—typically manifesting more as feelings than discernable thoughts—can be. And, finally, I did it because I wanted to address the case where a child was killed because (in my opinion, regardless of what the courts determined) the shooter was scared of a Black guy. I wanted to show that it wasn’t only the overtly dangerous acts that block us from eradicating racism.

As the days pass, and I mourn the loss brought on by my words, I have considered again and again what I said. My most recent conclusion is that it was easier for me to use racist statements as an example of those unconscious thoughts that influence our behavior than it would have been to use other kinds of examples. Setting aside my interest in addressing the Martin/Zimmerman case, if the piece had been about the sexualization of children, there are certainly horrific nearly-thought thoughts I could share. That, however, would put me at risk of being misunderstood on a level that could threaten my role as a parent.

Racist or pedophile-like thoughts are the easiest examples for me to use because they are the thoughts I have the most experience dismissing as wrong. They are no longer the things that freak me out with a nervous-nellie oh-god-I’m-awful-for-some-reason-I-don’t-know-why feeling. They are stupid, ignorant, bizarre thoughts that rarely ever come to words. When they do, I’m startled. I reject them and move on.

Let’s say I was writing about the hidden brain—how our unconscious biases affect our social interactions—related to transgendered people, or people with physical disabilities, or people in hospice care facilities, or generationally poor white people in West Virginia. In all of those cases, if I were to dig into my mind and come up with words to describe those gut feeling reactions they would be such unfamiliar and newly awful thoughts, I would have a great deal of difficulty expressing them. It would be especially difficult because I have little practical daily living experience with transgendered, differently abled, dying, or rural poor people. I haven’t become mindfully aware of those ugly feeling-thoughts, yet.

That isn’t to say the racist phrases were simple to write, or that I’d ever like to write them again. But, again, I’ve been learning about our cognitive functions (“supporting the Republican platform means you support rapists,” is one of my blog posts about these issues) for a few years. Facing my gross and, frankly, boring white-guilt thoughts made it much easier to free myself from their bondage. And, the same holds true for the unconscious thoughts about the sexualization of children. I’ve got a 10 year old daughter, so I’ve been un-thinking the most shocking quick-thoughts (freaky disturbing feelings) for a long time. Retraining my mind was most successful once I realized what was going on.

As I’ve said a couple times now, I stand by my column. It is not about my own obsession with my own experience. That would be a detraction from… police harassment and brutality/criminal employment practices/redlining based on perceived racial identity/systemic racism in the criminal justice system, or, of course, the list goes on.

We don’t all have those particular disgusting thoughts I shared at the opening of my column. We do, however, all have thoughts that inform our daily lives that would make us quite uncomfortable if we were to examine them closely. I’m committed to championing the idea that we should examine our unconscious biases closely in order to free ourselves from them.