To my white friends: please listen closely to your inner voices. Please notice if you — even for a millisecond — have a flash of a thought of “they must’ve done something wrong/illegal” when you hear about the number of times people of color are hassled by the police. Continue reading
The part of my racism story I want to share now is from 2007, though it includes a reference to the experiences I shared in my racism story, part 1 (or, “will you be my black friend?”). It’s my hope that my friends and peers who are white might read my stories and consider their own experiences as people in America who identify as white; who, therefore, benefit from the racist structures of our society. I have found it helpful over the years to get honest with myself about the flickering but problematic background thought processes that have blocked me from authentic relationships with people of color:
“She’s Black, she’s Black, she’s BLAAAAACK!” was just about all my brain could handle. Maintaining a simple and polite conversation was barely possible. No matter how much we had in common, no matter how likely a future friendship, I could think of nothing but that amazing dark skin, the transcendent hair texture, and my entire personal history of race relationships. Oh, how I wanted to prove to this woman that I was not like just any white woman! I knew, of course, it was just this level of self-consciousness that would make me utterly annoying to her. But, I just couldn’t help myself.
Helping myself, though, is really what race relations is about for me these days. I do care about the greater socio-political issues (shocking disregard for people’s lives all across the continent of Africa, overt brutality in our country, job discrimination, and of course the list goes on). However, my personal journey with racism now centers around me, my husband, and most of all, my daughter…
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 :-)
It’s horrible, of course. All of this “Trump stuff” (useful shorthand) is terrible. But I keep thinking about the thousands and thousands of people who have lived with this reality for hundreds of years but so many of us didn’t notice. We didn’t realize it was “this bad.”
I’m trying to imagine what it must be like to not only find the new realities we are facing — the corporate takeover of our Democracy — terrifying, but to also have to bear witness to the thousands of newbies just now waking up. The frustration must be enormous.
As we practice standing together, now that we’ve started listening, I hope that those of us who so recently realized “how bad it is” will dig deep into listening to those voices who have been telling us about it all along.
Here’s one powerful example: “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis” by James Baldwin
A few minutes ago I wrote a quick but sort of long reply to a friend on Facebook. He’s a friend I’ve known online for almost twenty years. He’s quite progressive and was always on the same side as me in the heated debates of Usenet in the 90s. He replied to a link I shared in a way that disappointed me, though. I felt like this wasn’t the guy I knew, so I wanted to know more. I told him how I felt about his reply, and it came up that he dislikes the term “microaggressions” because people jump on him for apparently using them. As I said, I just replied to him. I like my reply a lot, so I’m going to share it here:
I think liberals who feel “woke” or that they’ve got some better and deeper understandings about racism, including their own racism are eager to share their new-found knowledge. I think they do this in different ways and for different reasons. (Gonna stop saying “I think” and assume you know it’s there.) In many cases, they’re so riled up with a passion to fix things that they jump on any situation that they now see as problematic and begin accusing.
Accusing, rather than mindfully discussing, does a couple things. It gives the accuser a feeling of power, like, I CAN DO SOMETHING! and it’s energizing. The accuser also gets to distance themselves from their own remaining racism. THAT person is still racist and I see it because I’m SO not racist!
I also think that microaggressions are so pervasive, insidious, and crazy-making (they are a lot like Gas Lighting, if you know that concept?) that accusing someone of using microaggressions probably isn’t all that helpful. They’re really slippery and hard to pin down.
What I’d do, if I saw someone doing something that felt like a microaggression to me (for me, it’s a feeling or intuition, not a factual thing) I might say something to them about how I felt and how I think the feeling came from those words or actions. I’d definitely not accuse or shame someone.
If the conversation went on and the context made it appropriate, I might talk about what “microaggression” means to me.
So, when your fellow liberals jump on you for doing something that seems extreme or ridiculous, I suspect it’s mostly about their own need to feel better and empowered. But, if you are disturbed by their accusations, I also suspect (as I said about your reaction to the linked article) there’s probably some uglier truth for you in the accusations. I don’t think anyone can make you want to dig into it unless you are curious.
And, finally, it’s an unfortunate problem (among many) that people who are trying so hard to make our communities more equitable are actually just kind of fucking things up even more. Giving a bad name to good information.