As February draws to a close, I am extremely frustrated with myself. Four weeks have gone by, and I’ve not written a single word about Black History Month, racism or privilege. Why? I guess there are several reasons, but in a nutshell I’m afraid to go there and I’m hiding. But I expect much more of myself, so without further ado…
No More Excuses
Why don’t we talk about important things? We were basically taught that it’s impolite. I don’t recall my parents ever saying, “now, Amy, we don’t talk about religion and politics in company.” And I’m willing to bet you don’t remember that either. Yet, we both arrived at adulthood knowing we don’t talk about religion or politics in company. And, of course, the do-not-discuss list has grown larger, including now anything about Blackness, black lives matter, whether we take a knew or we stand, how our criminal justice system penalizes people – particularly young black men – for their very blackness, and on and on. Shhhhh! Don’t talk about it.
Can we agree that we really need to talk about it?
Let’s address my hesitation to ruffle feathers first, since that is between you and me.
Learning doesn’t always come easily, and oftentimes we’d prefer to just avoid it. When we’re comfortable enough, when we know what we’re doing and how to do it, and when the status quo is acceptable, it’s easier to linger in the comfort zone.
But nothing amazing ever happens in the comfort zone. Not much changes. What’s bad stays bad and what’s okay stays that way, but magic doesn’t happen there. Discovery and creativity and ingenuity are strangers there. We can tell ourselves we’re content to hang out in the comfort zone, but we won’t be for long. And if our being comfortable means that someone else has to remain uncomfortable, do we really want that? When we were little, we knew the “golden rule”. You remember, don’t you?
Change and magic happen just beyond the confines of our comfort zones. I invite you to take a deep, grounding breath, deliberately open your heart and your mind…and step outside and grow with me.
May I humbly ask your forgiveness if I don’t get it quite “right”?
I feel almost certain that I am somehow going to mess this up. I’m painfully aware of my privilege, my tendency to commit microaggressions, and of the fact that I have a whole lot of learning to do about race relations in America. But making the effort and not getting it quite right seems a lesser offense than simply not trying. As the saying goes, “when you know better, you gotta do better.”
It wasn’t until I started dating my husband, Vineet, back in 2010 that my perception and awareness of race really opened up. Until then, I would have told you “I really don’t see race,” if asked about it. And at the time, I – idealistically and naively – believed that was virtuous and “as it should be”. The last seven years or so have been eye-opening and at times downright painful as I’ve started to wake up to the realities of race relations in America, and particularly to what it means to be Black in America.
Black history is important. Black lives matter. Our black sisters and brothers continue to suffer from centuries of slavery and racism. Is it uncomfortable to talk about it? Yes. It can be incredibly uncomfortable. But the only way to get beyond the discomfort is to courageously move through it with an open mind and an open heart.
Let’s Not Trip Over Terminology
Racism. Institutional racism. Systemic racism. Prejudice. Discrimination. Privilege. We spend a lot of time tripping over and debating the terminology, rather than getting to the heart of the matter. In fact, we spend so much time debating the meaning in avoidance of real and meaningful discussion, that Merriam-Webster makes mention of it.
Dictionaries are often treated as the final arbiter in arguments over a word’s meaning, but they are not always well suited for settling disputes. The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.
So we’re not going to go down that path right now.
With One Exception: Privilege
The only word I’m going to provide a definition for comes from an informal talk given by Brene Brown via Facebook Live in the wake of the Charlottesville, Virginia demonstrations/riots/terrifying-debacle-resulting-in-racial-violence-and-death of August, 2017. (Note: I’ve altered her words slightly for readability without altering her message. Also, the entire talk is excellent, and when you can find a half hour, I highly, highly recommend that you watch it.)
Privilege, when it comes to race, is about unearned rights.
[As a straight, white, CIS-gender, Christian woman,] I can:
- walk into any store and find a doll that matches my daughter’s skin.
- drive in any area near my home and not get pulled over.
- hold hands with my partner at the movies and not fear getting hit in the head with a baseball bat.
- wear a symbol of my religion like a cross necklace and not fear being called a murderer or terrorist.
Privilege is what enables us to linger in our comfort zones when others are in peril. It’s also what has enabled me to avoid writing about Race or Black History Month for twenty-seven days.
Waking Up to My Racism
A year or two ago, a black acquaintance asked his white Facebook friends who among them identified as a racist. It was a deliberately provocative question, intended to make us move into our discomfort and think. It hit me like a punch in the gut. But as the wife of a brown man and the mama of a beautiful little brown boy, I also felt a sense of duty that was much, much deeper than my discomfort. I felt compelled to sit with that discomfort and let it change me. And so I did.
Do I consider myself a racist? NO. Emphatically and absolutely, I do not. I don’t believe that any group of people is inferior to me based upon the color of the skin or what part of the world their descendants came from; that kind of thinking is ignorant and repulsive. I know and love people from all races. BUT…
Faced with a white man or a black man in a hoodie, who are of the same basic build, who am I going to feel more afraid of? Almost certainly the black man. That’s racist.
If I hear Ebonics being spoken, what is my initial reaction? Do recognize it as a learned dialect that has it’s own nuance and complexity? No. I think it sounds uneducated and wonder why people talk this way. Also racist.
Do I benefit from being a white middle class American woman at the expense of my black and brown sisters and brothers? I do. I didn’t choose this, and I don’t think this is my fault. But, once we become aware of this – of our privilege – we must begin the work of trying to change things, or we are complicit in perpetuating racism in America.
Your Experience Shapes You
As Dr. Angelou said, we “are the sum total of everything (we’ve) ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot”…of everything we’ve experienced. I absolutely believe this to be true. So if you’re anything like me, you’ve likely been exposed to:
- Entertainment (movies and TV) that depict black people as “less than”. Less intelligent, less talented, less principled, less well-mannered, less decent, less deserving, less capable. Additionally, you have almost certainly viewed a lot of programming that is devoid of any significant black presence.
- News media that tends to promote suspicion and fear of blacks while downplaying and excusing bad behavior by whites.
- Educational systems that taught a predominantly white view of history, glossing over or overlooking missteps and wrongdoings and intentionally distorting historical fact into a fairy tale in which white people are far more benevolent than they were in reality. (I don’t know that I’ll ever fully recover from my realization that the Thanksgiving story I learned in Kindergarten is, essentially, a lie.)
- A popular and often romanticized equation of white with purity and goodness, and black with evil and malevolence.
- Racist elders. Whether they were family members, friends, or members of your community, you likely knew people who were “afraid of that man” (prominent black leader), incensed by the way the black woman in her master’s-level university class spoke, or brazenly referred to non-whites in overtly racist terms.
Unless you are extremely aware of all the messages that your receiving and vigilant about filtering out the facts from all of the garbage, some of this racist ideology has almost certainly crept into your subconscious. Which is what I had to confront and admit – both to myself and publicly – in response to my friend’s question. It was hard for me; I was embarrassed and felt deep shame. But my honesty was appreciated both my my friend and some of his black friends. (They clearly already knew, but their support really heartened me.) More importantly, that willingness to be honest with myself gave me the opportunity to choose something different.
Reshaping Your Beliefs & Experience
If “knowing is half the battle” then being able to recognize your conditioning and false beliefs – whether conscious or subconscious – places you in a position of awareness, power, and choice. Once you’re willing to admit there is a problem, you suddenly begin to see it more objectively, and to be able to correct it.
It doesn’t feel good to own the fact that you harbor racist beliefs and attitudes. Practice forgiveness and tough love. Don’t shame yourself or others, but do hold everyone accountable for owning it and doing the work to change it. Be honest about where you are and where you want to go, and then take action.
Fend off racism with facts.
The best way to begin transforming any racist beliefs you hold is simply by getting informed. Facts are powerful things. You just have to exercise caution and good judgement in procuring your facts because there is a lot of opinion and malicious misinformation masquerading as fact on the interwebs.
Aside from the Civil War, black history is largely absent from our school curriculum. It’s time to fix that. Some fun and family-friendly ways to open minds and introduce new knowledge:
- I recently picked up a box of Black History Flash Cards from Urban Intellectuals. They’re great because they give you little nuggets of information that spark curiosity and send you on fascinating Google (and sometimes Amazon) adventures. I have Volume 1 and am looking forward to picking up Volume 2 (and subsequent volumes as they become available).
- I gifted this charming little book to a dear (white) friend who is raising two beautiful, spirited black daughters. While still in my possession, it sparked a healthy (and as yet, still unsettled) debate between my 20 year old son and myself about which black woman is most influential. I’ll be buying another copy to add to our home library and look forward to reading it with my little guy.
When we broaden our view of black people and the contributions they’ve made to our country, our world, and humanity, it opens us up to a perspective rarely seen in our day-to-day lives. Facts are friends.
Seek out diversity.
I grew up almost completely surrounded by white people. There were just a handful of black kids at my school and most of them were bussed in from our neighboring city; we shared a classroom, but at the end of the day, they returned to their home in the city and we all remained in suburbia. For all intents and purposes, we still lived in silos. My teachers were white, my clergy were white, virtually everyone around me was white. I went to college at a small Catholic institution in New England where there were very few non-white students or faculty. Rarely was I exposed to the perspectives of a black person.
Today, we have the world at our fingertips and we can seek virtual diversity even if the communities we physically live in lack it. Build some diversity into your social media experience and learn what the world looks like from another’s point of view. On Facebook, Good Black News, HuffPost Black Voices, The Grio, The Root, and Shawn King are great pages to follow. But remember, you are going to learn about another perspective, not to have your own perspective affirmed. Expect to see some things that make you uncomfortable and remember you’re there to learn about an experience that’s very different from your own. Ease into it, breathe through the discomfort remembering that it isn’t about you specifically, and get informed.
Find ways to talk about racism.
This is where the rubber really meets the road. If you can talk about racism and your experience with it, you can begin to break down walls. You see, in in a really paralyzing one-two punch, the world plants racist ideas deep in our subconscious and then stigmatizes them. So the seeds of racism are planted (many from when we are very young), but by the time we’re old enough to recognize and question those beliefs, we’ve learn not to talk about them because it’s too shameful. Which leaves us locked into a paradigm that most of us agree is unhealthy, unfair, and unproductive.
Going back to Dr. Angelou’s quote, if everything influences us, we all get to choose how we want to use our knowledge, insight and experience to influence others. This is where you take what you’ve learned and put it to good use. You can give others the courage to look within and to examine – and forgive – their beliefs, and you can help empower them to create change. Find ways to talk about it.
The fact is, that many of our Black sisters and brothers are descended from slaves. They carry the burden of their ancestors, and continue to struggle for equal treatment and equal opportunity. They are tired, frustrated and angry. Were the tables turned, we would be too.
- Africans were ripped away from their homes by the millions (12M kidnapped, of which only about 11M would survive “transport”), brutally dehumanized, packed like livestock onto ships and then sold like animals around the world. An estimated 388,000 Africans were sold into slavery in North America.
- Families were separated and sold to the highest bidder with no regard for humanity or relationship. Husbands and wives were forcibly uncoupled. Parents and children were torn apart. For hundreds of thousands of Africans and all their descendants, this defines their beginnings here. Can you think of anything more heartbreaking?
- Abused by cruel slave “masters” who berated, threatened, beat, raped and tortured people into subjugation. Languages, traditions, heritage and cultural components of personal identity were robbed from them. And in their absence, a new identity started to emerge based on shared experience and shared blackness. “Black Identity” was born, perhaps as a means to survive, to remain connected to their own humanity, and to claim something for themselves in a world that had taken virtually everything from them.
- Post-emancipation, segregation and Jim Crow laws perpetuated the separation, degradation and suffering of our more-melinated sisters and brothers. These laws remained in place until the 1950s, and Civil Rights laws that proactively protect people were enacted in the 1960s.
And still we struggle.
We can’t change where we’ve been, but we can change where we’re going. By looking within and having the courage and determination to honestly confront our own racism, we can begin to turn the tide. In honor of Black History Month and out of respect for our black sisters and brothers everywhere, will you join me?