I grew up in mostly-white, predominantly-Christian, suburban, middle-class American communities. There, I was comfortably surrounded by well-meaning white people who by and large rejected the idea of racism…without having a fully developed understanding of what it was. We addressed both race and racism by not addressing them, suggesting, perhaps unconsciously, that it was impolite, potentially hurtful, and arguably immoral to see or speak of them.
Follow the Golden Rule.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Everyone deserves to be treated equally.
Just be nice.
I don’t know if this piece amounts to a plea, a cleansing, a declaration, or just a rambling confessional. But I’ve been feeling the need to write about my awakening to the realities of race in America for a while now (find my first awkward attempt here). With MLK, Jr. Day just behind us, and this Podcast with Embrace Race on my mind, now seems as good a time as any…
I See White People
When I was little, my white family sponsored a Native American child. Her photo hung on a bulletin board in our kitchen where we would see and think of her daily. In grade school at the time, I had no idea why this little girl’s family needed support or what race had to do with it. It felt good and righteous to know we were helping this far-away child enjoy a more comfortable life. Looking back, I so wish we’d talked about why it was necessary. Because by not talking about it, we suggested that race wasn’t relevant. But we don’t talk about race.
Aside from this one steady but distant presence in my world, the only people of color (PoC) that I knew were schoolmates. Jamie and Kimmy were East Asian children who had been adopted by local white families. Another brown-skinned boy – quite big for his age, very physical, loud, and foul-mouthed – was always in trouble on the school bus. From him, I learned some rather unsavory language, what it is to fear another human, and how to be almost invisible. I also experienced the first conscious twinge of my own racism. I don’t know what his race or ethnicity were, but his presence made me anxious and his dark skin somehow intensified my unease. Uncomfortable and confused with my own feelings, I never spoke to anyone about that aspect of my experience. Because everyone knows we’re not supposed to see or talk about race.
Middle and high school were much the same. Except now some classmates were bussed from the city to the suburbs for school. Looking back, I don’t recall that the schools ever talked about why students were bussed in with any specificity. It was relatively clear that they were looking for better educational opportunities and perhaps a safer learning environment. But why weren’t the schools in their community the same as ours?
Without any specific information or direction on the topic, we were left to conclude (and the silence reinforced this notion, since it would have been impolite to implicate the community itself in the poor quality of their schools) that the problem was related to the neighborhood and its people. Things like redlining and school funding would have been wholly appropriate learning topics, especially in high school. But I wouldn’t learn about that until I was solidly middle-aged and researching on my own.
(Also of note: over the course of my entire public school education, I recall only one teacher who was Black. Everyone else was either white or possibly white-passing.)
Unfortunately, the student body at my small Catholic New England college was, somehow, even less diverse. Fortunately, there was some diversity in the faculty and an attempt to address diverse perspectives in the curriculum. We didn’t spend enough time discussing injustice in general or racial injustice specifically. But still, just to get a taste of diversity stirred something in me.
Through my childhood and into my young adult years, the America I saw as I gazed naively through the proverbial rose-tinted glasses that I was privileged to wear, was the Great Melting Pot. We were an amalgamation of diverse peoples from around the world who all enjoyed the same freedoms and privileges under the sacred banner of “Liberty and Justice for All.” It was a beautiful and inspiring America. My infrequent conscious encounters with white supremacy and racism always left me feeling vaguely ill, like there was a rock in the pit of my stomach. It didn’t fit my world view and I didn’t like it.
“That man scares me,” a beloved elder said to a ten-year-old me of Jesse Jackson as he pursued the Democratic Presidential Nomination in 1984. I’d come to vaguely believe (how, I don’t recall) that he was a good man who was a symbol of hope to some. I knew in my gut that my dear one was afraid because Candidate Jackson was Black, and it disappointed, confused, and saddened me. But – as usual – I didn’t talk about it. To do so would be to betray her, and we don’t talk about race.
Awkward discussions with relatives who grew up during the Jim Crow era as they spoke of their discomfort navigating spaces that Black and white folk shared. There’s that disappointment again, accompanied this time by shame.
A mentor venting indignantly about the Black woman in her grad school class whose spoken English (perhaps African American Vernacular English) was so unscholarly and unprofessional. Welcome back, disappointment. Sigh.
None of these people were less than twenty-five years my senior, so I told myself it was a generational issue and moved on. I wasn’t racist, America wasn’t racist, and even these people who betrayed their own racism to me probably weren’t really racist I told myself.
Seeing Is Believing
Sadly, I was well into my thirties before the great unraveling that would ultimately enable me to see how wrong I was began. And I’m sorry to say that I exposed my brown husband to undue hurt and frustration as I inexplicably needed to witness racism directed at him with my own two eyes before I would really start to get it. Despite having plenty of evidence to the contrary, I was so emotionally and intellectually invested in the idea that we lived in a post-racial society that I couldn’t even trust his telling of his own experience and pain. I had to see it with my own two eyes.
My husband and I met and started dating in 2010, when progressive things were happening in America. We had decisively elected our first Black president two years prior. States were legalizing gay marriage. We were beginning to address environmental issues and to fix our healthcare system. I was convinced that we were headed in the right direction and the world – to me, anyhow – felt more open and hopeful.
Race wasn’t much of an issue in the early days of our relationship. I was too enamored with him to notice who was noticing him…or us. And he probably didn’t trust me enough to talk about racism back then. But as time went on and we settled into the rhythm of life, it began to pop up here and there. I resisted it at first, but my denial didn’t last long. It couldn’t. It’s in our faces all the time in ways big and small. And before you ask, I have not been (and given the current distribution of power and resources both in America and around the world, really cannot be directly) a victim of racism myself, though I have been on the receiving end of racial prejudice plenty of times.
(Learn about the distinctions between racism and prejudice here.)
Over the years, Vineet helped peel back the onion of my own racism by pointing out (sometimes with intense frustration) my unconscious biases, unfounded assumptions, and presumptuousness. There were many uncomfortable (and oftentimes painful) conversations. Sometimes they were deeply personal, but more often they focused broadly on American culture and politics. These talks were usually very brief, and over time grew to include a lot less of me talking and a whole lot more of me listening. Little by little, my illusions fell away and I began to see with increasing clarity.
And as I began to see with greater clarity, I became more open to exploring my own unconscious biases (check yours here) and to talking about them more openly without feeling like I was a horrible person.
When my multi-racial friend Brooklyn asked his social media community which of his white friends were racist, I had a real moment of truth. I think I was the first person to own it. Reluctantly, carefully, and with great emphasis on the fact that I didn’t intellectually believe in the superiority or inferiority of any race, I said that I was aware that I had bias which I believed stemmed from my immersion in white American culture, that I was aware of my privilege, and that as much as I hated it, I recognized that I uphold and benefit from inherently racist systems in my day to day life.
And then I sat back and waited for an onslaught of verbal abuse to take me down. Instead, I was met with support, mostly from Brooklyn and his Black friends. They already knew I was racist. They respected that I could admit it. It was eye-opening to say the least.
2016 – A Candidate for Hate
I recently read an excellent article by Kelsey Blackwell in which she says of cultural context, “it’s difficult to see the water in which we are swimming.” Up until the 2016 presidential elections cycle, I struggled to see the waters of racism with clarity. I was aware of police violence against Black people and the devastating consequences of that. Economic injustice was rather apparent to me, too, but had a very limited understanding of how it was created and upheld. I was still in the very early stages of waking up.
Enter Donald J. Trump, racist extraordinaire. Through his campaign I began to see the water around me with ever-increasing clarity and realized it was shark infested. And it was terrifying. Not only were racism and white supremacy alive and well, they were absolutely thriving.
At his campaign kick-off rally Trump dove straight into his racist rhetoric, saying, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
In that moment he became the Pied Piper of American white supremacy; he spewed baseless, racist drivel, and the rats, er, racists came running. But rather than lead them out of town, he gave them a safe space to gather and feed their hate.
With Trump’s election in November, 2016, an eerie feeling settled over the nation as we recognized that we were now being led by a man who had hate in his heart. For some this was emboldening. For others, it was absolutely bone chilling. As a white woman with a brown husband and a beautiful biracial son, I was terrified. And as a direct result of my relatively privileged position in life, I had absolutely no idea how to handle the situation. As I looked around for support, I didn’t find much.
2017 – Racism Rises
2017 brought, of course, the inauguration. Hate ascended to the highest, most powerful office in our country, and arguably, the world. It was terrifying, but many tried to hold onto some optimism. Perhaps the office itself would inspire Trump to rise to the occasion and govern justly. It didn’t take long for our hopes to be dashed.
Within days, the infamous “Muslim ban” was announced and I found myself protesting at the local airport in the company of like-minded people of all ages, races, and religions. Fists in the air, we chanted “no ban, no wall, you build that wall, we’ll knock it down” until we were hoarse. The solidarity and vibrant energy of that event was the most comforting and empowering experience I’d had since the election, and quite possibly since.
Hate may have risen to power, but love still lives here.
Fill ‘er Up
Just weeks later, my husband, our young son and I were returning from a road trip. We made a pit stop at a gas station on the PA-NY border in the wee hours of the morning. Sick as a dog, I wandered into the restroom. Half asleep and utterly unprepared for what I would find I walked in to discover myself surrounded by racist graffiti. Swastikas seemingly everywhere.
As I stared at the graffiti through bleary eyes, I almost couldn’t understand. I reached out and touched it. Could I remove it? No. It was actually carved into the walls and bathroom fixtures. Staring, I felt sadness, confusion, disappointment, and anger.
And then as I flashed to my husband pumping gas with our child asleep in his car seat: TERROR. Were they in danger? Was the person who’d done this nearby? Hurry and get back outside. Your whiteness affords them some protection.
I would never look at the world through the same eyes again, and I knew it.
Unite the Right
That summer, nationalists, neo-Nazis, the Klan, and various other white-supremacist, right-wing hate groups gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia for the Unite the Right rally. There, the entire country witnessed organized hate of a size and scale that was terrifying. Counter protesters showed up to challenge the hate, among them clergy of many races, faiths, and denominations.
On the right, many of the rally participants were heavily armed. Impassioned confrontations and vicious fights broke out. One of the counter protesters, Heather Heyer, died when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, killing her and injuring many more. All of this was tacitly condoned by the President of the United States and by extension, his entire administration, when he said, “there were some very fine people on both sides.”
In the days and weeks that followed, I struggled. A lot.
I remember standing in my kitchen as I washed the dishes one night, wondering if maybe we were being watched. Was there someone out there who secretly didn’t approve of our little mixed-race family? I didn’t – and frankly still don’t – know many of my neighbors. Are we safe here?
My mind racing from one fear to the next, I thought of generations of black women who stood in their kitchens doing dishes night after night. Did they wonder if a brick was going to come through their window? Or if one of their loved ones would be dragged from their home and lynched? Where did they find the strength to live their lives surrounded by such violent racism? Was it the strength of their ancestors holding them up? Did generational trauma inform and fuel their survival instinct? I was flooded with a sense of love and respect for all of them, and grief over having been part of the population that terrorized them then…and now.
My perspective was forever changed. I began reading more about both Black History and the legacy of racism and white supremacy in this country. I expanded my knowledge of colonization, and the attempted genocide of Native Americans. And as the immigration crisis at our southern border reached a boiling point in 2018, I studied the history of the countries the immigrants come from. The thread of US interventionism that tied them all together in a horrible, tangle of corruption, violence and suffering infuriated me. We had created this. There was tremendous pain everywhere and white fingerprints were all over it.
How had I not seen it before?
I’ve long heard about systemic racism (also referred to as institutional or structural racism) but struggled to grasp the concept fully. In particular, the notion that I benefit from it and help perpetuate it was – and, honestly, still is – very difficult for me to completely accept. But systemic racism stands on the shoulders of white supremacy, and makes impossible the fulfillment of the promise of “Liberty and Justice for All.” Systemic racism has found its way into so many cracks, corners and crevasses of our society that it touches virtually everything.
It’s in where we live and who we are in community with. It’s in the food we have access to and the way our schools are funded. It’s in our text books and our folklore and the stories upon which we build our American identity.
It’s in the quality of our education, the jobs available to us, and how we are compensated. It’s in where and with whom you do or do NOT feel safe. It’s in our workplaces and our government and our criminal justice and healthcare systems.
It’s in the news media, movies, music, product advertisements and video games. Novels, children’s books, memes, gifs and emojis.
Once you start seeing it, you can’t unsee it or stop finding it. You see it everywhere. (And IF for some reason you cannot see it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. You can’t see the stars on a cloudy night either, but they’re still out there.)
How had I not seen it before?
I was being prevented from seeing it and fed a steady diet of half-truths and untruths that upheld the status quo (white supremacy). I was a cog in an enormous system that functioned to hold the masses down while empowering a small, entitled group of very powerful white men. This machine is so much a part of my being that I couldn’t trust my own husband’s telling of his own experience of racism at first. Think about that for a minute. My husband. That’s huge.
“It’s difficult to see the water in which we are swimming.”
So, What’s My Point?
I started writing this days ago, not knowing what my point was, only that I had a nebulous but very important something to say. Now? Here’s what I guess I really need to say:
- Race doesn’t even exist. It’s a social construct that has not benefited humanity in any way in terms of enabling freedom, justice, peace, and goodwill. None of the beliefs or systems that we’ve built around race are based in fact or rational thought.
- Despite this, racism is alive and well both here in the United States and around the world. I take no pleasure in saying this, and I assure you this isn’t just some stupid “SJW bullshit.” It’s a fact.
- We tend to think of racism as an individual belief or feeling of superiority over other races, but that’s just a small piece of it.
- You probably have friends who are PoC and that’s great. But do you know the struggles they face? Do they trust you enough to tell you about the racism they encounter in their day-to-day lives? Because I promise you, they encounter a lot of it. Some of it probably comes from you. If they don’t trust you enough to share their experience, maybe ask yourself, “why?”. We don’t get free passes just for having friends, acquaintances, or even family that are PoC.
- Systemic racism is an enormous challenge that we all face together. Dismantling it will take exceptional self-awareness, commitment and leadership. If you don’t consider yourself racist, or – even better – if you’d aspire to be an ally, an antiracist and/or an accomplice to the complete liberation and empowerment of PoC, you need to read up and get on board. To be silent is to be complicit.
- This is really challenging material for most white people to fully synthesize intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. It’s going to be messy and you’re going to feel incredibly vulnerable. Know that parts of you are going to push back mightily on what you’re learning. Be prepared to move forward anyhow.
- If you’re going to work through this, it helps to have an accountability partner or a trusted group of people to talk with in confidence. Some people feel it so deeply that they need the help of a therapist to complete the work. This will almost certainly be one of the most challenging and worthwhile things you’ve ever done.
- Listen. A lot. Listen to PoC as they explain their history, their lived experience and what they most want and need from you going forward. They know what’s wrong and how to fix it. But also know that no population is a monolith. You’ll be exposed to different valid points of view from different PoC. Seek out voices of communities that you’re not typically exposed to and learn from them, quietly and humbly. Social media makes the former very easy and the latter extremely difficult. Be aware.
- Acknowledge now that you will never truly understand and that’s OK. Those of us who were born in white skin will never really understand the pain and frustration of being a PoC in the world today. We can’t imagine the generational trauma or how it feels to see black people gunned down in the streets by people who are supposed to protect them…over and over and over again. We can empathize to a point, and our degree of empathy will vary depending on our own life experience. But we’ll never truly understand. So practice some solid restraint and emotional intelligence and resist the urge to say that you do.
- Don’t look for PoC to praise your efforts or reassure you…or even to approve of or like you. And don’t ask them to teach you about racism. Though some will be open to that, it’s best to assume that discussing racism with white people will be traumatic for them. They’re already exhausted from their own burdens and they probably don’t have the energy or desire to hold you up. Get a white buddy to do this work with you.
- This is about what’s objectively right and wrong. It’s about white people accepting accountability for generations of white wrongdoing and fixing it so our sisters and brothers of color can enjoy the same freedoms and privileges we do.
- I am by no means an expert on any of this. I’m just a white woman who naively waltzed into a relationship with a brown man thinking we lived in a post-racial reality. She had a whole lot of waking up to do. I’ve learned and am learning. Every damn day.
- There are many PoC who are experts and have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. Go find them. Start with some of the linked articles here. Remember that Google is your friend (well, sort of, but that’s a whole other conversation). Open your mind and your heart and join me in making this world a better place. It’s time.