One white journey to(ward) anti-racism

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June 4, 2020 by 8junebugs

Programming note: This is my personal story and perspective. It is not as important as what black Americans are sharing about their lived experience, especially right now. There are many resources available for understanding how to do better—this list is a good start. My most immediately effective tools are words and money, though, so here goes.

Reading is good. Listening is better. Your BIPOC friends and colleagues aren’t responsible for educating you; if you know someone who trusts you enough to talk to you about their experiences, just listen. Don’t react. It’s not about you. If it makes you uncomfortable, sit with that discomfort. Then sit with it some more. Then do something about it.

Being born into a racist culture and benefiting from that racism doesn’t make you a bad person. It does mean you have some work to do to break down what you thought was true…what you’ve been taught was true. It probably means feeling wrong and maybe apologizing for something you did or said when you didn’t know better. That’s the shitty part.

The less shitty part is that you will learn as long as you know you need to, and you can do better from now on.

This is what that work looks like for me. It has looked like this, and it still looks like this, because wow, I still fuck it up.

***

I was raised in a loving community that believed it didn’t see color. That turned out to be both wrong and very confusing. It was true and wrong at the same time—we didn’t see color because it wasn’t there. In Middlebury, Vermont, when I was a kid, you could count on one hand the number of folks you knew who weren’t white. People of color were rare enough that novelty could prompt celebrity status. My mom loved to tell me about how I asked if a black woman in the grocery store was made of chocolate. Kids say the darnedest things, right?

A college friend met my family while in town for Midd’s summer intensive program. A very tiny black woman who is feisty in three languages…stood out, you might say. She was also super cute.

The day after she was over for dinner while I was up from DC for a visit, a member of my family said, “You didn’t mention she was black.” Apparently, we saw color after all. It stood out. He didn’t mean it in a “bad” way, only…he thought it was a thing I would have mentioned.

Here are my Grew Up “Colorblind” in Vermont bona fides:

  • My parents definitely taught me that the color of someone’s skin didn’t and shouldn’t matter. As adults who lived through the 1960s but in Vermont, I know this was a good faith effort.
  • do remember a black friend my parents knew when I was a kid. I know literally nothing about that friend (and I’m probably remembering his name wrong).
  • We hosted Fresh Air kids twice when I was little. I remember loving Fatima but not liking Jessica because she slammed a book on my pinky. So for two weeks each summer for two years, a black kid from NYC came to stay with us and…get some fresh air, I guess.
  • I saw “Roots” in 5th grade and it was horrifying. We also watched “Gone With The Wind” at least once a year and knew slavery was wrong, obviously. But we really liked the pretty dresses and Ashley was kind of a well-meaning doofus who “would’ve freed them all after Father died, if the war hadn’t already done it.” So.
    • Related: Patrick Swayze was on the wrong side in “North & South.” Swooning over a very sexy and sympathetic slave owner wasn’t a good look, but there wasn’t a lot of accountability there.
  • There are black people in my family and, according to my mom (who was never a very reliable source, but that’s what I’ve got), it took some adjustment for folks who grew up before the 1960s.

So you can see how I could cruise into my teens and beyond thinking I had a handle on the whole racism thing. All I had to do was remember that it was wrong, right?

Nope. But that’s what I did for a while. All of my closest friends were white. There were more people of color around me when we moved to California, but there were also more people—I’ve never done the math on that ratio, but now I wonder.

When BART announced that it would build a line out to Pleasanton, we heard a lot about how “city kids” and “gang members” would vandalize “our” mall. I didn’t know about dog whistles then, but I knew they meant black kids. Something about black kids from Oakland was inherently “dangerous.”

I also didn’t get it—to me, Pleasanton was a city. I didn’t feel threatened by black kids or adults, as far as I knew. I wrote it off as adults being fussy and worried about my guard shows and AP tests.

I remember someone talking about a Foothill alum (I didn’t really know him but I harbored a little hero worship—he was just so NICE) who came back to Pleasanton and transferred to the UC system after his first year of college. He said (they told me) that “he’d never been treated like a Black Person before” and Michigan was really unpleasant.

I have no idea if the story is true, but it supported my belief that I was living in a pretty woke place, to retrofit an overused term. P-town was safe and nice for black kids, apparently!

After the George Floyd murder, a black classmate I’d admired from afar wrote about Pleasanton PD drawing their guns on him and a friend when he got pulled over in 1994. He hadn’t used his turn signal. He was 17.

He was stopped by police 35 times between the ages of 17 and 25. He was ticketed for a moving violation once.

I didn’t know shit.

After high school, life got messy. I did my gen ed at Ohlone College in Fremont while working 1-3 jobs, depending on the year. I was in a pretty good place for Ayn Rand’s Objectivism to take hold for a while, but not in a very good place to think about white privilege (I did not, then, feel very privileged at all). Ohlone’s student body was much more broadly diverse—my classmates spanned ethnicities and ages/life stages.

My friends were still predominantly white. Friends who were not white didn’t talk to me about race. (No blame there—it just wasn’t something I realized at the time.)

I did a group project about interracial dating for a Sociology class and I don’t remember why we chose that topic. Maybe because of the affirmative action crackdown that year? I do remember that the results—plenty of people were very not okay with interracial dating—surprised me.

My dad remembers my strings of profanity when I was editing the final report. The misuse of the serial comma, back then, caused more outrage than the racism I didn’t think we’d find.

(I still get pretty fired up about the serial comma.)

After Ohlone, I was trying to figure out next steps when a family emergency took me out of California for what would add up to a dozen years or so. I stayed in Vermont for just under a year before leaving to finish my degree—long enough to know that I didn’t quite feel at home there anymore.

Graham was living in Manhattan, getting his master’s at Columbia. We took Greyhound back and forth for visits. It was a long trip and cheaper, usually, at off hours.

One night I woke up in my window seat and a black dude somewhere around my age was sitting next to me chatting with friends across the aisle. I heard the n-word a lot and, being half asleep and still pretty ignorant, I asked him a little later why they used that word. I wasn’t allowed to use it and didn’t want to, but I didn’t get it. It was supposed to be hurtful…?

He explained, more kindly than I deserved, given it wasn’t any of my business. You’d think I could’ve figured it out—I’d been belting (and fully identifying with) Meredith Brooks’s “Bitch” for years by then.

I’d already embraced a term others would use to demean me as a shield against that age-old, baked-in imbalance of power. Men who have called me a bitch have typically been annoyed with me for arguing with them, questioning them, dismissing them, or otherwise challenging their place in the conversation or the world.

Why couldn’t I see the black community was doing the same thing until someone explained it to me?

I chose American University over Syracuse. Syracuse offered more money; AU offered more exposure. I’d finally figured out that journalism was what I should have been studying all along—I’m a writer who sucks at making up stories. But my experience of the world was limited. AU marketed itself on the diversity of its student body and that sounded awesome.

I knew I wanted to be in a more diverse place. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about why.

The friend who would later hang out with my family in Vermont became my friend the first week we were at AU in 2000. We worked together in a language lab with a bunch of other people who changed the course of my life in one way or another.

After one year, my feisty polyglot friend chose to transfer out and went home to Alabama. When I asked her why, she said first that at least racists in the South weren’t sneaky about it. She knew how to deal with that better than racism in places that weren’t supposed to be like that.

That stuck with me a long time. 

After AU, I stayed in DC and made some life choices I would come to regret. The world around me was more diverse, but inside my inner circle, not so much.

At a party one night, I had a conversation with a friend about his race. I was very, very drunk, but I think it was something along the lines of “Where’s the line between honoring your identity and acting like race doesn’t matter, because I was rasied to think color doesn’t matter and I’m starting to think it matters?”

I can be a real asshole.

He was not an asshole.

The deepest resource I had when I started to figure out that I didn’t get it was Melissa McEwan, who wrote the Shakesville website and maintained a beloved community there for a lot of years. Liss is white and had done a lot of work and thinking that I hadn’t done yet. She was—and still is—an incredibly gifted writer, but she didn’t write about the experience of black Americans. She saved space for them to share, if they were so inclined, and she wrote about how she learned to shut up and listen, and why.

It did, at the very least, get me out of the habit of asking black people to educate me in their spare time. The Shakesville community taught me a lot about how to acknowledge and honor others’ experiences in their own skins…which, believe it or not, gave me more comfort in my own.

The internet is an incredible resource in the search for a broader truth. It remains problematic when it comes to discerning which “truth” is worth listening to. While I can stumble across excellent writing that teaches me to listen better to someone whose experience is different from mine, so might another person aggrieved by some event find someone to confirm and inflame that feeling.

The same internet that taught me to re-examine my perspective also teaches people that reverse racism is a thing that exists.

Sidebar: It’s not a thing that exists. Anyone can hold a personal prejudice based on race and plenty do. Racism, though, is a layered system of injustice and inequity based on race…in which we participate, because we’re alive. How we, as white people, participate is up to us. How black people participate has been dictated for centuries. When we deny that the injustice and inequity exist because we don’t see it, we are centering our experience as white people and disregarding the lived experience of black Americans. When we tell their community how to protest that injustice and inequity, we’re still dictating how they participate in that system, even though it brutalizes them, even now.

The Oxford English Dictionary will tell you that “reverse racism” is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism on the basis of race directed against a member of a dominant or privileged racial group.”

Put simply, it’s “You don’t like me or aren’t including me or are bugging me because I’m white, and white people have more power than black people.” Folks tend to miss the “dominant and privileged” part. The definition literally depends on the assumption of white supremacy, which folks leaning on the term don’t like to acknowledge. (Unless it’s a goal for them and they’re cool with it, which is a whole separate problem.)

Much like swooning over a “cotton farmer” with a devilishly silky mullet who bemoans the necessary evil of slavery, it’s not a good look.

We believe in all kinds of things we don’t see face to face. Millions of people fill houses of worship around the world and state their belief in things they can’t see or personally validate. No one can prove that God/dess does or doesn’t exist. When it comes to racism, though, because we’ve been taught it shouldn’t affect anything because we’re all equal, we hold to that invisible “should” when the ugly truth of a promise unfulfilled is right there on the screen.

The system itself relies on us to believe in our ideals over reality. Until we accept that we don’t have all the answers based on what we experience personally, we’re complicit. We’re good people, mostly, and we don’t want race to be a key factor in a person’s experience with law enforcement. It shouldn’t! But when it does, when study after study after study shows that it does, then what?

It’s hard to separate “I’m not a racist” from “Racism exists and I’m swimming in it like everyone else.” The latter means it can’t be avoided. It can’t be ignored. But white supremacy as an ideology and a power structure benefits from confusing the two ideas.

Another way to think of it is a line from one of my favorite novels: “Evil spreads like ink through water. It stains everything it touches.” Accepting that, thinking about it, and sitting with it feels icky when you were raised to believe that everyone is equal no matter what. You didn’t drop the ink in the water, but you’re still stained by it just by virtue of being one drop out of millions. Billions, even.

…unless you’re so far away from black communities that you don’t have to think about it. That was me. That’s where I grew up. That’s how I grew up—instilled with the right values, but without any context for what they meant outside my own community or experience, without the tools to evaluate the culture that didn’t meaningfully support the ideals with which I’d been raised.

It’s the weekend after George Floyd’s murder. A phone call with a loved one follows a pattern playing out nationwide: “I think his death was horrible and I support peaceful protest, but…” I say, less gently than normal, maybe, because white assholes are looting my city and black folks are getting blamed for it, that “but” is where you lose me. I say that, as a mom, if I had to live every day with the bone-deep fear that my husband or sons could be killed by police (or racist vigilante “neighborhood watch” types) just for “matching a description,” I can’t promise I wouldn’t want to burn it all down.

Not 30 seconds after that call ends, I’m in my backyard and my neighbor, from his backyard, tells me they’re going to have a baby. “Don’t tell her I told you,” he says. “I’m not supposed to tell people yet.” I congratulate him (quietly) and we talk about parenting at our age (he’s a few years older and this is their first). My boys are going to be THRILLED when I can tell them.

But I know, as we’re talking, that this is a superficial conversation about the commonalities we can grasp. I know that they’re going to have the cop talk with their kid, especially if it’s a boy, that we don’t have to have with our kids. My neighbor is black and his wife is white.

I know I need to be willing to burn it down for that baby’s safety, too.

I shouldn’t have to center my own feelings as a mother to make the point, but wrapping it in mama bear tropes can help bridge that gap. Maybe. Gotta start somewhere.

Meanwhile, I’m still cringing over a note I sent a friend that had a lot more “I” in it than it should’ve. I know better.

This isn’t a story with a tidy ending and a plate of cookies. I did say I still fuck it up. (Not limited to race! My cup runneth over with love and support for queer and non-binary friends but I still sometimes trip over less familiar pronoun phrasing.) I’m a work in progress and accepting discomfort isn’t something that comes naturally to any of us.

But…isn’t it worth it?

***

I get asked a lot when we’re going to move out of Oakland. The short answer is never, unless we have a pressing reason to leave.

It feels like home, unintentional gentrifier though I may be.

What I was looking for at American University is clearer to me now, 20 years later. I’m more comfortable in places where there’s a better chance anyone can feel more comfortable. Aside from being female, I’m not a member of a marginalized population, but I’d rather not live where folks in Othered groups feel far away, where it’s easy to pretend that everyone’s experience is near enough to mine.

Black kids here aren’t immune to stereotypes or violence or getting shot by a cop, but they can find community. LGBTQ+ folks can find safety and acceptance. Kids, and adults, have more space to be who they are and find people who value and uplift them…not just love them.

Love is a good start, but what does that mean? Do I really love someone if I can’t hear their truth and accept it? It literally does me no harm to accept that a friend experiences racism to an extent beyond my understanding. No skin off my nose, right? Maybe off my pride, but that grows back.

I want our kids to grow up knowing that. This is were it gets a little awkward—I want friends and neighbors, not life lessons. But I do know it’s a lot harder to inadvertently Other the people in your own neighborhood. It’s harder to write off Amy Cooper’s attempt to put Christian Cooper’s life on the line with NYPD when he looks and sounds so much like your favorite work buddy that you can’t shake a dread that doesn’t technically belong to you.

You can’t keep the ink from staining you—it was there before you were born and it does not give a shit about your intentions as a relatively good person. When you can see it, though, when you start seeing color instead of pretending it doesn’t matter, the silent power of that stain begins to diminish.

And every drop of clean water we add, every kid we raise to do better, dissipates that evil a little more.

That’s the only way to make it disappear.

* Belated and very heartfelt thanks to the friends and strangers who helped me stumble down this path. It’s unearned grace and I deeply appreciate it.

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