My friend shared a short film of an awkward first date on her Facebook wall this past week with the lines “Short and sweet but powerful point.” In it, a white man and white woman start making casual and flirtatious jokes as they get to know each other. After they finish dinner, the man makes a racist joke. The woman calls him out on it and… you can imagine how that goes. As I watched it I was reminded of a first date I went on a couple years back that quickly ended after a comment along the lines of “Don’t you just think those kids…” Thanks, no thanks. Don’t use the fake question “don’t you think” to tell me what to think. Do you know the derogatory use of the word “those” in a racial context? Can we get the check please?
Of course I say all this not to be self-righteous SO here comes the fall. In the film, as the couple walks outside, the woman in the video is caught in her own racial assumptions and is made to look like a fool. The end. The point of the whole thing is that yes it is important to have conversations about race, AND it is also important that we look inward at our own bias and bring that to the conversation. That is the protocol (CCAR Conditions 1 & 2: Engage through our personal racial experiences, beliefs and perspectives while understanding historical as well as contemporary, local, and immediate contexts). In all the painful events of the summer and ensuing articles and responses, I read somewhere a call to white people talking to other white friends.
White people: talk to your friends about racism. But don’t talk to them about THEIR racism, talk to them about YOURS.
To do this would mean that we I look internal and model reflection. To do this would mean we I show vulnerability and a growth mindset. To do this would mean we I approach others with curiosity and not judgment. To this would mean that I go back through what I just wrote and write with I statements.
In a world where rhetoric of building walls, banning religions, and dehumanizing people of color is prevalent, it is tempting for me to think, yes I’m white, but I’m not white like that. This is dangerous for several reasons; the least of not is that it lets me limit racism to confirmed bigots and intentional hateful actions. Racism does not require malice or intent. I can and do participate without trying. So such dichotomous thinking creates several dangerous traps.
– It allows me to continue acting without personal reflection. I am passionate about racial equity work, AND I have plenty of growth to do in this work. When I as a white woman embrace personal reflection I get to embody the characteristics of who I want to be—a lifelong learner and a believer that we can grow from our mistakes. It also allows me to reject the “Good” vs. “Bad” binary and see myself as human, not as someone who needs to be perfect.
– It allows me to ignore taking responsibility and reconciliation for hurtful impact because “I didn’t mean it”. When I hit a car and ignore it, it’s illegal even if I didn’t mean it. Can you imagine if it wasn’t? Last time someone hit me, I don’t think I would have been comforted much by “Oops, didn’t mean to. Have a great day!” Racism works the same way.
– It allows me to stay silent letting the moving walkway keep on cruising towards racism and racial disparities without working against it. Beverly Daniel Tatum talks about this in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafteria? Until systemic racism is interrupted, it will keep happening. Sitting on the moving walkway, seeing it move, but not walking the other way for me often takes the form of silence. Silence leads to distrust amongst white people and people of color because I am not willing to place myself in the work as a white woman and only further contributes to fracturing our community. Additionally, it exhibits the belief that it’s other people’s responsibility to stop racism, not mine.
So my reminder is yes, I am white like that. Not to make myself feel bad or to sit stuck in guilt or in helplessness, but to own up to my work and reclaim my own humanity. As Joan Olson puts it in her article Detour-Spotting for White Anti-Racists “There are no ‘exceptional white people.’” Yes, I attend anti-racism trainings and work to have courageous conversations about race with people in my life. Yes, I interrupt racist jokes and attend vigils for lost black lives. And I still experience privilege because I am white. When I can hold both—I am about this work and benefit from my skin color—I place myself in the picture. I get in the boat and start to row with people of color and white anti-racists rather than cheering them on from the side. I break down walls with potential allies and embrace my own learning.
This year, my goal is to continue to model reflection. Growing up in a home that didn’t talk about race, over the years I acquired quite the skill set for avoiding conversations about race. It is my continued work to build on new skills, courageous skills, that allows me to pursue change in a new way. I desire for this blog to be one such place of that. Not because I have answers or have it figured out, but because I believe we are in this together. To use Gloria Ladson-Billing’s words, as a nation we have accrued an enormous educational debt owed to our students of color and native students. I am passionate about changing that and need to start with and continually examine myself. Will you join me?