I was raised on the sixties: my dad’s stories of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama and my mom’s of the anti-war movement in Madison, WI. Both talked of police brutality and the existence of racism with as much confidence as they told us that sugar was bad for us, or reading was good. They were facts that I never questioned, which kept me from really interrogating them. I knew fairly young that I was living in a country with racist people, and that racist structures existed, but failed to see the true causality there. The main conclusions I carried were that racists was bad, and White people were bad, and I didn’t want to be either one.
My best friend in nursery school was Puerto Rican, and I rolled the r in her name even though her family didn’t. When I switched schools in 3rd grade, I sought out and befriended the one Black girl in class. I was a middle-aged suburban White lady at 7, trying very hard to make friends of color to assuage my white guilt. I won’t go into my whole racial history here, but skip forward 30+ years and guilt was still my dominant relationship with race. So dominant that I didn’t call myself White, didn’t select “white” on employment and medical forms, tried to identify as Jewish even though I had no intimate interaction with the religion or culture (and even though Jews have been White in all mainstream categorizations for at least half a century). Why would I do otherwise? White People Are Terrible.
When I started facilitating discussions on race 8 years ago, I had to start acknowledging my place and my race. This wasn’t just about getting people to recognize their own shit or open their eyes to all the stuff I knew (very little, really); I had to recognize that if I wanted honesty and vulnerability from others, I had to put myself in the same position. I referred to myself as White, even though I felt it in my body like shame made present. I more easily embraced the rule of the organization I facilitated for that you don’t call people racist; at worst, you point out that their words are racist. I understood the fear of impenetrable defensiveness. I had numerous instances in my own life where I would uncontrollably shake if accused of being racist,or even witnessing something I perceived as blatantly racist.
Despite an ever-steeper spike in my participation in anti-racist education and discussions since then, I was still fighting with the language until a few years ago. I had balked at the new definition of racist that mandated the inclusion of systems of power and intellectually rejected the idea that prejudice that did not come from a place of power could not be called racism, but only bias. I’m not one of those English MAs who clings to the classic definition of words, but I had a problem with what looked to me like wholesale denial of the long-held definition. Definitions can evolve, be expanded, but not erased. That happens through attrition of usage; no one decides that. I had opinions, people! But in deference to Black voices and Black perspectives, I stopped arguing my point. (Kudos to this woman, btw) In compliance with standards in the groups I was part of, I used the new definition.
And then I read White Fragility and finally recognized the ubiquity and inevitability of racism in the U.S. My partner read it and we talked about the content so much that we had to check ourselves in liberal, public spaces for our casual use of the term White Supremacy (no, we’re not Nazis, thanks for asking). My (Black) best friend (yes, she stuck with me despite my questionable childhood motivations) was going through a similar journey from her own place in the world, and we excitedly exchanged ideas and questions and revelations.
And I just kept talking and listening and reading, kept calling out my Whiteness and privilege and my role in the system and where and how I had been brainwashed by the structures in power. And then, without even noticing the moment it happened, I stopped having any physical reaction to calling myself White or even calling myself racist. These are as much facts to me now as sugar being bad and racism being intolerable were when I was 4 feet tall. But instead of having these beliefs imposed upon me, I’ve taken a looooong time interrogating them and coming to a place of organic acceptance.
This is one of those posts that I struggle to place. Should it be on the race blog or the enlightenment blog? Because for me this was ultimately a spiritual journey. If I had relied on my arrogant, dominant intellect, I never would have gotten here. Instead I set that aside with all the humility I could muster and took time to shut up, accept, and practice. Setting aside judgment and using the novel definition of racism allowed me to face and accept my own. All of this is what brought me to a place wherein I can better negotiate difficult conversations mindfully instead of reacting. No intellectual understanding has ever changed my physical behavior. If it had, I would have given up refined sugar decades ago (do I sense a theme…?), but acceptance and practice (behavior) have actually done that. And I cannot tell you how liberating it is to say, I am a White racist. If you’re at another phase of your journey, you may not understand or agree with this, but I can tell you in my own experience that after decades of inert wallowing in guilt, owning my own inevitable racism got me out of that trap and pushed my ass another rung up the anti-racist ladder.
Similarly liberating was recognizing that White people, like all Americans, are psychological victims of the Supremacist bullshit that has been fed to us our whole lives. Of course we’re racist. How could we not be? We can get better, but we can’t start at innocent. Anti-racist work begins with deconstructing what you believe to be true. Accepting my own racism has allowed me to view more blatant racists with compassion, to recognize that their education had the same foundation as mine, they just got exposed to extra-racist curriculum by their parents, their region, their career. And I was lucky enough to be raised with a race-consciousness, while most White people aren’t. I don’t do the “is he or isn’t he” racist game anymore, because as far as I’m concerned everyone is racist. Let’s move on. Let’s talk about why, about whether they’re open to change, about what approaches they might be willing to listen to and what kind of interaction might get them to interrogate their own beliefs. I have to approach my personal anti-racist work from a spiritual place, which for me means compassion. We all have our roles, and I believe my White lady role is to use my experience, understanding, and love to help White folks get past their fear, myopia, and miseducation through conversation and writing. It’s much easier to do that now that the words don’t scare me.