Trigger Warning: Racism, police violence
“I’m here mommy, don’t worry.”
One of a parent’s greatest fears is that their child could experience something so traumatizing it would scar them for life. Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, the fiancé of Philando Castile, experienced that last week. She watched her fiancé bleed out in front of her while her four-year-old daughter sat next to her in the car. A police officer shot him at close range during a traffic stop during which he was following directions. She watched him die because of our country’s screwed-up policing system and screwed-up systemic racism.
In the two years of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, many white people have been crying out, “This is horrible. What can I do?” One answer I’ve seen over and over from black people is for white people to get their own houses in order. The white supremacy systemic in our society can only exist and continue if white people let it. While I’ve talked about what I’ve done to try to raise my sons as anti-racist peacemakers, I haven’t discussed what I’ve done myself.
So for the sake of that little girl and all of the little black boys and girls like her, along with their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers, here is how I have confronted my own racism:
Recognize, acknowledge and push back against my own racist and privileged thoughts
Just as I didn’t realize I had white privilege, I didn’t think I had a racist thought in my head. That was, until I was around black people on a regular basis. While I knew a couple of black people in high school and college, they were always so in the minority that I didn’t regularly interact with people of color who weren’t already my friends.
But when I moved to D.C. and started volunteering downtown, I saw how racism is a societal rot that settles in your bones. I caught myself judging black people more harshly than I would have white people and being a bit more skittish around black men than I should have been. I realized that I assumptions I made matched up with stereotypes far more than I would like. Slurs that I would never, ever say out loud surfaced in my brain. I’d think, “Where the hell did that come from? That’s not me!” And yet it is and isn’t. Although it’s not who I want to be, we’re all products of our culture.
The longer I’ve lived in a diverse area, the more accepting I am. But it’s a cancer that I’ll never be rid of.
However, I can and do fight it by acknowledging it in my own head and providing a counter-narrative. Think of it like having a “call out post” on yourself. Because I’m Christian, I also pray to God for forgiveness and ask Him to heal my heart.
Embrace and learn from situations where I am the minority
My senior year of college, I went on a volunteer trip to the Bronx. While I was there, my group worked at a community school/center. Between everyone else in my group being Asian and the school being aimed at black and Hispanic students, I was often the only white girl in sight. It was deeply weird. I never felt in danger or rejected, but the sense of being different from everyone else was striking. That gave me just the smallest smidgen of experience what it is like to be a minority, minus any of the actual prejudice.
More recently, our neighbors invited our family to a Memorial Day barbecue. We see these neighbors all of the time on our trips to the nearby bridge, but have never talked to them for more than a few minutes. When we showed up, we realized three things: 1) we didn’t know a single person there (at first, we couldn’t find the lady who invited us) 2) we were the whitest folks there and 3) besides race, we had very different cultural markers than most of the other people there. Because everyone else seemed to know each other and both of us are awful at striking up conversations with strangers, we stood around and made sure Sprout didn’t put his hands in their dog’s mouth.
Despite our awkwardness, I’m glad we went. By accepting the invitation, we showed our neighbor that we see ourselves as part of the neighborhood, like celebrating its history, and appreciate what she does for it. In addition, I like trying to be around people who are different from me, even if it’s challenging at first.
Listen to and respect black people’s lived experiences
I admit that I haven’t always been good about this. I very specifically remember talking to people in my volunteer group about an incident between a police officer and a black person. One of the black members of the group said it was racially motivated and I questioned that statement. The person I was talking to gave me quite the “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about” look.
Reflecting back, I’m ashamed that my first instinct was to question people’s experiences rather than take them at their word. Now I try to listen without judgment and offer support.
In addition to real-life friends, I’ve learned a lot from reading writing by people of color. In terms of books, I Know Why the Caged Bird sings is old, but extremely powerful. Many of the same issues resonate today. I haven’t read it yet (next on the list), but from more modern perspective, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is supposed to be very good. On social media, I’ve started following the founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement: Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors. Some other interesting and insightful folks are Deray McKennison, Van Jones, N.K. Jemison (whose The Fifth Season is stunning, if you’re a SF fan), IronSpike, Cory Booker, W. Kamau Bell and Goldie Taylor.
Educate myself on the history and current issues associated with racism
American racism has much deeper, longer lasting roots than can be pulled out with simple changes in law. Understanding the tangle of cultural factors and public policy that established and reinforces what Michelle Alexander calls “a racial caste system” is essential to comprehending the complexities of what is going on today.
Again, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ series of articles for The Atlantic are fantastic for their level of research and explanatory context from Jim Crow era policies around housing policy up to the current day, particularly The Case for Reparations and The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. To better understand the vast racial injustices in the criminal justice system, I’m reading The New Jim Crow right now.
To shine light on the more subtle factors contributing to racist systems, reading about how police are preying on poor black people with endless tickets to support public coffers and how widespread lead poisioning is in poor communities of color was very useful.
Have tough conversations with friends and family
These days, it’s anathema to be called racist. People think it means you’re a member of the KKK or actually support the idea of police shooting innocent civilians. Some people treat calling someone racist as worse than actually being racist!
But for this country to move forward, we have to have tough conversations. I’ve called people out on Facebook and had challenging talks with family. One in particular was with Chris’s mom, when she realized that her own mother had been pretty racist. Chris’s grandmother wasn’t outwardly hateful, but she did believe that “they let black people win on Wheel of Fortune” and other such seemingly shallow but harmful things. Coming to terms with that really helped my mother-in-law see where those types of perspectives seep into our lives.
I’ve found the key to having these conversations is to listen empathetically, acknowledging all of our own faults and issues. If it’s pushing back against a racist meme on social media, having solid sources and facts that counter it can help, although not always. Most of all, being smug doesn’t help anyone.
Be an advocate
I haven’t been to a #BlackLivesMatter march yet, although I hope I can. Unfortunately, very small children’s schedules often don’t match up with rallies organized on short notice.
But while protests make up the news, there are a lot of necessary things that we can do behind the scenes. I plan to write to my city’s police force using this very good letter template. I’ve filled out the survey at #StayWoke that’s gathering information on people’s skills, including writing, web design, and other types of work you can do from your home. Campaign Zero has a comprehensive list of policies that can lead to police reform and reduce police violence, particularly towards people of color. Color of Change sends out notices of petitions or letters you can write to policymakers to shift towards a just system. Of course, all of these organizations also need funding.
Personally, I don’t call myself an ally because an increasing number of people of color don’t like the term. As Roxane Gay says, “We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance.” While I’m not sure what term is the best, I support tearing down our systems of institutional and societal racism.
What have you tried to do and how has it affected you?
If you’re interested in this topic, I’ve written a couple of related pieces on breaking down racism, namely Baltimore, White Privilege and Who I’m really Worried For and Raising a Peacemaker.