“Looking at Black people like you would any other people,” a follow-up post

I want to tell you more, readers who are identify as white. I wrote on Black Girl in Maine’s blog about the awkwardness some of us get when we’re with Black people and I want to write a bit more.

The process of recognizing my own racism has been a long, long process. I want to tell you that when I got to the point, just a few years ago, where I really — and I mean really — recognized just how deep my own biases ran, it was painful and confusing. It played a part in what I can only describe as an identity crisis. Who am I, if I can be this ignorant? Looking back at my life, why did I only know a few people of color beyond the level of polite chit-chat? Why did most of my friends and family, progressives every one, also have only white friends? What did I really, really, really think about Black people?

Examining my racist, biased, terrified truth was a serious mindfuck (pardon me, but words fail when I try to explain this).

I had to float away from myself. I had to wonder who I was, because on a lot of levels, I really didn’t know for a while. I had to see that I thought about Black people as being “one way,” even though on a logical level I knew that was nonsense. I had to see that all people of color were “other” to me, no matter how much I wanted that to be not true. They were they and we (white people) were we.

I didn’t know about their hair, their makeup, their clothes, their language, they they they. As if there was one way. And, at the same time, as if learning about people’s differences was somehow not allowed. (Please keep in mind that I have known on so many levels that valuing differences is a beautiful way to move through the world!)

It was so confusing! It’s still confusing!

Lately I’ve been thinking about representation in tv shows. I was of the belief until just the last year or so that Black people couldn’t play “white roles.” Like, it would be too unbelievable to have a Black actor play a famous white person.

Why? Why did I think that was impossible? There are so many areas where I’m able to suspend my disbelief — how children of gritty British detectives always seem content to play with coloring books while their parent hashes out the details of where the murderer will strike next, for example — why couldn’t I accept an actor’s Black appearance and focus on the character they are playing?

I now believe I could. I’d like to see a lot more Black people playing “white” (as in historical fiction, say a Jane Eyre or something where we’re sure the main characters were white) roles.

I digress. But that’s part of what makes it so confusing. There are so many strands to unravel when it comes to my biases, my part in institutional racism.

What I want to tell you is that it has gotten better. After I crashed into the “holy shit. I *must* be racist in even deeper ways than I realized when I first started realizing it.” When I realized that I didn’t know how to just be normal around people of color; when I realized that I thought of people of color as different (and that meant less valued, less everything), as other; and when I realized that I felt deep, searing pain not seeing the full humanity in my brothers and sisters (oh, do I dare use that phrase? it’s what I mean, it’s how I feel, so I will risk it), I began to be able to let it go.

Using what I’ve learned over the last 7-8 years about Thich Nhat Hanh and Zen Buddhism, expanding my spiritual life in my 12 step recovery program and in my Quaker meeting, and, most recently, tying together my spiritual life and growth with the need for transformation in our racist systems (in great part through the work of Rev. angel Kyodo williams), I’ve experienced inner change. It’s hard to articulate because it’s a living experience. But the “other” feeling about people of color has almost disappeared. I’m not suggesting I don’t slip into it regularly. I do. But I catch myself pretty quickly. I have an authentic sense that we are all one. We don’t exist without each other. I have been released from a great deal of pain and confusion related to my own racism and biases and history.

So, it’s been my experience that really, really facing my own crap has been really, really difficult. But it’s also been my experience that it is getting better than I ever thought it could. It requires daily efforts on my part, but it’s really, really worth it.

BIPOC and what it must be like for Black Americans and indigenous people

Listening to solid news coverage about the struggles of immigrants and refugees, I was struck today about how disheartening, depressing, and even traumatizing it might be for Black people (and, now that I’ve been thinking about it, for indigenous people in the US) to have excellent passionate and committed activism and news coverage about the current issues facing immigrants and refugees. Even if Black and/or indigenous people fully support the rights and causes of immigrants and refugees, I can’t help but wonder (and I suspect google would bear this out) if Black and indigenous people might feel once again as if they don’t count or are invisible to the “allies.”

What I mean is this: Black people in America (and indigenous people here) have been terrorized and brutalized for hundreds of years, but they’ve barely made the news. Or, if the issues they face make the news it’s either covered from a white supremacist perspective or it only flashes in and out of the public eye.

Later this morning I saw on twitter an acronym I didn’t recognize: “BIPOC.” Instead of asking the tweeting person what it meant (they are an indigenous rights activist in Canada, I think? and I’m sure are bombarded by white people asking them to explain things) I googled it. It means “Black, indigenous, and people of color.” From what I’ve read, it’s used to help center discussions and work related to racism on people who tend to be marginalized when the term POC is used. For example, POC can refer to anyone who has Black or brown skin (or who identifies as a person of color). But, in general, Black Americans have enormously different histories than do those people who have come here voluntarily.

These days, as I’m hearing about the important good work being done for our neighbors who don’t have documentation stating they are legally allowed to live here, every news story I hear or read I think about how many stories about Black people being arrested and jailed for jaywalking or being systematically shut out of every single institution in the country. At this point, I’m not doing much more than thinking about it, but as I was noticing it, I felt like I wanted to share it.

As always, these notes are quickly written and are by their nature not inclusive of all aspects of these complicated issues. But, I’d rather say something than nothing at all when I’m in a place where it’s appropriate for me to speak/write. (For example, writing on my own blog is an appropriate place for me to take up space.)

to my white friends

To my white friends: please listen closely to your inner voices. Please notice if you — even for a millisecond — have a flash of a thought of “they must’ve done something wrong/illegal” when you hear about the number of times people of color are hassled by the police.

Even the most open-hearted and progressive among us are influenced by the systems we live in.

You know the justice system is not just, but please notice if you have the little whisper of “they must’ve done wrong.”

I found that once I started noticing those nearly-imperceptible thoughts — for me, police = protection against criminals, so, therefore, police stopping someone must mean they are a criminal — I was able to learn more about myself. I began the process of ridding myself from the emotional obstacles that had been preventing me from actually participating in social change.

Despite decades of work on my own part in racism, I still have those thoughts! I saw that Philando Castile had been pulled over 49 times in 13 years and I thought, “wow, maybe he was a criminal?” The thought lasted fractions of a second, but I noticed it. I caught myself. I corrected the thought. I was reminded of how insidious racism is and it reminded me to refocus.

I’m not done being racist, and no matter how much inner or outer work I do, I probably won’t shed all of it. But I started getting better when I started getting really, really honest.

my racism story, part 2 (more background)

The part of my racism story I want to share now is from 2007, though it includes a reference to the experiences I shared in my racism story, part 1 (or, “will you be my black friend?”). It’s my hope that my friends and peers who are white might read my stories and consider their own experiences as people in America who identify as white; who, therefore, benefit from the racist structures of our society. I have found it helpful over the years to get honest with myself about the flickering but problematic background thought processes that have blocked me from authentic relationships with people of color:

“she’s Black, she’s Black, she’s BLAAAAACK!”

“She’s Black, she’s Black, she’s BLAAAAACK!” was just about all my brain could handle. Maintaining a simple and polite conversation was barely possible. No matter how much we had in common, no matter how likely a future friendship, I could think of nothing but that amazing dark skin, the transcendent hair texture, and my entire personal history of race relationships. Oh, how I wanted to prove to this woman that I was not like just any white woman! I knew, of course, it was just this level of self-consciousness that would make me utterly annoying to her. But, I just couldn’t help myself.

Helping myself, though, is really what race relations is about for me these days. I do care about the greater socio-political issues (shocking disregard for people’s lives all across the continent of Africa, overt brutality in our country, job discrimination, and of course the list goes on). However, my personal journey with racism now centers around me, my husband, and most of all, my daughter…

[post continues here]