One of the things I read recently was about the importance for white people not only to speak about racism, but to speak about our own racism. To acknowledge what we carry, where it came from, how it has manifested in our lives and in the lives of others.
I want to write about this stuff, not from a place of guilt or shame, but rather from one of clarity. And a place that might invite other white, anti-racist comrades, to do their own work, their own unveiling. It’s a story of that I was not racist.
My brother and I are both proud of citing our (white) family’s human rights credentials. Our paternal great-grandmother may have been the first woman to drive across the country unaccompanied by a man and was a suffragist. She was married three times, supported women’s rights (including abortion), and was generally kind of an edgy badass.
Her daughter—my grandmother—spoke about the Civil Rights movement in glowing terms, associated herself with it when she spoke to us, was a feminist, put herself through college and taught elementary through high school.
Her son, my father, marched with Julian Bond, supported the Civil Rights movement in California, was active in the anti-war movement at Berkeley in the ‘60’s, worked for the Equal Rights Amendment, and identified as a feminist.
My mother has identified as a feminist for as long as I can remember, and probably since before I was born. She has been an ardent supporter of women in politics, ran for public office herself, and has done everything she could to raise up feminist children.
All this…. Today, in the context of what continues to be unveiled about the continuing racism of our culture, it rings hollow. Today I wonder too about my extended family members. The ones I’ve heard use “Jew” and “nigger” as ways to taunt one another for being stingy or tanned. The ones to whom I said nothing when I heard them speak that way.
Today I wonder about my own embedded racism and how it grew and where it lives today. I wonder about my family’s too-often self-important, academic-flavored, white-feminist liberalism.
To begin, I grew up in a very white part of the country: Central Pennsylvania.
I spent the first 29 years of my life in State College, the town where Penn State Universi
ty makes its home, nestled in the low, ancient mountains. There are more deer than people in the counties to the north. Days off for buck hunting were de rigueur.
I had more Black friends than any other white student I knew of in my middle school and high school—which is to say two good friends and two acquaintances. I didn’t know any Black boys in school at all. There were probably six or eight Black students in my high school class of something around 600.
I say all this long-winded introduction to tell a small story of what racism can look like when it’s hiding inside someone who’s been taught she’s not racist. That other people are racist. And that racism is like bad manners—something you can see and turn your nose up at.
It’s a story of realization.
My Racist Fear
I was in college at Penn State, and I was to be trained as a diversity trainer and consultant. Good stuff, and I was proud to have made it through the application. To get the necessary class on my schedule, however, I had to go to the African/African-American Studies office and get some paperwork signed.
I noticed that I was nervous about this. I had never been to the A/AAS office. Would they take one look at me and know that I, queer white girl who wanted to bring about a better world, was nonetheless a fraud who knew next to nothing about race? Would they look suspiciously at me?
I got up to the office, and the receptionist was a young woman doing work-study. A young white woman doing work-study. And in the breath I let go, as I felt relief at seeing someone like me, shame came rushing in.
I realized that I was afraid of Black people. Penn State is an overwhelmingly white campus, and had an abysmal retention rate for Black students when I was there. Oh yes, I had participated in “shantytown protests” against South African apartheid. Yes, I was going to be trained in diversity work, and I am glad I was. It was the beginning of some real changes in my heart, mind, and life.
But I realized that after everything I had been told and taught in my family, I was still carrying racist fear. This is story is over 20 years old, but it is relevant because it was the first time I realized I carried racism within me.
I still do.
The Evolution of Fear
Now that racist fear is about saying the wrong thing, there being an unbridgeable gap between me and my friends of color, being cut off from the love of my friends and loved ones. I am someone who projects judgment onto others and lives in fear of it. And boy, howdy, do I fear the judgment of my Black friends. (Which is interesting, since the interrogation and critique of my ideas by Black friends has been part of opening up a whole new world for me.)
The fear is about the Black construction workers outside my seminary classroom building from which I sort of jumped away one winter evening. “We don’t bite, darlin,” one of them said, and I was embarrassed to have made my fear, both of men in general and Black men in particular, so apparent.
Now that fear is about listening to my liberal friends tell me that there are spaces and times where you just “kind of have to be racist,” and my failing to understand them or engage them fruitfully. About trying and failing.
Where It Comes From
My racism—and the racism of other White people—is also about all the ugly, ugly history of this country. About slavery and the horrors of it that I cannot yet really get my mind around. About lynching and the life-threatening risks people like Ida B. Wells took to unmask and end it. About casual, unthinking overt racist speech. About Black men being cast as sexual predators of White women and Black women as sexual objects for White men’s use and abuse.
This history is not “Black history.” It is the history of this place that became the United States of America in large part on the backs of people brought here against their will. Who were sold as chattel. Who were brutally beaten, raped, and murdered. Many of whom died in the Middle Passage—its own horror.
This history is continuing to wind its slimy green trail through our lives. As Black people
are shot and killed for being trans*, for reaching for wallets, for sleeping, for driving, for eating candy…the history continues to tie its knots into the tapestry of the nation.
Because it is not simply “Black history,” but US history, it is my history and yours. It has shaped what I believe, who I am, the racist impulses I have, the fears I carry, and the unexamined ideas I walk around with, totally unaware.
Nonetheless, this history also shapes my desire to live in what Dr. Mark Hicks calls “A community of beloveds.”
This history calls out a fierce love in me and a desire for a just and peaceful society. My history is shaped by my forebears’ actions and words for human rights. Yes. Yes. I claim it all. The awful and the hopeful.
“Know thyself,” the Delphic Oracle said.
I believe white comrades in anti-racist struggle cannot truly be comrades with people of color until we begin to work with our own history. Until we start to come to know ourselves through and beyond shame and toward and into a commitment for change. And by that I mean not just a commitment to change ourselves, but a commitment for change. Change for fierce compassion and loving justice. Change for the better.