If you would have told me three years ago, before Michael Brown, before Eric Garner, before the Black Lives Matter movement that I am a racist, I would have fought you tooth and nail. Absolutely not, no way ― how dare you accuse me of such an awful thing?
I’m liberal. I’m progressive, I lived in the melting pot of LA for damn near a decade. I have black friends, I would think. Best friends, for God’s sake! I was raised “color-blind” and taught everyone is equal in value regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, etc, etc.
I was a liar.
To be more accurate, I was an unconscious liar.
I really DID believe that I wasn’t a racist ― but the truth is, I hadn’t really examined the topic very much and I certainly had never been called to the mat on it.
All that changed two years ago.
The social media firestorm following the death of Michael Brown and the ensuing riots in Ferguson caught my attention. I saw my black friends posting extremely emotionally raw and pained content. I clicked and followed and read, link after link and post after post. I found myself in a world I didn’t know ― at all.
I spoke with one of my best friends in person and seeing the deep, deep pain she had never shared with me all these years hit me hard. It was shocking to hear her be honest with me in a way she had never been before, in a way that she was with her fellow black friends and family.
I reached out to another dear friend of almost 20 years and he spent four hours talking to me, sharing a reality I had never ever seen or understood. How could I not know so much?
One thing led to another and finally I joined a Facebook group for white people to learn more from Black Americans and their unique experience.
I could not possibly share each and every lesson I have learned over the last two years. It’s like I was given access to a different life. A life that seemed so similar to mine but in another parallel and intersecting universe.
I was a stranger in this world. A foreigner even. And I saw and heard shocking things I had never seen or heard before. I realized very quickly that I knew very little about the Black American culture; although, I really had been confident that I did. This was terribly unsettling. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to learn you know so little about something you thought you knew well. I’m not sure I have ever experienced an internal disconnect so dramatically in my life.
“Was I too weak to participate in someone else’s world? Am I too weak to feel uncomfortable with someone else’s truth?”
The dissonance inside me became almost intolerable. I wanted to walk away. I didn’t want to keep going. I didn’t like how I felt and I wanted it to stop.
And then I read a heartfelt post from a woman in the group who said: If you are not able to deal with the uncomfortable reality of the full and honest expression of Black voices, you are not strong enough to help us and we don’t want you here.
Was I too weak to participate in someone else’s world? Am I too weak to feel uncomfortable with someone else’s truth? My identity is so tied to being a strong woman, my ego really couldn’t swallow this idea of not being strong enough.
So, I stepped forward. I started engaging. I started asking questions. I started listening. I started being okay with being uncomfortable. I showed up.
And this “other” world broke open to me. It has been a steep journey but I have made progress. Step by step, I have allowed myself to live in the unknown. The experience not only has awakened me, it has made me more whole. More integrated.
I have come to realize that so many concepts and phrases I believed made me NOT a racist were the things that proved that I am a racist.
I learned saying I was “color blind” was harmful not helpful. I learned it meant that I was erasing the unique identity, perspective and experience of people of color.
I learned I expected to always be spoken to with care and respect as a professional ― and that was my “white privilege” not given to all People of Color.
I learned I had a thin skin when it came to hearing frank and direct communication when it was fueled with anger towards my ignorant, unintentionally racist statements. I learned this was my own “white fragility.” Who wants to be fragile? Certainly, not me, and discovering this in myself was probably the most uncomfortable discovery of them all.
“I have come to realize that so many concepts and phrases I believed made me NOT a racist were the things that proved that I am a racist.”
I learned that being racist isn’t the same as being bigoted or prejudiced. All three are different words with different meanings.
I learned you can’t NOT be a racist if you’re white in America. It’s impossible. Read that sentence again.
It. Is. Impossible.
Everything we are taught ― all of our history books, advertising, movies, fairytales ― look around, so much of it underscores and highlights a fundamental principle that white people are superior to black people.
And the ONLY way NOT to be racist is to make a choice that every single day, in every single occurrence throughout your day, you will try to look beyond the surface and look at the greater context from the Black American experience. and Native American. And Latino. And. And. And... As a white person, you must question, reflect and then choose to be distinctly anti-racist not just not racist.
Admittedly, this takes effort. And I’m not sure we can ever dismantle all of our racist influences completely. I think this is one of those uncomfortable realities with which we must get comfortable.
I’ve learned that by simply acknowledging the racist constructs that exist in almost every aspect of life and then choosing to actively work to dismantle my own subconscious racist belief system means ― I am no longer a stranger in the Black American experience.
I can contribute, I can engage and participate fully. I even feel welcome, something I could not have imagined in the beginning. Something, I think too many white people think will never happen.
Another insight, People of Color aren’t asking for an apology. They are asking for acknowledgement of their reality. They are asking white people to wake up. To stop being unconscious, do the work to educate the white community and dismantle the system of racism so it does not oppress them any longer. Can anyone really say that is too much to ask?
“People of Color aren’t asking for an apology. They are asking for acknowledgement of their reality.”
Now that I am awake, I work and live with the intention of being an Ally. I don’t do it because I feel guilty. I do it because it’s the right thing to do. I can’t sit idly by watching my black brothers and sisters suffer while I enjoy my white privileges. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “no one is free until we are all free.” The Civil Rights Movement was a start, it’s time we finish the job.
If you are not too weak to be uncomfortable, if you are not too weak to self-reflect and find the unconscious lies you tell yourself, I encourage you to embark on this journey. It’s only difficult at first and then it becomes immensely profound, insightful and satisfying.
Are you ready to admit you are a racist, too? This is the place we must start. Without acknowledging the systemic racism in which we were brought up, we cannot move forward.
For those who are ready to move forward, I recommend reading these five articles:
After you have read the articles, join a Facebook group like Junior Justice Anti-Racism League and learn to discuss what you have read.
Once you are awake, you can start to be a part of the movement to make our worlds become one. I don’t know about you ― but a just and united America is the only one in which I want to live. Call me an optimist but I believe we can make it happen. Join me?