I know I’m not alone in a heightened awareness (and a heightened sensitivity) these days around racism. I’ll just let that sentence stand alone without examples, because no one should need them. We are living in a culture right now, where racist attitudes are expressing themselves everywhere at full throttle. Not that they are new, I don’t think, but that they’ve been given permission to fly their freak flags (again) and they are creating parades with them. Even if their parade has just one participant, that
racist person is marching out loud and proud.
As a Caucasian female, I’ve prided myself on my personal lack of racist ideas and attitudes–the opposite really. I mean I’m that same girl who was the only kid in my 3rd grade class who volunteered to participate in the integration program. I was the only child in my grade level in my white suburban neighborhood who was bussed to “the black school” on my own volition. I held my hand up proudly when they asked for volunteers, and spent the next three years riding that bus, watching it cross paths with the black kids who were so “lucky” to come to the white neighborhood. I don’t know what their experiences were, but I can guess that they were less fortunate than mine in the attempts to help them be fortunate. Booker T. Washington grade school was a place where I thrived, got introduced to computers before any of the other schools did, and I was popular. It gave me a safe and nurturing environment at a time of turmoil in my homelife–when my father married the woman who started abusing us almost immediately. School was my refuge. I loved that school.
Yet, now, I feel I’m being asked to go deeper inside myself to these issues of racism–not just around me, but inside me. I’m realizing that now is a time to be humble, to be a listener-as-activist, and to learn.
I follow a very outspoken black woman online named Hannah Drake. She is a writer/poet/gardener who is guiding me in ways that she can’t imagine. She writes on her blog Write Some Shit and I encourage you out there to take a moment and check her out–maybe just start with her most recent challenge called Do Not Move Off the Sidewalk.
This is the part of the challenge that pertains to me (and maybe you):
For White people, I challenge you for the next 24-48 hours to be aware of how you treat Black people and People of Color in spaces. Do you have an expectation that Black people and People of Color should move out of your way? How many times do you insert yourself and your comments into virtual spaces because you feel it is your right without reading and listening to People of Color that have stated their truth on a particular issue? Do you speak around the Black person as if they are not in the room? Do you interrupt People of Color when they are speaking? Are you cutting a Black person or a Person of Color in line because you feel that is your right? Also be aware of how it feels to be cognizant of how your body navigates spaces and imagine how that would feel to do that at the very least for 8 hours out of each day.
I have accepted this challenge and in all public spaces, I’m noticing myself. And yes, I’m noticing that, although I don’t feel entitled to the space they are occupying, I have not been giving people of color the same treatment that I give people who look like me. It’s kind of scary to even say that out loud, but I am the subject of my own experiment, so I need to keep it objective. I notice that sometimes I simply feel like I might say or do the wrong thing, so I avoid. It’s not a fear of that person thing, it’s a fear of myself. That’s about as far as I know about it now.
So, applying this challenge, I’m confronting that fear. I’m making a point of pausing, stopping, holding a door vs rushing through it, making deliberate eye contact, smiling. Even yesterday in front of the grocery store, I struck up a conversation with two black women about the heat. They looked surprised that I stepped in to their space with my words, but they opened up to me. I am confronting an avoidance in myself that I was not even aware of before this challenge. I don’t really know what my fear is, and I may never find out exactly, but I’m willing to challenge it.
In contemplating this further, I’ve also made a decision to shift in another certain way. I looked more deeply at another example that I encountered this week over a stupid reality show that I stupidly follow. It’s about couples agreeing to be married to a stranger (Married at First Sight). I not only watch this show, but discuss it with others on social media sometimes in a small Facebook group. This week the new season aired and it displayed the interview process with the matchmakers for selecting their couples. One gregarious black man shared, during his interview, that he was not attracted to women with darker skin than his. He said something about darker women not “melting his butter”.
A few days later, a black woman in the group brought this up for discussion. I noticed everyone chiming in with their thoughts and feelings about this disclosure–from outrage, to “everyone has a type and it’s no big deal”. Reading through this thread, a shift happened in me.
You see, I’m a person who is often very quick to form an opinion. Some might even call me opinionated. I’m also a person who, when confronted with a challenge, is quick to seek and form a strategy to deal with it–formed of course on my opinion. What I should do, what I should say, how I should approach this thing.
I realized, reading that thread, that what I needed to do was listen. Not even form an opinion (yet) but to stop all that inner commotion and listen. Who I needed to listen to in this equation, were the people his comment affected most: the black women viewing it. My mind opened up as I thought about this discussion being their domain and if I’m invited to this party, I need to shut my damn mouth and listen to how they are feeling about it.
That led to me making that comment–that the thing I felt I needed to do was listen to how the “darker than him” women were feeling about this and learn something. Not do something, not post something, but just listen.
The opening poster immediately thanked me for that perspective, then went on to educate the group (if anyone was paying attention besides me that is) about the term colorism and its roots in slavery and how this was a bigger issue than simply this man’s type. God, it’s exhausting to witness how quickly white people want to discount a black person’s historical perspective. Like “that happened then, so shouldn’t affect you now” kind of thing. I am SO SICK of reading comments like those. How about just trying to understand, that since obviously the person is feeling affected, what that means to them? Before so quickly denying their right to have the feelings they are already possessing? (that comment could apply to almost every marital argument–or any argument– by the way)
I felt a sense of relief in this awareness and decision. How about I make that my goal, at least for awhile or however long it takes, to stop forming opinions and judgments and do this or do that? But make my focus and intention to pay attention and listen. And maybe that listening will change me for the better. Then from that new place, I will know what to do.
So I’ve decided to release my fast thinking/deciding/judging/overworking mind for awhile and on these issues around racism, to pay attention to the people who are affected the most by it and deeply listen to what they are saying. Even if it is uncomfortable for me, to allow their words and thoughts and feelings to sink in to myself and see where that takes me. Maybe I can change the world by being changed by it even more deeply. That’s where I’m headed now.
I’m going to continue Hannah’s challenge indefinitely. I’m going to keep noticing how I feel and keep taking more risks in that regard. And I will see how that changes me too. Just me, one person living in a smallish town. This is my path to activism for the moment.
I’ll end this with David Whyte’s poem Start Close In. Take a listen, in his own voice.