No Excuse

Generally, when I screw up about race it is something I haven’t done before (as when I was startled by the discomfort in my class when I brought up race, noticing for the first time that in the past I’d always been ASKED to help people explore it), or it is based on knowledge I inappropriately generalized (as when I annoyed a new acquaintance by offering her an umbrella to protect her hair style from the rain). Those I can live with. The screw ups I hate are the ones in which I know better but forget for a minute, as I did this week in a room full of people of color when I referred to a grown Black man as the “boy” (rather than the son) of a woman there I respect but don’t know well.

The first and most important thing is that there is no story which makes this okay. I know this. I know the dismissive, infantilizing power and Jim Crow history of referring to an adult as a child. That this knowledge was not in my conscious mind at the moment does not make my language okay. That I used words I would have used with a white person does not make it okay. That I did it to (try to) create intimacy with someone I want to know better is my problem, not hers.

What I had said was a problem for her, and she called me on it in that room full of anti-racist activists, many of whom didn’t know my name before that moment. All I could do at that moment was nod and affirm the truth being named. I also spoke to her after the meeting to apologize, tell her I heard what she had to say, and thank her for acting as a mirror for me.

Then I brought it back home to learn from it.

I have recently settled into a comfortable grove with the anti-racism work…. Some skills and knowledge that seem useful to fellow people of European descent, some places where people want to hear about that, some places where I can unpack how it works in me and my life, some work with and for strong facilitators of color. I forgot the cardinal rule: If it’s comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.

A few weeks ago someone I trust tried to remind me it shouldn’t be fun to work on these issues and I dismissed what she had to say as not about me. I now see this as a yellow light for which I should have stopped. I now see that I’ve been enjoying being one of the more-conscious-than-most white people and slipping on remembering the racism we white people carry within us and need to work on all the time. This week god (or whatever you like to call that force that binds us together) gave me the gift of letting me be the white person all the other white people in the room got to be better than. Karma is a clear teacher.

So here I am, back in the discomfort, where the real work is. The thing is, “uncomfortable” is too small a word for this space. “Uncomfortable” is an airplane seat that is too narrow, a neck ache from sleeping wrong, a conversation you don’t know how to get out of at a party.  “Uncomfortable” does not describe the gut-twisting shame that you have not lived up to your own values or the grief of knowing that poison might slip out of you at any time to attack people you respect and love. It does not describe how it feels to know that you might never get clear of the thing you most want to heal in yourself. And it does not describe how it feels when a room full of people with whom you want to work look at you with legitimate mistrust.

Because it needs to be said, I take responsibility for my microaggression and am sorry for any negative impact it had on those it reached.

And.

Apologies without change are just noise.

I’m diving  back into the deep sludge. I leave it to others to decide if/when they want to let me stand with them in this work.

 

Welcome! Talking About Racial Identities

I’ve had a few people join me as followers recently, so thought I’d say “glad to have you”, and (while I’m here) mention that I’m part of a team leading a conversation about race in Epsom, NH on Tuesday 10/23/18. Contact me here for details, or if you want to know how to bring a two hour conversation to your group in southern NH. Highly informal welcome.

 

Insiders know, Outsiders see

This is a slightly polished version of a story I recently told at a local story telling event. It’s about a critical turning point in my racial self awareness.

It is a truism in the social sciences that insiders know and outsiders see. We all are experts on what it is to live as us with those like us, but we are sometimes blind to what others know about us: Teenagers know their angst but not that it will pass, fast drivers feel their own power but not their impact on traffic, and white people don’t generally have to know how we look to others. I am here today to share with you a true story about how I was given the gift of an outsider point of view of my whiteness and how that changed me…

Risking Deeper Dives

A friend of mine has been doing anti-racism work since before it was cool. Her training, work history, and lived experience combine to make her very good at helping white folks notice patterns they may have missed before. She was recently asked by a group of white progressives to come do some extended work with them. She said sure and they started working out the details.

The first sign of trouble was when they asked if maybe a white person would be a better trainer for them, since she or he would have a better understanding of the white experience of racism. She got through that (being a patient sort) by pointing out that being white–and therefore not racism’s target–they had some important blind spots she could maybe bring to their attention.

She then kept talking to them until they told (not asked) her to send her curriculum to them so they could tell her what changes to make.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The group of white people hiring the African American woman to help them see and unravel patterns of racism in their lives first told her they weren’t sure that a person of color could help them learn what they needed, and then told her that they wanted to make sure that she was going to teach them the right things. (I’ve been imagining telling my Spanish teacher that I wanted to learn nouns but not about their gendered nature, because that made me uneasy. Can’t see it getting very far.)

Since I am one of her “What the f is WRONG with you people?” white people, she called me to express her frustration. Then she sent them Robin DiAngelo’s very useful article describing white progressive groups’ defenses against deep anti-racism work. Now she is sorting out how to respond to the fact that they are promoting the workshop with her name without confirming with her that if it’s her workshop, it’s her rules.

She’s working on a letter which says:

·         that she believes they want to really work on this stuff,

·         that this behavior is a demonstration of how racism can work, and

·         that she’d like to unpack this set of interactions as a learning tool in the workshop, but

·         she’s not willing to do a “stay inside the lines” training that will let them check the box on this work without risking real insight or growth.

I don’t know what she’ll decide to do and it’s not my place to say, but I do wonder sometimes what the f is wrong with us.

They Are All “Our” Kids

Kids are on my mind today.

Not not having them–that ship sailed a long time ago by choice—but loving them, what they need, all the ways to harm them.

First in the queue, of course, are the families being torn apart in our name for a crime the weight of passing a bad check (and sometimes for legally presenting themselves for refuge from the violence and poverty of their homes.)  If you are reading this around the time I write this you are already being flooded with the images of terrified children and freaked out parents trying to keep it together to make it easier for their babies, and that awful chorus of children screaming in terrified need for mami and papi. If it’s later, look up Trump, zero deterrent, and children. This will be part of history and, unless we rise up, history won’t be kind.

Second on my mind are all the vignettes of parents with their kids at the airports where I just spent time. You’ve seen them. Tired parents, parents who maybe are marginal in  my opinion, parents who relate to their kids in ways that I think lead to thriving adults…. All loving their kids enough, all doing their best, all (that I could see) a safe anchor for their 4 to 16 year olds. All whose priorities would change in an instant if some person with “authority” ripped their child from their breast or took them away for a bath and never brought them back. Maybe we should start a milk carton/amber alert system for children whose trauma is being used to keep our borders safe. (If this “safe”, I’m not sure what values we think we’re protecting.)

Finally, one leg of my journey put me next to a seven-year-old who was flying for the first time, and flying alone. If she had been prepared for what to expect, she hadn’t retained it. After sitting next to her I asked if it was okay to talk to her, introduced myself, and spent the next five hours making it cool to be inside and above the clouds, asking her to tell me what she knew about the place she was going, what she was looking forward to, and letting her know it was okay to be a little nervous, that I might be, too. I also created space for her to be petulant and needy, because that helped her keep a sense of control. We talked about why ears pop and how to fix it, and how to make a pillow from her sweatshirt when she got too hot. At the end of our trip she hugged me like the only life jacket she could see in a whole lot of water, I told her I knew she’d be okay because I’d prayed for it (which I had, and which I knew fit her context), and got her permission to kiss her on the head. She has been on my heart ever since.

I wish for all of those kids in the detention centers that some adult will give them a little of what I was able to give my fellow passenger, and I am trying to figure out what I can do to help them get back to the place they ought to be getting it from.

p.s. I also gave Corniesha my Black Lives Matter pin and talked about how it included her. I am a little curious what her relatives will make of her story of the white woman who gave it to her. She took my number, so maybe they’ll text to ask. I’d like that, to know she got there okay.

Maybe We’ll Do Better This Time?

I was going to write about guns and culture and why kids protesting death by guns didn’t get attention or money until mostly white students with some privilege stood up. But then I realized I should shut up and let people tell their own stories.

> The amazing Emma González writing in Teen Vogue (which you should check out if you don’t know about and which you will miss when they fold) including:

We Stoneman Douglas students may have woken up only recently from our sheltered lives to fight this fight, but we stand in solidarity with those who have struggled before us, and we will fight alongside them moving forward to enact change and make life survivable for all young people. People who have been fighting for this for too long, others who were never comfortable enough to openly talk about their experiences with gun violence, or still others who were never listened to when opening up about their experiences with gun violence or were afraid to speak out — these are the people we are fighting with and for.

The media afforded a group of high school students the opportunity to wedge our foot in the door, but we aren’t going through this alone. As a group, and as a movement, it’s vital that we acknowledge and utilize our privilege, use our platforms to spread the names of the dead and the injured, promote ideas that can help spread kindness rather than hostility, support those who aren’t being heard, take our voices and use them together with the megaphones provided.

> The editorial staff of the Parkland School student newspaper, The Eagle Eye, who lay out a comprehensive and detailed set of policy changes, including changing the law so you have to be old enough to buy a handgun (21) before you can buy an AR-15 (currently 18).

> Dahleen Glanton of the Chicago Tribune, who unpacks the discomfort we have rising up in mass opposition to the murder of Youth of Color by the police.

The Black Lives Matter movement is extremely marginalized. It is specifically about protecting African-American lives. It will take much more effort to get the rest of America on board with that cause.

> Michael Harriot of The Root (a go-to site for me about racial identity politics and culture) who gets into how we collectively respond when Black youth protest to save their own lives.

The 17 lives ended in the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shouldn’t matter any more than the countless ones snuffed out by the drug war, police brutality and—yes, I’ll say it this time—black-on-black crime. You don’t think black kids want to feel safe, too? Contrary to the belief of police officers and “All Lives Matter” activists, black bodies are not bulletproof.

> And finally, because information and tips to deal with these messes never hurt.

To do this we must act swiftly and lead the conversation about genuine school safety and lift up the voices of young people of color and communities that are most deeply impacted. We must simultaneously support the end to gun violence AND promote a vision for our schools that centers solutions that work and truly create safe and healthy environments for all. We offer the following ways to talk about gun violence and school safety to uplift racial justice.

Many Rivers to Cross

I made a rookie mistake recently, offering an African American woman I’d just met an umbrella to protect her hairstyle as we ran from a building to a bus in the rain. I did this based on conversations with other African American women about how unconscious most white people are about the damage rain can do to particular hairstyles, but I didn’t know her and she did not like my offer.

Because of the context in which I met her, there was an opportunity later to have 1-to-1 conversations about race.  She sought me out to let me know how my actions hadn’t worked for her. She told me that I had generalized about Black women and had assumed that she couldn’t take care of herself. I owned that I had made a mistake and thanked her for calling it to my attention so I could avoid it next time. She then leaned in, softened her tone, and told me there was this thing called implicit bias and I had acted out of it.

Though her tone and body language were that of supportive educator, this did not go over so well with me. What I tried to say next was that I was familiar with the concept, but that my mistake (which was real) was rooted in different issues (applying to her what other Black women had told me about themselves). She dismissed my attempt to share my experience as whitesplaining* and I shut down, said I agreed with her, thanked her again for her feedback, and waited for her next conversational move. That move was to gaze at me sympathetically and ask me how I was.

This is the point at which I need to mention that our collective day of talking about race had done its job and I began our conversation already in deep grief about the impact of racism. I didn’t mind this (I think it’s important to let these feelings change us) but I knew that if I opened it up I’d fall into howling sobs. I didn’t think it would be good white anti-racist behavior to pull attention to my process in a room full of People of Color in the middle of their own work. When she asked how I was, I was one thin onion skin away from totally falling apart and committed to NOT doing that there. Also, because she had just told me I didn’t understand my own experience I didn’t trust her with my messy material. Instead I said that she and I didn’t know each other and – though I was in the middle of some deep work – she wasn’t a person I felt safe unpacking that with. She then told me that she was a good person and her white friends trusted her.

Now I get on a deeper level why that doesn’t sell from the other side either.

I again declined to share my process and we moved on to safer subjects. She and I didn’t speak to each other the rest of the four-day training. Maybe at the next one we can use this experience to build more meaningful connection. Or maybe we don’t get to trust with everyone. And that’s okay.

 

*When white folks try to explain away racism and its consequences.