When I Knew

Insiders know and outsiders see.

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. This is a true story about how I was given the gift of an outsider point of view of my whiteness and how that changed me.

Racism teaches me that my story is the center of everything. Beyond the necessary self-centeredness of toddlerhood and the self-absorbed drama of high school is another layer sustained into adulthood which tells me that I get to be what normal is, and that I get to “belong” just about where ever I am. It does this by telling me, and others, that they are not the center of their own story, that they do not define standards of success, and that they do not completely belong even in their own homes doing perfectly normal things.

Looking back over my life I see that the lie of this story that my whiteness was the center of everything peeked out all the way along, including through my parents’ sympathetic conversations about the civil rights movement, and the high school friendship that fell apart when I was surprised by the lack of any white faces in her family photographs and didn’t know how to understand or process that discomfort.

As a child, I did not know how deep the history and impact of racism ran, or how strong the resistance to it was in the first few decades of my life, though I was aware of the four girls bombed in their church, and King’s murder, and students riding buses for voting rights. And I knew when SNCC told white organizers they’d have to leave and do their own work elsewhere, because some of them were family friends. My point in this brief and incomplete review is that issues of racism shaped my consciousness before I had a name for them.

Though I had been prepared by these experiences, the moment I first FELT my “normalcy” as a lie and set about learning a truer story happened half a lifetime ago in a world where I was distinctly not the norm. It happened because I accepted an invitation to cross a bridge of friendship into a different world, if only momentarily, and let myself be changed by what happened there.

The event which served as the fulcrum, the pivot point, in the story of my racial awareness began when I traveled to Jamaica with a group of friends. One of my fellow travelers went there regularly and was friends with a man who lived on the island, Horace. Horace became part of our group, helping with arrangements and showing us around. He and I spent time talking the first few days of the trip, stumbling over my challenges understanding his way of speaking to compare how we each understood the world. Then he took us all to a beach near his home.

To get there we loaded up in two boats, which I’m sure have names which would evoke for you the long, low, motorized crafts from which I could trail my hand in the water as we ran through the sea, but I don’t have those words and can only tell you that we climbed into them from the resort’s beach, and then we rode around an island whose geography was not part of my internal maps, and we ended up on the black-sanded beach near Horace’s home and there we spent a lovely day.

And then it was the end of the day and time to go back and we returned to the boats and, as people were climbing in, Horace asked if I wanted to stay and see his home. In that moment on which the rest of my life pivoted I plunged through the unknown and said yes, and then watched as my friends from my home rode away from a place I didn’t know the name of to a place I could not have found on a map. After they were out of sight I stood on the beach with Horace and watched a man wearing a machete stride toward us, and I hoped that the voice that had told me to stay had been intuition and not something less true.

Horace’s home was up the hill in the jungle that met the sea. The building was made of branches and thatch for which I did not, do not, know the proper words. The lighting was kerosene, the cook fire put off fumes which made me queasy, and I remember cassava root in all the meals they shared with me.

“They” were Horace and his neighbors. We sat up late that night, mostly with them talking and me trying to track the conversation through a version of English I couldn’t follow well. At first I was aware of being the “other” there, in culture, class, race, and gender, but the others didn’t seem to care so I sat with them. As I sat there not talking much, taking in what I could of their stories and letting the rest go by, my awareness of our differences began to fade.

In the morning Horace and I headed back to the resort. We walked on well-worn paths through the trees to a dirt track which brought us to a small cluster of brightly painted homes where we got into a taxi with four or five other people to get to a town where we disembarked to wait for a bus to back to my friends from home.

It was mid-afternoon. The town square bustled with kids in uniforms headed home from school, vendors selling vegetables, clothing, and pots and pans from carts and store fronts, and people going from where they were to where they needed to be.

I was in a bit of an altered state from the overwhelm of being in so many new settings so fast, the queasiness from the cooking fumes, and the lack of sleep from sitting up late into the night, so I was just hanging out until the next thing happened when a little orange sedan drove into the traffic circle, stopped for moment while a few tourists leaned out their windows to take pictures and then drove away again. This happened so quickly that I became aware of my reactions only as they left.

The first was anger at “those white people” for treating the people and place as something to be claimed and consumed, though I’m not sure how much of that was my emotion and how much I picked up from the ripple through the crowd. My second reaction was the startled realization that, in many critical ways, I had more in common with the people in the car than those around me. It occurred to me that, besides the people in the car, I was the only white person I’d seen since the boats pulled away from Horace’s beach, and I noticed that, for a day or so, I’d forgotten that I was white.
It turns out I haven’t been able to forget this since.

I framed this story Insiders Know, Outsiders See because I wanted to capture that moment in which I first saw myself as white through the eyes of others, as the carrier of a problem I do not want to be part of.

I didn’t know at the time how much it would change me. I was angry and startled and then a bus came and we went back to the resort and, after a few more days, I returned to the States. I didn’t know until I got back that, in that moment in the square, I had lost something: I had lost the ability to turn off noticing racism. In one moment for which I had spent a lifetime preparing, the shell that protected me from really seeing racism shattered, and I was naked in the face of it.

Everywhere I looked I saw and felt the physical, intellectual, and emotional impacts of racism in a much deeper way than I had before. I no longer had a choice about noticing it. Even though I was not its target, this consciousness wiped me out. It was weeks before I could build filters back up, not to not know or see, but to take it in at a more manageable rate. At that moment in the square it became impossible for me to ignore racism or to accept it without resistance.

I have not always been graceful, aware, or smart in this resistance. Like most (maybe all) white people I’ve been quite bad at it sometimes. De-centering my own whiteness is an ongoing process, but I could not have made whatever progress I have without people who were willing to offer me bridges into what they know about themselves as insiders of other racial identities.

But perhaps more important to my growth was (is) that some people inside other racial identities have been willing to share their outsider knowledge of my racial identity.
This is a more risk-filled bridge for them to cross than any I have ever gone over: In sharing with me what they see about me, they risk triggering my defensiveness and possible resulting attack from the power position of my whiteness. Even if they have the tools to deflect an attack, they need to decide if the risk or hassle is worth it on that particular day.

Most of my progress has come from people who were willing to take this risk, whether through their public writing or art, or with me directly. Horace and his neighbors didn’t explicitly tell me what they saw, but they permitted me into their world in a way that let me glimpse myself through others’ eyes.

In the decades since I decided not to get into that boat, I have come to understand that some of the barriers to communicating insider awareness may be insurmountable, and that people in targeted groups have no choice but to notice what outsiders think they see about them, but the learning which has taken me deepest is a dual consciousness about my own racial identity, a consciousness that first awoke that day I watched my insider group ride away in two boats and set about learning what outsiders know about me.

(image from http://www.fisher-price.com)

Joy

I often write about the challenges inherent in working against racism from a white identity. Acknowledgement of discomfort, error, confusion, grief, and paradox runs through my work. And these are true and important to name.

And … there is also joy.

Joy in moving toward fuller humanity.

Joy in removing blocks to clearer understanding.

Joy in belonging to the communities that do this work.

* * * * *

There was a women’s rally in Concord NH yesterday. Like many progressives, our majority-white Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) group struggled with how to balance our desire to stand up for the goals of the rally with our respect for real concerns about the “whiteness” of these events. We decided the best way to do this was (for us) to attend with a table of information about some of the difficult issues. We found educational materials across the spectrum of consciousness about racism, created a list of local groups doing this work, and brought hot water, tea fixings, and paper cups. Then we stood at our table and talked about race and racism with dozens of people.

Some of these people were already in our network on this topic. Some told us about work of which we were unaware. Some challenged us and engaged in civil conversation and were thanked for stopping to talk. Some looked and listened and moved on, hot tea warming their hands on a cold winter day.

At the end of the day we took the above selfie. It would be easy to not notice what this silly, happy picture captures, that digging into the work of dismantling white supremacy with others can be a joyful experience. Not because the horror of racism is all better now, not because we’ll never screw up again, not because we earned any sort of reward for being “good white people”, not even because this work creates some great friendships (though it does). No. This is ultimately joyful work because it brings us into closer alignment with authentic human connection. It is important, I think, to notice and celebrate this truth.

Yesterday was a good day for that.

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 leaders 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.

 

Addendum, December 4, 2018:

Sometimes I feel a learning a while before I actually have it, like when I had the experience I described above. I knew there was race-biased behavior in there someplace but couldn’t put my finger on exactly where in me it originated. Today it clicked to a clearer level: I wanted her attention and friendship and assumed I could act like it was so. This “assumption of access” is the thing that would have been different if she’d been white: I would not have been so familiar with a white person I knew as distantly as I really know her. This is the (a) way toxic whiteness poisoned my thinking and behavior without me even noticing it.

I really hate this stuff.

 

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.