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.
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.