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.

Waiting for the Second Marshmallow

Tali Sharot wrote a good book about how brain patterns influence our behavior. In it she unpacks the “marshmallow” experiment, that one from the late 80s in which kids were asked to postpone eating the one marshmallow in front of them in favor of eating two later. This was taken to show which kids had better self-control. The ones who waited did better later in life. So, the study concluded, if you have the psychological structure to resist short-term satisfaction you can improve your final position.

Sharot, however, offers another way to think about it. Based on the work of other researchers, she suggests that it is not self-control that dictates people’s choices, but our faith in the future. In one study the kids were given a cool project and bad crayons in a hard to open box. After they’d had time to figure out the crayons were substandard they were told they’d get a better box if they waited. So they did, and one group got a new, easy to open box full of crayons with sparkles. The other group was told, sorry, we don’t have anything better for you after all.  Then they were given the marshmallow test.

Two guesses who waited for the second marshmallow.

Now think about people who’ve never caught a break and never seen anyone who looked like them catch a break, and tell me again about how buying that nice car instead of saving for a home shows that they “lack self-control.”

What do you think you would do?

Added 8/24/18

Last June The Atlantic published an article about a study that revisited the marshmallow study. It “suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.”

Seemed relevant.

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/06/marshmallow-test/561779/