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)

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…

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.

Laughing at Sexual Harassment

Lately I’ve been hanging out with someone when they watch Third Rock from the Sun.

For those who don’t know it, it’s a comedy television show which ran from 1996 – 2001. The premise is that a group of aliens are sent to earth, disguised as a human family, to experience and report life on the 3rd planet from the sun. The cast includes John Lithgow, Jane Curtain, and a young Joseph Gordon- Levitt, and the observations about the silliness of human culture is fun, but….

Sigh.

Wired deep into the humor of the show is a fundamental assumption that men will assertively sexualize women (and girls) and it will be (1) assumed to be normal and (2) deflected and laughed off (or (3) welcomed.)

The first scene here (to 1:19) is pretty representative

It seems to happen at least once each episode. I wonder if the writers and actors even noticed.

45 Ways to Slump

Sorry, the title is a tease. Really I only have two ways to slump, but I didn’t feel like resisting the allusion to the man who got the job of running (using the term loosely) our country.

My first way to slump was collective. I hadn’t been hit by it yet, that punch that deflates hope. Sure, I have been aware of the relentless march of hate and greed against love and community, but I kept some distance from it by staying connected to efforts to resist it. Then I saw some news story about the likely effects of what is about to happen to research funding and down I went. I don’t know why this was my final straw, but it was.  And then I heard from a friend about a large company that will no longer be covering spousal health insurance, right before reading a brilliant piece about how intentional poverty is and how vulnerable so many of us are to it. And then I read about how evolving Artificial Intelligence is incorporating racial and gender bias.  And it was suddenly All Too Much.

Yeah, I know, welcome to your world.

So that was my first slump, opening up to my grief about the mess we’re in together.

My second way to slump was personal, about how I live in this world, what I experience, what my options are, what I think it all means. Lately, I have seen collective problems headed my way and they scare me because they look a lot like personal economic disenfranchisement. If grief about our big life softened me up, fear about my own small life knocked me down.

The first thing I want to say about these forces I fear will reach me is that I know they have been the reality for a lot of people for a long time. All that’s different for me in our new world is that now this tide is lapping at MY toes … My WASP, educated, intelligent, naturally slender toes. For all my deliberate efforts to be conscious about my unearned privilege, this still feels like an offense. Kind of like when a white woman jogger was grabbed from behind by a cop for jaywalking and then detained for resisting arrest when she slugged him before looking to see who it was. Kind of like when I didn’t get out of speeding tickets even though I was hyper-polite.  Kind of like my irritation that the only jobs to apply for seem to require highly specialized experience or high school diplomas and reliable transportation. On some profound level I have absorbed and believed the story that this sort of stuff isn’t supposed to happen to people like me.

I knew better intellectually, but knowing that more marginalized people have been the canaries in our coal mine is different than finally feeling the effects of the gas that hit them generations ago. I have noticed that the narrowing of the privilege gap is often experienced by the people with privilege (PWP, a new acronym perhaps?) as oppression. I’m happy to report that I have not had that reaction. I have, however, experienced a deep sense of shame: if this happens to me, one of the PWP, surely I screwed up in some way. I have, after all, been told for a lifetime that the tide would never reach me.  I wonder if this is part of the deaths of despair story that is now showing up in in social science data. I gotta say, it feels pretty bad.

It is important to clarify that I am NOT saying here that I deserve some special protection from these forces, just that after a lifetime of being told that I wouldn’t have to deal with them it is an emotional adjustment to notice that I unconsciously believed that story. Doonesbury did a pretty great cartoon on this, that previously marginalized people aren’t experiencing our new losses as anything special because they already had less to lose. When I said I need to learn from POC, I wasn’t planning on it being how to emotionally manage economic insecurity. I still think there has to be a better way for all of us.

image: http://themetapicture.com/pretty-accurate-depiction-of-society/

White People in Racial Justice Work

[In the spirit of ongoing dialogue, this was edited on 4/13 to reflect important feedback.]

There is, in some of my circles, an essay making the rounds which critiques just about every majority-white anti-racism group of which I am aware. The gist of the criticism, as I read it, is that white folks can’t be trusted to do this work well without the supervision of People of Color, and that we are generally pretty bad at setting up and sustaining meaningful structures for such accountability. The consequences of stepping into this work without these structures range from not-enough to harmful. As I understand the author, these negative consequences include an over-investment in giving white people safe places to learn about racism and their (our) role in it, and a deflection of resources from activists of color to these white groups. Also that gaps in our understanding and a human preference for comfort over discomfort lead us away from the emotional, intellectual, and material sacrifices necessary to engage in the ways this work requires of us. And these consequences harm POC.

In the spirit of transparency and growth, I have to own that my initial response to this essay was a predictable sputtering defensiveness. Since I have learned that this sort of reaction usually points to something I need to look at, I’ve been unpacking it with trusted friends since the essay came out. The core of my irritation seems to be with the implication that whites rarely get it right, can’t be trusted, and should at no point be alone with this material. (So, still keeping it about us, not the harm the author was trying to get us to look at.)

There’s a joke I like… “My cousin thinks she’s a chicken.” “Why don’t you take her to the doctor?” “We need the eggs.” I like the joke because it reflects some of the absurdity of how we get along in face of deeply rooted contradictions and challenges, such as the one about how (if) people with entrenched unearned privilege can participate in the process of dismantling that privilege. For better or for worse, right now white anti-racists think (hope) we’re chickens. And we (collectively) really need the eggs. So where from here?

This question wove into some thinking I’ve been doing about the long-term trajectory of my focus in this work. So far, I have mostly tried to learn about and then educate other white people about the history that created our position, the systems that hold it in place, the way these systems create murderous imbalances, and how we participate in and profit from these imbalances. Pending new insights, I continue to believe that this work is necessary and that there are practical reasons to have these conversations in majority-white groups led or co-led by white people who frequently check their understanding with people of color[i]. However/And…. the next question coming into focus for me is how to apply this knowledge to contribute to change: As I wrote a few months ago, “… it isn’t enough to simply help white people see barriers set up against others but not them. It’s time, I think, to turn my attention to taking those barriers down.”

As to what this means about working in majority-white anti-racism groups … I’m not sure. The truth is that I’d rather do the work imperfectly—knowing there will always be corrections to make—than not at all.  The next step is to check accountability in groups I’m part of, including believing that we sometimes hurt others so we can apologize and learn from the experience. Hopefully we’ll get some eggs out of it.

[A note on language: Race is a constructed concept that sets intellectual traps if accepted. The term Racial identity, which bases the distinctions on social and psychological labels rather than inherent traits, serves to remind us that humans made this illusion. I use “Black” and “white” for convenience, as we need some language to talk about the issues we are seeking to address. I do not mean by this that I think our racial identities are fixed and determinative.]

 

[i] (1) White people are more likely to unpack embarrassing material about racial identity if we’re not being listened to by the people the crap is about and we have to unpack it before we can move into the clearer understanding that supports action; (2) There are things about whiteness that only white people know (just like any in/out group dynamic). We can use this knowledge to reach into the thicket and show people some paths out of it. Though we aren’t the center of the collective story, there is a need to sometimes center the conversation on how we do what we do; and (3) there are more white people who need this basic training than there are people of color with this work as their calling. I’d rather have leadership of color giving me outlines and checking me from time to time (if they want), but doing the bulk of their liberation work in the thickets I can’t enter. And, yes, I do write checks for this. And, no, I don’t want any cookies for trying to help correct the balance.

Knowledge and Self

Mary Gergen writes about the concept of Social Ghosts[i], people we still speak to and hear from though they are absent in our current lives. One of my big (huge) ones is my father. Since I get to select which version of him is useful to me, I mostly speak to and hear from person he was when he was around the age I am now, before cognitive decline muted one of the finest minds with which I have ever interacted.

He is particularly on my mind these days for two reasons. The first is that a dear friend of his has just lost her father and I saw his obituary in the New York Times. Though she and I have never had a direct relationship, I sent her a condolence note and she was kind enough to open up a conversation about the having of highly visible fathers.

The second is that I recently decided (again) that I really need to read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The copy I bought last time I decided this has gone missing, but I did find (tucked in a safe corner) Dad’s copy with his marginalia.

I have this book because these were the books I kept when he passed, the books in which his spidery handwriting noted, expanded, and argued with the authors’ ideas, in which his underlines, exclamation points, and particular ways of marking passages point out to me what caught his attention. These are the books through which I can still learn from him, evoking the most powerful social ghost in my world. All the markings are, of course, in ink … the same way he did the NYT Crossword puzzle. He did not lack intellectual confidence.

In some of these books the notes are minimal, maybe half a dozen comments total. Not so with his responses to Dr. Kuhn. His hand has marked at least a third of the pages. In these notes he:

  • Identifies Kuhn’s arguments (“The concept of development-by-accumulation” (Kuhn) is “the paradigm he wants to disenfranchise” (Dad));
  • Makes note of resources to track down, such as Copernicus’ classic definition of a crisis state.
  • Applies Kuhn’ arguments to others’ ideas, most frequently Marx;
  • Applies others’ ideas to Kuhn’s points, such as the note inside the front cover quoting Cossier’s The Philosophy of Enlightenment about “the self-development of the idea of knowledge itself”, complete with page number; and
  • Argues with Kuhn’s points. These comments generally get too complex to explain here without extending this already-too-long post, but I think the case is made when he responds to Kuhn’s point that previous scholars should not be accused of bias with a succinct “No?”

My favorite note, however, might be the most obscure. It comes at the end of a heavily marked passage about how errors in previous ways of thinking show more clearly when those previous ways of thinking have matured, revealing their errors as anomalies in the theory. He summarizes this point in the margins, but the bit I love is the comment written at an angle at the end of the paragraph: “Very happy…”. I have no idea why he wrote this.

When I studied rhetoric as a grad student, the idea that most drew me was epistemology, the question of how we know what we know. Readers of a particular bent will have already noticed this theme running through what I post here, this importance of questioning what we take to be true.

Reading dad reading Kuhn reminds me that, when it comes to this type of intellectual inquiry, I have not fallen far from my tree. This understanding-of-self-through-relationship is one of the uses of Social Ghosts. The other, of course, is that through a physical book I once again get to talk to my dad about ideas. Still, I wish I could still do it in person.

 

 

[i] Gergen, M. M. (1987). Social ghosts: Opening inquiry on imaginal relationships. In 95th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, New York.