Every time racism, racial justice, racial equity or the like has entered our news or social media feeds, and has become a part of conversations we have with friends and family, I would always think, “I’m set. I’m not a racist. Racists are bad. I’m good, and I love all people, unless they’re jerks, then it doesn’t matter what color they are, I don’t like them, but that doesn’t make me a racist, so I don’t need to examine myself any further. Good night.”
But this year, it is different. The conversations are different. (or maybe I am just listening differently?!) People are talking about systematic racism and unconscious bias and white privilege. I didn’t understand what they were talking about and how it related to me, so I decided to learn a little more.
Someone recommended the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, so I picked it up on Audible and started listening. She framed racism in a very interesting way. It was a way I hadn’t thought about before, and at first, I was offended, and wanted to stop listening because it made me uncomfortable. But I took a step back and decided to persevere, open my mind, and listen to the rest.
The author’s contention is that what we often see as racism involves intentional acts of hate based on negative/untrue beliefs against people of color. Thus, when someone brings up that I have done or said something that is kind of racist, like most people, I automatically think of really bad things that I would never ever even consider doing, and I’m mad and offended that anyone would say that about me. Then I completely close my mind to the conversation because I genuinely don’t think I did anything bad…which intentionally, I did not! The conversation ends, nobody is happy, and nothing is solved, understood or changed. Plus, I think my accuser is looking for trouble and being too sensitive and accusatory, and the other still thinks that I have exhibited some racist behavior or statement, but thinks I’m too closed minded and sensitive to even talk about it…and another potentially open, enlightening conversation bites the dust.
Aside from my narrowly focused definition of racism, I’m also so outraged by the accusations against me, that I’m not even thinking about how I may have unintentionally harmed someone. The impact is still there, even if my intentions weren’t bad. I’m so inwardly focused, I’m not willing to even consider the impact of what I’m doing or saying.
DiAngelo goes on to talk about how history and societal constructs have created white privilege and unconscious biases, and modern times and conversations haven’t quite caught up to the long standing systemic “habits” that have given white people privilege over people of color.
We’ve all seen the line of kids who are about to have a race to a line across the field, and before they take off, they’re told to “take one step forward if your parents are married.” and “take one step forward if you had access to a private education.” And “take a step forward if you never had to worry about your cell phone turned off.” Or “take a step forward if you never wondered where your next meal would come from.” (if you haven’t seen the video, it’s here!) Once the questions are answered, a bunch of kids, mostly white, have a significant head start on the other kids without those privileges, and those kids were mostly black or latino. The lesson is that nothing you’ve done has put you at the advantage to win the thing called life, but you’ve got a head start because of the advantages you’ve been given by birth, and with the racial and geographical divides being so stark and so correlated in this country, those advantages are often linked to race.
Is that my fault? No, but it’s important for me to understand those privileges so I can be sure I’m not holding anyone else back while I’m enjoying them. It’s important for me to be aware of how my decisions, behaviors and words could be holding someone else back from success or making them feel “less than” and it’s important for me to be a part of the forward progress that we so badly need, rather than living in my happy bubble of privilege.
I want to be sure I’m using my advantage to lift people up. Reaching out, listening, speaking up when I see problems in small daily situations, listening some more, and using my vote to change local and state laws to be sure that the next generation experiences more equality, and they’re armed with the knowledge and role models to be sure the generation after them as even more.
It’s a huge issue, but my awareness and continued efforts to understand and act in a conscious way, and continue with the conversation is what I can do to be a part of the solution, rather than the perpetuation of a problem that’s WAY Bigger than me. We are all at a different place in our journey toward understanding, but we need to keep moving forward and we do that by listening. Really listening to people of color.