Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I'm racist too.

Anyone else think it's weird that the word is in the front here? It was probably a mistake,
 but I think this image speaks volumes... 

Hi, I'm Kirstin. And I'm racist.

That sentence is so hard for me to write. I want to soften it. I wanted to title this post "That time I was racist" and I want to say "I'm racist sometimes BUT it's always unintentional." I've been writing this for weeks, avoiding hitting "publish" because it's shameful and difficult to publicly admit my own racism. But after having some conversations with both white and Black people about... well, everything: the Olympics, double-standards, policing, our regular lives... I know I need to share this.

The truth is, I'm a product of many things: my background, my upbringing, the culture in which I currently live, the voices to which I choose to listen. And a lot of the water and sunshine that nourished me as a child were steeped in racism. This means I have some racist tendencies. It might not be my fault that they're there, but it is my responsibility to learn to see them and then do the work to disable them.

I was raised in a predominantly white town in New England. I was taught all the proper white New Englander attitudes about racism: confederate flags are bad, you never use the n-word, don't make racist jokes, and all people are equal (therefore you should politely not see someone's color). No one ever expressly told me these things, but it was "caught, not taught." Racism in the North is a little more subtle. I remember my grandmother telling me how very much she liked a Black friend of mine, and how very much she did NOT think I should be dating him. My mother, who heard the entire conversation, said nothing. I don't say this to slam them; talking productively about race was not something in their wheelhouse. White people are often woefully unequipped to talk productively about race. No one teaches us. And our culture rarely presents situations in which we have to learn. I have been able to remain largely unaware of my race for the the majority of my life. That's part of my white privilege...  it's virtually impossible for that to happen for people of color.

While I wholeheartedly believe that all people are equal, I have lived entirely in a world in which people of color are not treated as such. And that word? Racist? It's harsh, I know. You might be tempted to tell me that I'm not really racist, but let's consider what racism really is. I really love Ta-Nehisi Coates' definition: "Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others..."  Have I ever hated Black people? Nope. Never. Have I ever been scared or uncertain about someone because of the color of their skin? Yup.  Have I ever assumed that someone is poor or less-privileged than I am because of the color of their skin? Yup again. Have I ever dismissed the experience of a person of color because it didn't align with my own experience? Yes.  So... yeah... that's all racist.

My dear white friends and family, I hear where your hearts are: you don't want to be racist. You believe that all people are equal and this leads you to think that you simply can't be racist. I didn't think I was racist either. I have some bad news for us: we're racist. Merely believing all people are equal doesn't make us immune. We've been taught, conditioned, and exposed to it as children. We've been participating in and benefiting from systems of oppression that were established long before we came along but continue to thrive under our management as adults. It's okay. Well, no... it's NOT okay but I think it's important for us to be able to recognize our own racism. So I'm trying to make the admitting it part okay. We can't fight racism if we don't see it. We need to stop being so scared of being called racist that we miss the opportunity to actually stop being racist.

So that's the bad news. But there's good news too. Want to fight racism? We need to start with our own hearts. There are some great things we can do. All of them involve the same thing: we need to listen. We've lived our own lives; we have our own experiences that have shaped the way we think. But living in America as a white person is significantly different than living in America as a person of color. And there's simply no way for me to learn what that difference is without listening with an open heart. I need to set aside my opinions, my knee-jerk reactions, the things I think I know, and really listen. And I need to hear and believe that what I'm hearing is true and valid. And then I can take action against racism, preferably following a person of color or an organization lead by people of color.

Are you a reader? Read Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World and Me and read the articles he writes for The Atlantic. Check out the recommendations on this article: Required Reading if you're trying to understand what it's like to be Black in America. (this is really a fabulous collection of articles). 

Are you a social media junkie? Check your FB and Twitter feeds. Are the voices you're hearing there predominantly white? Change that. These folks are some of my favorites to follow on Twitter - add them to your feed. And then when they re-tweet something, consider following that person too. The voices you start hearing will begin to show you a different perspective.

Austin Channing Brown @austinchanning
Andrea @ZRevolution7
Broderick Greer @BroderickGreer
Jesse Williams @iJesseWilliams
Muslim Girl @muslimgirl
Larry Wilmore @larrywilmore
Deray McKesson @deray
John Lewis @repjohnlewis
Awesomely Luvvie @Luvvie
Ta-Nehisi Coates @tanehisicoates

Marc Lamont Hill @marclamonthill

Not on Twitter? Start following Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) on Facebook and read the articles they post. That page is actually for white people who want to fight racism and oppression. Find The National Center for Race Amity. They post some great articles & videos. And look for those same folks from the above list on Facebook. I think most of them are there too. 

Franchesca "Chescaleigh" Ramsey's videos.

Are you a podcast listener? Check out Code Switch .

Most importantly: are you a human? Find a friend. I know this is ridiculously awkward. I don't mean find a token Black person to be in your life just because of the color of his/her skin. But find ways to include people of color in your life. Consider attending a church or a program at a church that is diverse or predominantly Black. Intentionally get to know the parents of the children of color in your kids' classes. Are there not many children of color in your child's school? Think about why that might be. Volunteer at a local social justice agency. I bet you'll meet either staff or other volunteers who are people of color. Get to know them. Don't live your life in a white bubble. I live in a very segregated place, so this takes a good bit of effort on my part. That effort is worth it.

I've been working really hard on this. We can't dismantle the systems of oppression if we don't believe they are there. And we can't hear the voices of Black people if our own racism has shut our ears and our hearts. And here's something white people sometimes miss: an integrated life is better for white people too. I'm not fighting for racial justice because it's good for my Black son. It's good for my white son and daughter too. It's good for me as a white person. My life is better because of the people of color who are in it. My community will be better for me and my family when white systems of oppression have been shut down, because in the long run, my white privileges are
 actually bad for me because they come at such a steep cost to humanity.

And while I've learned so much and I'm getting much better, I'm still racist sometimes. It showed just recently when I made a mistake. (see how much I want to soften my own racism??)  I posted a video to Facebook that I watched from my own white perspective. It was full of white saviorism and was demeaning to Black people. And when I realized that my Black friends were offended by it, I was so ashamed that I wanted to crawl in a hole. I cried and I wanted to disappear because I did something racist. And I felt like a big fraud. But thankfully, I've learned something else: apologies help, ownership of my actions helps. I had the opportunity to acknowledge what I'd done and apologize. And I said what I wish I'd done instead (listen first, remember what I've learned about racism so far). My friends were more gracious than I deserved.

Racism is bigger than you and me. It's not a Black issue.  It's not a white issue. This is a human issue. Racism is systemic - it's in our schools, in our justice system, in our economy... but how can we help dismantle that if we can't uproot our own racism? We have so much work to do... so let's get going.