The silver lining of a country and world that has been forced to pause is this: More people than ever before are asking questions such as, “How could this happen in this day and age?”
I’ll tell you how. Here’s my take on one facet of this multi-pronged issue.
It’s the beliefs formed (and blinders worn) as a result of hundreds of years of oppressive brainwashing. It is a legacy that still lives on, impacting marginalized sectors of humans, whether women, men, gay, lesbian, queer, introvert, autistic, disabled, poor, brown or black.
Last week I played around with the idea of imagining that history was flipped – that it was White people who were slaves and owned by Blacks. That it was White people like me who had crosses burned in their yards or were beat up or killed because our skin was white.
I then imagined being the mother of a White child in modern times – a son who, just because of the color of his skin, could be typecast by law enforcement – or anyone for that matter. How does that feel? I then imagined that George Floyd was White, the cops where Black, and I was feeling the anger of hundreds of years of oppression. What does that feel like?
Molten, exploding lava – that’s how that feels! Imagining my race still being treated this way, my blood began to boil… I felt the anger welling up inside of me. I felt like throwing things. I felt like yelling at the top of my lungs. I felt mad, sad and heartbroken. I felt rage and I felt scared.
Back to reality. I live in a very white community. If it wasn’t for one family here who adopted many children of color… My son’s school experience and his growing-up experience and my adulthood experience was, and is, filled with white people everywhere.
When my son was young, the lack of culture in our community bothered me. I wanted him to be comfortable around all people. I devised a plan – trips to the big city of Seattle. Once we stepped off the ferry boat, we boarded a bus, and back then (this was the mid-nineties) white people were mostly at the front of the bus. I squared my shoulders, took my son’s small hand, and we walked to the back of the bus. I recall sitting across from a large Black man and striking up a conversation. I can’t remember what was said, but I do remember his smile and I remember thinking, “Oh, you’re a good mom for doing this, Suzy.”
What never crossed my mind was this: Did he smile because if he hadn’t, I could have reported him as harassing me? Did he smile because of his own training – ‘don’t make trouble with White people’?
One year I purchased season tickets to the Seattle Children’s Theatre. The play I most remember was called “When I Grow Up, I Want to Do Something Big” – a story about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a child. After the play, as my son and I talked about what we’d learned, he said, “We all have the same color blood.” It was a proud mama moment. I thought I was doing good. I thought I was not racist. And that was that. We returned to our very White community, living our very safe life.
Fast-forward a couple of decades. What has changed? My community is as white as it ever was.
I’ve caught myself describing a likable woman I met to my husband this way: “She’s one smart, dynamic Black woman.” Never do I say, “She’s one smart, dynamic White woman.” Why would a descriptor be needed? Because ‘we’ assume “White.” As a result of this awareness, I’ve embarked on a search within myself for what I’m calling “racial nuances,” such as descriptors like these.
A few years ago, my late uncle came for a visit from California. I took him to our favorite breakfast place – The Blue Moose Café. My uncle studied the menu, placed his order, and then I noticed him looking around the room with a perplexed expression. He turned to me and said, “I’ve never seen so many White people.” It’s true and what’s worse, I hadn’t given the Whiteness of my community much thought in years. His comment woke me up.
Which brings me to ‘unlearning.’
I’m unlearning my mother calling Black people “Negroes.” I’m unlearning my mother being upset at a cousin who married an Asian woman – mixing blood, “not good,” she said. I disagreed vehemently with her then, but in my early twenties, I didn’t understand how my mother’s own inherited beliefs tainted mine.
I’m unlearning using color descriptors, I’m unlearning taking extra notice when a fashionable black couple, toting suitcases, walks into one of our town’s very white coffee shops. At first I was thrilled – yay, diversity! But why is it my town is so White, and why is it that I don’t see humans with suitcases, and what should I be seeing and feeling? Lots to ponder here.
I’m unlearning my White ways, and honestly, I don’t yet know the full depth of what this means.
I do know this: Learning begins with awareness. Awareness begins with asking questions. You have time to learn and ask questions when you step out of the whirlwind of busy. Otherwise, awareness just becomes another good intention that slips between the cracks of an over-busy mind and an over-busy life.
With this in mind, I offer up my ‘Four Stages of Clarity’ as a framework for exploration of re-orienting to racial equality – and also to ward off the return of over-busy!
Step 1 – Reveal.
Ask questions. Read books. Have conversations. Be curious. How have your beliefs been formed by family, media, peers? How have you been socially conditioned to think, to work, to show up in your life?
Step 2 – Release.
Release what no longer serves humanity and your greatest and highest good. In regard to shifting inequality, this won’t happen overnight – after all, we are unlearning hundreds of years training that certain people are ‘less than.’ Again, what beliefs have you inherited? What isn’t you or yours?
Step 3 – Respond Differently.
Guided by expanded awareness, you have the power of choice to show up as an ally – as someone willing to examine your own privilege and bring mindfulness to your thoughts, responses and actions.
I was struck by a quote posted on social media that said, “Remember, you’re there to be in service to black activists, not to have your voice heard—but to use your privilege to ensure theirs is.”
How can you respond differently to sustain your life energy and move what matters most to you forward?
Step 4 – Re-orient.
What is no longer tolerable? Where do you want to focus attention to re-orient for equality? Where do you want to focus attention to create more or continued spaciousness in your life?
One last important question to ponder: Can you sit with discomfort?
Re-orienting can be uncomfortable. It’s new, it’s unknown, it’s uncertain. But look where all this supposed comfort and certainty has gotten us? Not so comfortable after all, is it?!
To my Black and Brown friends and community: I see you, I hear you, I’m learning, and yes, it’s uncomfortable, and yes, I’m your ally. What exactly does all this mean? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m listening, so bring it on!
Ubuntu: An African philosophy and a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity.” It is often translated as “I am because we are,” or “humanity towards others.”
PS I updated this post 6.19.2020 after reading two articles about why capitalizing ‘B’ and ‘W’ is important.
Why we capitalize ‘Black’ (and not white)
Recognizing Race in Language: Why We Capitalize “Black” and “White”.