A few weeks ago I came out of a closet. I declared openly and unabashedly that I am a therapist in therapy. I explained why it was important for me to come out of that closet, and why we need more conversations where stigma and shame are replaced with pride and support. Now it’s time for me to come out of another closet. Turns out I’m racist.
Yes, you read that right. I. Am. A. Racist. This was quite a revelation for me and I hope you will not immediately close the window and rant about me on social media. Instead, I hope you will read this sordid tale of self-discovery and insight and allow me to confess my sins. Go ahead and refill your drinks, pop some corn, and grab a pillow. This is a long one.
I attended the PolyDallas Millennium 2017 (http://www.polydallasmillennium.com/) this past weekend. The theme was about power, anarchy, and equality in polyamory. Ruby Bouie Johnson is the owner and producer of this highly successful annual symposium, and as a minority woman she is always sure to include a focus on social justice and equity across racial lines. As expected, many of the offerings this year focused on black power and equality.
Spending my entire life in the South, racism is not a new concept for me. Like most white people, my narrative always includes the caveats of having black friends and never once engaging in any form of discrimination. I take pride in being what I perceive as fair, open minded, and socially justice oriented towards the plight of all minorities. I like to think that my personality, my upbringing, my education, and my career speak for themselves in terms of inclusivity.
Mistake #1: I’m a complete and total moron when it comes to truly understanding the history of systemic oppression and placing that in context for today’s events and the future of a group of people struggling mightily for anything remotely fair and equitable.
Three days ago I sat in a room where I was one of the few white faces participating in a discussion about polyamory, rehabilitation, and the black American. Throughout the heated discussion I took copious notes about books and articles to read, podcasts to download, history to learn, and concepts to consider. Page after page of notes, furiously scribbled so I could keep up with back-and-forths that would rival Wimbledon.
And then came my moment. I opened my mouth and highlighted my ignorance. I freely admitted that I never considered myself racist but had to acknowledge that I was not doing anything to solve this problem on a larger scale. I asked for guidance. What could I do? Where could I start? Day in and day out how could I make a difference?
Mistake #2: Why was I, an educated individual capable of higher order research, asking a group of people to generalize centuries of experience into a racial primer that I could easily digest? One person very correctly stated I could not have gotten to this point in my life without learning out to pick up a book and read. “Read Baldwin! Nothing has changed since then!” James Baldwin. A brave pioneer in the modern civil rights movement who lectured all across the South on racial inequality as a member of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). A writer so prolific in his reporting of racial strife that he made the cover of Time magazine in 1963, corresponded with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President John Kennedy, and had a larger FBI file (nearly 1,200 pages) than any other writer in that shameful era of illegal surveillance. Aside from the Baldwin reference, I have at least a working knowledge of Google, Amazon, and Ebsco. How condescending of me to request that a group marginalized by my majority take the time to condense their rich history into a Reader’s Digest version for my comfort and ease of understanding.
It was at this point that Ruby, who I consider to be a friend and mentor, said quite emphatically “You are a white person in America! Of course you’re racist!” I was taken aback. First time I’ve ever been called a racist. My blood started to boil and I could feel myself bowing up for a fight. A fight that I most assuredly would lose.
Good Decision #1: I kept my mouth shut and listened. I quickly realized that Ruby’s perspective was a valid one whether or not I liked it and whether or not I agreed with it. It was her lived experience. And I needed to hear it.
This was a valuable lesson in active listening. If I want to understand anybody at all, I have to listen to their stories and resist the urge to interject my own story or compare it to my narrative in a battle of who has overcome the most. One of the ways white people really screw up this conversation is trying to prioritize pain. There is no hierarchy here. All pain is valid. Acknowledging your pain and suffering does not negate mine. The reverse is also true. But ranking it to show that I have somehow suffered as much as generations of people systemically oppressed? Oh wow….not a good idea. That is not comparing apples and oranges. It’s more like comparing apples and Toyota’s.
In many conversations this past weekend and since, one thing has become very clear. White people love to hide behind the false mask of “I don’t see race, I see people.” After all, I give to the NAACP. I support local black businesses. I might even date a black guy. So I don’t see color. I see other people. I’m going to have to call bullshit on this one. When we say we don’t see color, what we’re actually saying is that we don’t understand the role that race plays in American society. We have been dehumanized by the system of oppression to the point we can lie to ourselves and others when we oh-too-comfortably say “I don’t see skin color” or “I’m colorblind” or “Love is colorblind.”
Don’t believe me? Ever watched someone you know move away from a black man on the street? Or shift their purse across their body? Or lock their car doors? Or avoid certain restaurants or certain parts of town? Or post meme’s about drug testing welfare recipients? Or #BlackLivesMatter right beside #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter? Or laugh at a racial joke and later feel guilty about it….or not feel guilty about it? But we don’t see skin color, right?
Mistake #3: You know I love Harry Potter right? “I must not tell lies.” I must stop lying to myself and the world around me that I do not see skin color. This is not a harmless lie. In fact, it is quite harmful. I absolutely do see skin color and it’s time I acknowledge it and respect it. Otherwise I will remain forever ignorant of the role that race plays in society.
What happens when I tell the truth? I am forced to confront a very harsh reality shared by Eldridge Cleaver. “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” His statement is frequently parsed. No, parsed is a white man’s term to avoid accountability. Cleaver is misquoted on a daily basis because most people forget the first sentence – “There is no more neutrality in the world.” He is absolutely right. There is simply no way to remain neutral on this issue.
Here’s the big one for us white people: we were NEVER neutral on this issue. We’ve had skin in this game since we first loaded slaves onto a ship and whipped them into submission on land we stole from the Indigenous Americans. It was NEVER possible to remain neutral. We have been too comfortable in the middle pretending we aren’t the problem and avoiding responsibility for finding a solution. We have been too complacent for too long, and that has made us complicit. We are the oppressors. We are the ones who benefit from oppression.
Here’s a thought exercise for you. Two kids grow up in a poor neighborhood side by side. Jane is black, Sue is white. Neither have much in the way of resources. They attend the same schools until they graduate. Both work two jobs to pay for college where they study business. They work at the same restaurant. Jane is a line cook for minimum wage. Sue waits tables and with tips averages $12/hr. On the weekends they both babysit. Well, Jane babysits and Sue is a nanny. Jane gets minimum wage, Sue gets $10/hr. Sue graduates college on time, and Jane needs an extra year because of funding. Sue is immediately hired as an entry-level manager. Jane is hired as a secretary for $10k/year less. Both came from the same neighborhoods, worked the same jobs, and earned the same degrees. Yet Sue clearly had the advantage. When Jane wonders about equity, Sue shakes her head and says “I’ve suffered just as much and look what I was able to do with it!”
In this thought exercise, which is based on people many of us know, Sue clearly benefited from racial inequity. She directly benefited from the oppression of another person and was never able to see it. Why? Because we are white and we do not have to see it! We get to avoid it, deflect it, lie about it, or remain ambivalent. It’s in our best interest to maintain this system for our own advantage. After all, for one person to have an advantage means another person has a disadvantage. This is not a level playing field. We are not neutral. Now imagine generations of such disadvantages in daily living and opportunities for advancement. What would that look like for your grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and their great grandchildren? I wonder if that’s what the first slaves thought about when they were stolen from their homes and shipped to this country. I wonder if they had any idea what would happen to generations of their progeny who are now my friends and neighbors and colleagues.
So if I can’t be neutral, I’m either part of the problem or part of the solution. Sure, ethicists and philosophers might caution such dichotomous thinking and even cite the logical fallacy of contraposition. But here is the starkest reality. Because I do directly benefit, I am complicit in doing nothing to stop this oppression. And having said that, it’s time to stop calling this oppression and start calling it what it is: white supremacy.
Mistake #4: White washing racial inequity as anything other than white supremacy so I do not have to feel bad about my advantages and do something that makes the world equitable and just. White washing allows me to continue to receive unfair and unjust benefits while denying my role.
So now that I acknowledge my role and my mistakes, it’s time to do something about it. Where do I begin? With more listening! Fortunately as a therapist I love to listen to peoples’ stories. I love to hear about their lives and experiences. So I’m going to start there. I’m going to listen more and talk less about me.
Good Decision #2: I will actively seek to understand the lived experience of others by asking them to tell me their stories. This is an active process, and not simply listening when somebody chooses to speak. I will insist on learning more.
And once I have listened and absorbed and processed, and run through that cycle a few more times, I will then speak. I will have uncomfortable conversations with my peers. As Goody Howard put it, “you need to call in and call out.” For me, calling in is more about accepting that we will screw this up a lot and we need to be lovingly reminded of what is reality to keep us on track. Calling out includes publicly pointing out oppressive behavior so that the person knows they are wrong, and the people around them know it too. Putting into psychobabble, calling in is about using a personal connection to help someone gain insight and awareness for personal growth and change. Calling out is relying on a social learning paradigm to very publicly teach a much needed lesson to a bully and their supporters.
Good Decision #3: Calling in and calling out will become part of my daily routine. I will have uncomfortable conversations. Certainly this blog entry has been uncomfortable. Talking to my friends last night was uncomfortable. But the more resolute I became the more comfortable I grew.
As you can see, I was able to identity a FEW of my mistakes and some INITIAL steps I can take to do things better. Because right now I am a racist, but I don’t want to be. I want to be better. I want to do better. For me and for those around me. Because I can. Because I have power. Because until I do I am a white supremacist.
I cannot make any trite and cliched promises about my ability to negotiate grand changes in the oppressive system. I do not have enough knowledge…yet. I do not wield enough power…yet. I am not that important…and never will be. All I can ever do is keep educating myself by listening and reflecting and making active changes in how I approach the world. Oh my fellow white people, please join me. Let’s stop being racist.