We are in the midst of a civil rights movement. This movement is new for some, as old as the hills for others. When I look online and around me, I see so many people grappling with a deluge of information and I’ve struggled to place my own thoughts on anything that might be helpful to add. For the black and brown people, I have nothing except to say I’m sorry, I see you, you are awesome, and I’m standing up with you.
This is a message to white folks.
The road to uncovering and dismantling personal racism is long and painful and is a life’s work. I wanted to share something that has helped me immeasurably in this work and it’s something that might seem at first to be counterintuitive, blasphemous, and maybe just wrong: For me, my true uncovering began when I gave myself permission to have biases against others.
I grew up in Bridgeport, Michigan, a tiny hamlet of 1,400 people just to the south-ish of Saginaw. My town was diverse in race and ethnicity, as well as in financial classes. My elementary schooling was in a special program called Quest, a school for gifted and talented students that had to score a certain number on an IQ test to attend. Despite the highly varied make-up of my town, nearly all the students who attended this program were white. This wasn’t questioned, at least not by anyone I was hearing from, and for me, did not seem unusual. It merely supported a barely subconscious understanding that white people were smarter than brown people. That belief worked for me because it placed me above others, something I felt comforted by. In elementary school we were taught about how white people enslaved Africans and destroyed “Indian” communities, but it was taught in such a way as to allow for a distinct separation from us. That was an atrocity that happened many years ago. There are still racist people, but they are few and they are bad, obviously.
Jr. High was a mishmash of hormones and difficulty for me. I began to understand power struggles more explicitly and history took on a different angle as we learned about the Salem Witch trials in history and watched Gone with the Wind in social studies. I began to understand “isms,” and knew that they are very, very bad and should not happen. I saw myself as a good person. I still believed I was smarter than most people, and by most people I meant the people who didn’t talk like me, dress like me, or behave like me. I understood racism as an external behavior of other people that are stuck in the past. I heard my grandad call professional basketball players “monkeys.” I heard the N-word casually tossed around in my circle of friends. To me, these were islands of racism. They were good people who were doing bad things. I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t challenge it. Underlying my behavior was a barely subconscious understanding that these acts cemented my own self image as being better than and to challenge them would mean rocking a boat which was my ride to success. I knew that I wasn’t racist. In safe situations, I told people as much.
During this time I started going to another special school called Center for the Arts and Sciences. It was a magnet arts school that was a half day. I was in the theater class with all grades ninth through twelfth, but I was allowed into the class in eighth grade because of scheduling issues at my homeschool, which I attended in the mornings. One day I was listening to some older students argue about racism. They were talking about the Constitution. I don’t remember the exact conversation. I do remember interjecting caustically, maybe trying to look cool, “well, where were the black people when we were writing the Constitution?” I was trying to intimate that these people shouldn’t be complaining if they didn’t help out with the plan. One of my older friend’s mouth dropped open and quickly turned to a sneer before she said “they were in the fields, picking cotton!” Oh yeah, I thought to myself. I forgot. The other older kid helped me out and said “what I think Sue is trying to say is just that if more black people had been involved with writing the Constitution, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” or something like that. I agreed with him that that was what I meant as they moved on. How could a fourteen year old, educated human being ever, EVER make that mistake? They can only do so if they’ve veiled themselves in a cloak of superiority that dismisses the reality of the experience of others. I’m normal! I told myself. When other people spoke, I viewed their words through my lens of normalcy. Wow, other people sure do make a lot of mistakes! I thought, dismissing the possibility that their views of the world were simply different than mine.
In high school I started freshman year riding the bus. I lived near a row of low income housing apartments called the Complex and an area called the Gardens, where poorer people lived. I was the only white person who rode my bus. Sometimes I could disappear into the window seat. Sometimes I got dealt some shit. Every day I was relieved to arrive at school. The black kids were loud and screechy and they scared me, all bunched together like that. I begged my mom to give me gas money for a friend to pick me up, which she did. For the next two years, until I got my license, I didn’t ride the bus again. I never told anyone why.
Once I’d gotten my license, I was driving home, passing through the Complex and I got pulled over. The white cop asked me if I’d been drinking and held up a large empty Colt 45 can. He said he’d seen it fly as I drove by and he thought I’d thrown it out the window. I wondered briefly if he’d thought I was black driving in this area in my Cutlass Supreme. I told him I wasn’t drinking and added, overtly conscious of my meaning, “that’s not my brand of beer.” I practically winked at him. I knew I was using our race to tie us together against people who drank Colt 45 and I was a little ashamed, but not too much to try. I don’t think he got what I was saying, but he let me go anyway.
In order to get to the Center for the Arts and Sciences, we had to drive through the East Side of Saginaw. The East Side is a strange place. Once the city of Saginaw was wealthy and teeming with dollars. The East Side was where the rich automaking families built their mansions. As time went by and automaking went south (literally) the mansions emptied. For a time, you could buy a mansion on the East Side for $50,000. I’m talking ballroom, carved staircases, chandelier style mansions. Of course, they’d be dilapidated, but still. The East Side was also dangerous, or at least it seemed so to us. We’d heard tales of drug deals gone wrong, drive bys, and beatings that happened there. My friend’s car broke down in the heart of the East Side once, on the way to school. We felt like we were in mortal danger. We got out of the car and ran for the bridge that separates the East from the West. We didn’t wait for each other. It was every man for himself. I was somewhere in the middle and I remember the relief I felt as I crossed over the Saginaw River. Safe from whom was never mentioned. We didn’t talk about it.
My sister and I were once pulled over by a white cop in this same area. We weren’t doing anything wrong, he’d just pulled us over to ask us what we were doing there. We told him we were going home. He told us “be careful, this is a dangerous area.” I retold the story a hundred times, my words dripping with derision. How dare he pull two white girls over to tell us that that was a dangerous area! He’s racist.
I’d created a world where people of color were somehow both equal to me, but not as smart and also not very good at not getting in trouble, but definitely equal to me, if anyone asked. In that world the black and brown people I knew were ok because they were kinda more white, so I could accept them and they were smart and good. But the ones I don’t know were scary and probably dangerous. I was extra good because I knew that racism was bad. That cop was wrong. And I knew it.
It wasn’t until college that I started to even have a glimpse of my own hypocrisy. I majored in Religious Studies at Central Michigan University. At that unlikely spot I met two professors who would pinball shoot me in another direction. Dr. Robin Hough and Dr. Merlyn Mowrey: both white academics, both incredibly brilliant and obsessed with their topics, and both committed to offering different ways to view the world. I won’t say that I took a good hard look at my own racist tendencies, but I will say they introduced me to the problem and some people with solutions. Dr. Hough was into Candomblé and jazz and Capoeira and Yoruba religion and Billie Holiday and civil rights. He taught us about “Coon Songs,” the terribly racist and heinously popular music around in the late 1800’s, performed by white people in black face, made specifically to detract from human rights achievements in that century. Dr. Mowrey was into women’s rights and the history of subjugation and black women’s theories on race and relations. She introduced me to Beverly Tatum, Susan Faludi, and belle hooks. I learned all about the culture and music and wisdom of generations of black people and I read literature by black activists and philosophers and researchers and teachers. After sitting with these teachers I couldn’t live in the world I’d created anymore. Reality didn’t match. I had to smash it apart. Between the two of these teachers, I cobbled together the next phase of my uncovering: white guilt.
I understood now, on a deep level, that something very bad had happened. A whole group of loving, creative, intelligent, feeling people had been, and are still being, silenced through brute force, intimidation, and psychological warfare. And as a member of the community of people that did it/are doing it, I am complicit in the act. I was defensive. I’ve never owned a slave. I was always kind to the black people who I felt comfortable around. I didn’t benefit from being white…did I? I’M NOT RACIST. I’M NOT. I can’t be. I’m nice. I’m liberal. I felt torn between being embarrassed about it all and denying it even existed for a long time. I wished I was black so I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I would just know I was ok.
I graduated college and moved to Eugene, Oregon. I didn’t know the gruesome racial history of this town until much later. When Oregon entered the Union, black people were forbidden to live here, the only state in the Union to make such a claim. A burning cross was placed on the butte that you saw as you rode the train into town, to remind you who was in charge here. The KKK had deep connections to the schools and businesses all around Oregon. Oregon refused to let black people vote until 1959 and didn’t ratify the 14th amendment until 1973. Therefore, Oregon has remained a fairly white state.
I took a job teaching middle school at a small, non-profit charter school. I loved and hated teaching. Children are mirrors, showing you every moment the places where you are lacking. I did a pretty ok job, noticing the places where I said “we,” as if I were talking about humans but really meant white people. I made my people drawings a light brownish color so students could all see themselves in my pictures. I thought my colleague was genius for having a conversation with her class about “flesh colored crayons,” being many different colors. But I still viewed myself as more a part of the solution than part of the problem.
Everything started to unravel about four years ago. I read a story during this period about a black farmer who once delivered produce to an affluent neighborhood. He decided to stop because it wasn’t the white supremists who were going to kill him, it was the “nervous white women in yoga pants” who would call the cops on him and take him away from his daughters. This story really got to me. A long list of black people were already dead at the hands of white cops. It was undeniable that there was a problem and we weren’t getting to the root of it. And here was a black man telling us that “so called progressives,” of which I considered myself to be one, were more dangerous than white supremists.
The administration and faculty at my school decided to start an equity and inclusion committee. I volunteered to sit in on an interview with someone we were thinking about bringing on to do a professional development with our largely white faculty. His name was Johnny Lake. In the interview he told us that everyone has biases because everyone grew up in a community of peers. It’s what you do next, he said, once you realize you’ve got them, that matters.
My mind was blown. Back to back I’d been informed that yes, progressive people can be racist and further, all people have biases. My white guilt started to turn into something else: a need to make real change. I started to look at myself differently. What if it was actually normal for me to be frightened of difference? And what if instead of spending time feeling sorry for myself, I spent that energy identifying my prejudices, no matter how hard to admit, and took steps to change them?
I started analyzing myself. I let some of the memories I spoke of earlier bubble to the surface. But a real eye opening moment occurred when I was hiding someone on FaceBook. I realized suddenly that during my decade or more on social media I’d hidden only three people and all three of them were African American women. Out of the hundreds of friends I had, only three had bothered me enough to hide. Three black women. I had friends who posted terribly offensive things about Muslims and Barack Obama and even gay people, of which I am one. But I kept them and hid three black women.
I immediately unhid all three women and examined why I’d hidden them in the first place. Why did I do it? Because my bias kept me from accepting their experiences. I didn’t understand them. I didn’t relate to them. And I didn’t like what they were saying. So I crossed them off. This was the first of a string of realizations, not just about black and brown people, but trans people and Asian people and even white people.
Soon after we were into February and African American history month. I stood in front of my sixth graders and told them the story of my biases. The words stuck in my throat. I didn’t know how to say it out loud. Once you admit out loud that you’re fallible, you can never go back to being all powerful. I’ve gotten better at saying it over time: I’m a racist but I’m trying not to be.
This is the thing, white people. We can’t assume that because we are progressive or fair minded or nice or colorblind or have black friends that we are ok. We have to look for all the places that we benefit from racism. Don’t tell me you haven’t benefited from it. If you’re white, you have, even if you didn’t know it. Maybe your great grandpa came back from war and got a GI loan that was only available to white people and bought a house, allowing your grandma a place to grow and prosper, which in turn allowed your parent to go to college and earn a degree, which benefited you (this is an approximately true story told to me by a colleague at work). Go back in and you’ll find it. Maybe it was as simple as that you weren’t put into juvenile detention when you got pulled over at age seventeen because a cop “thought” you threw a can of Colt 45 out your window. We have to look for all the places that we have, consciously or subconsciously, placed another person in a box. It’s the hardest step because we have to see out of someone else’s eyes and admit some hard truths. And then we have to change.
You have biases and it’s ok. You don’t have to rail against it or prove your innocence to anyone. Be honest with yourself about your feelings. All people have them. Somebody crosses the street when they see you coming, no matter who you are. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It’s only once you’ve admitted it that you can change it.
Everybody loses when we pretend that race implies intelligence or ability or worth. What has been happening to black and brown people for the last SEVERAL HUNDRED YEARS is deplorable. It’s time to start a new era of active honesty. Maybe in a few hundred more years, and after reparations, we will find ourselves trustworthy again.
(Thank you Robin Hough, Merlyn Mowrey, and Johnny Lake)