So here’s where I disavow racism, sexism, ageism, and all the hate-filled isms. And, as I always try to do, I start with me.
The scariest racist isn’t the one holding a torch and a Nazi flag in Charlotttesville, it’s the one inside me.
Scratch that, it’s not true at all. The guy holding that Nazi flag wants me dead (I’m Jewish) and wants lots of other people dead. He shows up at night, with a burning cross and a mask, drags people from their homes and hangs them from trees. He’s way scarier than the racist inside me.
But I’ve never actually met that guy (white privilege) and the racist inside me is there all the time. I don’t like her, I’m ashamed of her, of course, but she keeps popping up, no matter how much I deny her.
I know she was there when I was small, because in my kindergarten class photo, I drew X’s over every person of color, which was about half the class. I asked my mom and she says she doesn’t remember that, but she does remember that I balked when she set up a playdate with the little girl down the street, who was black. When she asked kindergarten me why, I said the little girl was different from me, and I was scared of her. So much for children not seeing color.
I know she’s still there, because I catch myself thinking the slow driver in front of me must be Asian, or thinking I can talk about the n-word without including black people in the conversation in the school newspaper, or being frustrated by the old person taking so long at the grocery store. I often want to compliment (or even touch) the hair of a black woman. I still struggle with why Rachel Dolezal is so polarizing. (See here for why: http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/03/03/518184030/why-rachel-dolezal-can-never-be-black)
So, once again, I disavow racism by rejecting the part deep inside me that, despite the teachings of my loving, accepting, kind parents, has absorbed the institutional racism this country was built upon. Here’s how:
- I try to allow the racist inside me to come forward, so that I can see her thoughts and correct her. Sometimes I do this gently, for that part of me is weak (white fragility) and I want to always be kind to myself, but sometimes I do this with anger, as I wonder when I will ever have the love and wisdom to be the person I want to be.
- I seek to learn. Since the election last November, I’ve started following many new (to me) voices on social media. One is Luvvie Ajayi, a writer and blogger who writes about race (among other topics) from the perspective of a Nigerian-American woman. Another is Very Smart Brothas, two black male writers who cover race from their perspective. When they write about why white women are the worst, or the most racist things white people do, or why Rachel Dolezal is awful, I resist my initial impulse to say “but not me” and I read the comments of the large communities they have built, trying to understand. Always, trying to learn and understand.
- I try to broaden my circle so that I’m surrounded by people from outside my own perspective. When was the last time someone of color ate a meal in my home? How many of my friends on social media look different from me? How honest am I being about myself with the people in my life who have different viewpoints? This past spring I showed that kindergarten picture to a colleague of mine, a young black woman. I’m nervous about the conclusions she drew from it, but if I want to do better, I have to force myself to be honest about who I am and who I have been.
- I remind myself that these bodies we live in are just shells. Recognizing the standards of beauty I have been raised with in America, I try to remember that the size of a body, its shade of skin tone, the width of its nose, all mean nothing about the person who lives inside.
- I check my desire for a ribbon. I want to be a good person. I think all of us do. I fight against a part of me that wants people of color to applaud me, or thank me, for my efforts to combat racism both inside me and in our world. I remind myself that this is work I must do on my own, without any expectation of praise. James Baldwin, in his play Blues for Mister Charlie has a white person ask if he can march with black protestors. The white character is told, “Well, we can walk in the same direction.” I must learn to be content with walking in the same direction.
Despite the racist who lives inside me, I know that in my deepest heart of hearts, I believe all human beings are equal and are made of love. Because I know this about myself, I trust myself to do the hard work of confronting the other, awful beliefs that bubble to the surface. I trust that someday, I’ll be better.