What I'm doing
I love to organize information. I love to categorize and make lists and even describe my past in phases. But what I’ve been thinking about lately is hard to organize. It’s messy and I’ve struggled a good deal with exactly what I want to say and how to say it.
Then this week at work, for the first time in my memory, we had a conversation - an online forum with about 150 people - about race in this country. A few of our leaders, all white in this instance, talked about their experience of the recent social unrest and then opened it up to associates to do the same.
I thought it was brave. And about damn time.
And I realized I wanted to continue that conversation.
On this call, there were white voices and Black voices and there were themes among both. The white people often started with I realize I live in a bubble and the Black people often started with I’m tired.
Since I am white, I’d like to respond to the white voice above, and say that living in a bubble - that is, not facing the reality that Black and other people of color live every day - is the very definition of privilege. But other than that, I’m not going to try to persuade or argue.
Mostly this is because it’s not about the conclusion. I think all people - if they’re painfully, deeply honest with themselves - will come to the same conclusion. To me, what feels even more crucial at this moment is for everyone to at least begin the journey toward this honesty.
So what I want to say is that wherever you are on that journey, it’s ok.
Whether you’re floundering with where to start or have started slowly coming around for some time and now feel a sense of urgency to move faster and do more or if you are still working to come to terms with the truth, all of it is ok. What’s not ok, it is clear, is to do nothing.
It is not ok to keep living in that bubble.
The questions I often hear and those I’ve been asking myself are fairly similar. They usually go something like where do I start, then how do I sit with this, and then finally what can I do?
I certainly don’t have all the answers; I can only speak to what I’m doing myself and how my journey is unfolding. And that’s what I’ll share with you now (in numbered bullets because that’s what I do).
But I’d also like to share that regardless of how we do it, it’s important to first dispel any myth that we can do this work and protect ourselves. That we can do this work and not fumble. I'm fumbling, I’m uncertain; I feel exposed and vulnerable. That’s ok and normal and unavoidable.
Perfection is not a requirement - in fact, it’s often a hindrance - to being a better person.
1. Where do I start?
My answer to this question - on really any topic at all - is education. Books are a great place to begin, there are tons of them out there, but there are also, of course, endless other ways to educate yourself here in the digital age. I recommend especially, educating yourself on history.
This has meant for me, education in three different areas.
National. We cannot rely on the history we learned here in school and, I hope, we also do not rely on one source of biased voices. To have a balanced understanding of our history is an essential piece of educating ourselves on the topic of race and it requires multiple sources.
Having said that, however, I’m only going to give one suggestion, which is the documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay. This is simply because I’d venture a guess that it’s a perspective some of us don’t yet have, so it’s a great place to start.
Local. I know disturbingly little about race relations and how they shaped the area in which I grew up, but shape it they did. And they shaped me too despite my lack of knowledge. We are all of us products of the places in which we live and so is how we perceive the world. It’s a truth we have to acknowledge.
Since many of you reading likely grew up near where I did, I’ll offer that I’m starting in this area with The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson.
Personal. Here, I am working through the book Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad. I like the way it’s laid out with a different daily topic followed by journaling prompts. Saad is straightforward about the reality of the work she’s setting in front of you and I very much appreciate her candor. It’s going to be tough; we have to get over it.
2. How do I sit with this?
The answer to this is simple: don’t try to do it alone.
Many of us were taught quite the opposite. We were taught not to talk about race; to be color blind in fact. We were taught that calling out differences made it harder to move on from the past. The reality, however, is that we cannot connect with others or see them as full persons when we only recognize our similarities - we have to celebrate our differences as well.
And frankly, we haven’t moved on from our past proving our silence doesn’t work. To use the words of one of my Black colleagues: the silence is heavy. Our silence sends a message worse than just that we don’t care; it sends a message that it’s ok.
But let me be direct, white people need to be talking to white people. Because a lot of heavy stuff is going to come up for us around this work - shame, guilt, fear, sadness - and that’s ok, but that’s not something that people of color need to be additionally burdened with.
It’s not their job to fix what’s wrong or to hold our guilt.
White people need to get over their awkwardness in talking about race and take up the mantle.
3. What can I do?
Man, this one is tough. Because asking the question, doing your work, that’s a great place to start, but that’s not even close to enough. What I am hoping, is that as I continue moving forward, opportunities for action will reveal themselves.
One thing I am doing is to seek out black voices and listen to their experiences. Like really, really listen to their own accounts of their own experiences rather than through a filter.
And from this, there are a few takeaways I can pass on.
It’s likely going to be emotional; you’re likely going to feel defensive. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to feel pretty uncomfortable pretty often. Try not to turn away from it. In fact, if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re probably not going deep enough or being honest enough with yourself.
This is not about intent, it’s about impact. I cannot stress this enough. To use Saad’s example, you can step on someone’s toe by accident, but you still say you’re sorry when they’re hurt. Racism is as much about passive acceptance as it is about active discrimination. We need to hear this, take it in, and figure out what to do with it.
To that point remember, you don’t get an opinion of how other people experience this world. If you feel yourself starting to argue try to re-focus on the fact that you’re trying to hear their story. It’s about them, not about you.
Lastly, I’ll say, this needs to be an active and ongoing process.
Start somewhere and keep going.
And know that I’ll be walking with you if you need a friend.