After reading this article this morning, I want to throw up.
It brought up a lot of memories…
– That white retailer in Door County who was watching the news as she checked out our items. I don’t remember what was on the screen. She remarked to us that she didn’t ever want to go to Milwaukee “because of all the… well… YOU know… ‘culture.'”
– The acquaintance on the bus who described to me that three black men on the street happened to be walking behind her, but she wasn’t afraid, “because, YOU know… they didn’t ACT black.”
– The friend I went to school with who couldn’t go to THAT wal-mart, until she broke her leg and walked around in a cast. “I think the black people are nice to me because I’m hurt.”
– Living in a cheap one-bedroom with black neighbors and applying for foodstamps, a friend of mine commenting that I was “living like a black person.”
– The co-worker teacher who assumed that after she told her class she was “part Cherokee,” the black kids respected her more.
– A black friend of mine telling me she needed to send a prospective roomate her picture before they met, because “you never know.”
– The co-worker from Mequon who was absolutely terrified of our black janitor, worried about “how no one can hear us scream up here” when he passed us at work to go empty recycle bins.
– That black janitor, who talked to my boss about baseball and complimented my smile. In retrospect, I’m thinking he felt he had to be extra nice to us.
– Every black person who approaches the reception desk with calm, direct eye contact, states their name and business, and assumes I’m going to do some kind of security check.
– My conversation with a black Teaching Assistant who wished she could move back south, because “at least there they’re racist to your face.”
– Another conversation with the same TA about policing language in the classroom. She was adamant she wouldn’t let them speak with too heavy “ebonics” because it “sounded ignorant.”
– The looks I get when I tell my white, affluent, private school students that I live in the heart of Downtown and I take the bus.
– The conversational friendliness in the elevator of my building – is that just the way my neighbors are, or is everyone making a Special Effort to be nice to me?
I’m stunned and angry at these instances, but mostly I’m heartbroken.
This issue isn’t about my heartbreak. But I guess I’ll start there.
Years ago I sat next to a black friend of mine while she showed me “Shit White Girls Say.” She laughed her ass off so hard she could hardly breathe. I was horrified. She was laughing more because I was horrified. I was especially horrified when she told me that she, personally, over the course of her 20 something years of life, had heard all of these things to her face and worse. I was especially especially horrified when she jokingly made an off-handed comment, in a conversation days later, “you sound like Shit White Girls Say right now.” I hung up the phone and I sobbed. SOBBED. I couldn’t talk to her for days. She finally confronted me, and I told her how helpless I felt, how stupid. How I couldn’t wrap my head around my own internalized racism, and how I felt like I must be hurting her without even knowing it. I could feel her eyes roll over the phone. She basically told me to shut the hell up and get over it. “I wasn’t hurt,” she said. “I was making a joke. And I am NOT gonna walk around on eggshells around you. Ugh. White people are so annoying.”
Step 1 into the realization that I was a white liberal progressive stereotype. The initial lightbulb.
Step 2 was actually a series of steps, “checking my privilege” in new ways while teaching in public schools- a frigging beast of an internal struggle, as all of the public schools in my city are segregated by skin color/income. I’d call my 1 black friend (because every white liberal progressive stereotype has at least one) and worry to her “I want to meet my students where they are, but they’ll never let me in because I don’t speak AAVE. I’m not part of the culture. I can’t code switch. And I really shouldn’t try, right? Cuz that’d be appropriation. What do I do?”
Her response? “OMG JUST CHILL THE HELL OUT.”
Every time. Every time I had a question, I could, again, feel the heavy eye roll, and she’d tell me to just shut the hell up and get over it. Do the work. Be a decent person. Do the best you can. No one’s expecting me to do more than my best. “You have to let your best be good enough,” she screamed at me once. She was frustrated. I was crying. I was hurt at first, but it was the best advice I ever got.
Step 3 is figuring out what my friend was trying to tell me the whole time: this is not my struggle.
I know I’m not a terrible human being. That should feel like the end of it. But it’s not.
Is simply avoiding being a racist asshole enough?
Is moving to the area of my segregated city with a higher population of black people enough?
Is teaching how to work together to create a play – no matter who is in the room – enough?
Shouldn’t I be struggling alongside as an ally? Isn’t making it my struggle too helping to shoulder the burden?
I still have questions. A lot of them. Is asking them enough? Or is it even right for me to do so?
This is hard.
However hurt or heartbroken I get simply does not compare to a sense of personal familial history of systematic oppression and enslavement. Getting surprised or hurt by these real-life situations only emphasizes how ignorant I had previously been that such situations exist. Explaining how sorry I am is only going to emphasize how much I want to distance myself from “those racist people”, and how much I want to make the situation about myself and my reactions, when that’s not really what matters. In short, my hurt feelings are not going to solve anything.
It’s hard, almost impossibly hard, to feel bad about something, and then know that no matter how bad you feel, it just doesn’t matter. But it’s what people get told to do all the time. Mostly black people. “We, the whole world around you, do not care that you are angry or hurt. Your feelings haven’t mattered since your great grandfather was a slave.” That’s the everyday message. To everyone.
This is hard for me because acting on my feelings and my struggle is all I really know how to do – make the situation about myself and my agency and my power. Take it into my own hands and do something. It’s how I’ve learned to solve things. It’s how I’ve learned to deal with everything. White people are always the heroes.
Being a hero, some times, doesn’t help.
(To a woman with a sword, every issue is an invading warlord?)
BUT: sitting back and being comfortable in the idea that, “well, I’m not an asshole, so I have no work left to do” is ALSO not helpful. “That’s not my job,” “That’s not my problem,” “I’ll wait for someone more deserving to handle it” is just as bad, if not worse. Probably worse. That’s how Trump wins. Yeah that’s definitely worse.
Step 3 is difficult, because it’s a balancing act between action an inaction. It’s the long list of what not to do that makes me feel guilty and sad and stuck, but more importantly it’s the very very short list of what to think about daily that makes me confused and questioning. It’s reading articles and learning about the situation, but without posting them on facebook to make sure everyone knows how not racist I am. It’s accepting that everyone is at least a little bit racist and I can lighten up about a lot of things, but also accepting that a lot of white people in power are way more racist than it seems on the surface, and I have to figure out a way to call that out in an effective and conversational way – without being the angry progressive liberal white teacher girl overcompensating for my own guilt. It’s voting and sitting back waiting for the election results, but it’s also finding the institutionalized racism, the racism way way way down in the system, and bringing it up as a factor when these conversations come up. It’s not walking on eggshells. It’s making a lot of mistakes and then owning them without feeling overwhelming guilt. (It’s definitely not crying to your black friend about how racist you are. Oi vhey.)
And it’s doing all of that, finding all of that out, acting or not acting on all of those things, on top of teaching a classroom full of kids about theater. And on top of not being an asshole, of course. Continue doing that. That part’s easy. The rest of it?
Man, I hope we get rid of racism soon, cuz it sure just makes everything unnecessarily difficult.