The Ugly Undoing of Our Racism
I have this nagging feeling that I can’t seem to let go of. I’m exhausted. Emotionally and physically. The past several weeks have been filled with the grief of losing black lives and tension of wondering if protests will turn sour. And I’m drained. And while I have taken a stand and chosen to echo the cry of “Black Lives Matter,” in the streets, in conversations, and on social media, I feel that I have more to say. And more work to do.
Essentially, it’s this: It’s easy to call out racism in the world. In the powers, majorities, and authorities. It is much more difficult to look inward and call out the racism within ourselves.
To look outward and declare, we will not tolerate racism in the world around us is gratifying. It’s empowering, bold, and makes us look like good allies. To look inward and find that we are also guilty can feel like a betrayal of our ideals. But yet, this work is necessary. Ugly. Messy. Even depressing. But crucial if we want to see meaningful, lasting change.
Because white supremacy was baked into the very fabric of our nation since its infancy, its ideals and influence are inescapable. Therefore, we are all affected. None are immune. So we must be intentional in our efforts of extraction. Passivity will simply perpetuate the status quo.
And, y’all, extraction can be painful.
In her Ted Talk about shame, Brené Brown states that we cannot talk about race without talking about shame because when we discuss race, we must also discuss privilege. And when we discuss privilege, it usually leads to shame.
I believe that this is often why we don’t want to look inward. We don’t want to see the shame of our racial sins.
So we must be courageous. Brave, not perfect.
If we can allow ourselves to not be bullied by our shame, and with radical honesty, unconditional self-acceptance, and a commitment to accountability, do a cross-examination of ourselves, we just might see the revelations that can show us the way forward.
So in this spirit (and because you can’t mention Brené Brown without talking about vulnerability), here’s some of my dirty laundry, hung out for you to see. This is just a small piece of my journey to unlearning the lies I was taught by white supremacy.
Here we go.
I am a white-passing Latina raised in the Panhandle of Florida, aka Lower Alabama, aka Redneck Riviera. My hometown is predominately white and Southern. I honestly did not see very many black folks. The only black teacher I had in K-12 was a PE coach. The rest of my instructors were white. One of my earliest recollections of black representation was in a Puerto Rican folk tale called Juan Bobo.
Juan Bobo is a children’s story about the fabled and often romanticized jíbaro living en el campo, as rustic as it comes. While Juan Bobo is not explicitly black by tradition, in the particular book I had as a child, the illustrator portrays him as black.
What is important to know is that Juan Bobo is the village idiot.
Can you see the implicit message here?
In school, the few black students in my classes were often the class clowns. They were valued not for their intellectual prowess, but their ability to make us laugh and get out of a lesson. And as the quintessential teacher’s pet, I secretly looked down on them. Since I most prized being the best, academically and behaviorally, my black classmates were mostly reduced to irrelevance to me.
My AP classes in high school were mostly filled with white students. When I participated in honors college classes at the University of South Florida, a school that prides itself on diversity, there was not a single black student.
Therefore, somewhere along the way, I developed an unconscious bias. A hidden belief that black folks are dumb.
Cue the shame.
I would never tell you that I believed that. I was not even explicitly aware that I believed that. It remained hidden until I began co-leading a ministry with a Haitian friend after college. And if my thoughts didn’t betray me, my attitudes and actions did.
Try, though we may, to hide these ugly biases, they usually come out. One way or another.
And come out it did for me. In my experience, it’s not usually when we’re calm and in control that we reveal our true colors. It’s when we’re stressed, out of control, and forced to make snap decisions that our deepest natures emerge. And anyone who has led any type of thing ever knows that leadership will test you.
I was found wanting. I was, and am, deeply sorry.
I heard it once said, “The things that remain unnamed in us will always have power over us.” It’s until we give words to our feelings, biases, and attitudes that we will be controlled by them. We must speak truth to power and be specific about the lies racism and white supremacy have weaved into our unconscious.
Fortunately, my story did not end with my shameful exposure. Learning about my prejudice was painful. But it was also liberating. I had a starting place. Something explicit and tangible to work on and undo. And it launched me into the world of black excellence.
I could sit at the feet of brilliant black scholars and artists and do the great unlearning. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. James Baldwin. Angie Thomas. Misty Copeland. Michaela DePrince. Coretta Scott King. Austin Channing Brown. Jemar Tisby. Tyler Burn. Michelle Higgins. Ally Henny. Christina Edmondson. Ekemini Uwan. Liz Vice. Resmaa Menakem. Ella Fitzgerald. Bryan Stevenson. Childish Gambino. Leon Bridges. Christina Cleveland. Brenda Salter McNeil.
You know. Just to name a few.
I could also begin grieving everything I’ve lost in devaluing the worth of my black friends. What all did I miss? What did I lose?
Probably far more than I will ever know. The loss is profound.
So am I cured now? No. This is a process. A journey that requires commitment. And I need A LOT of work. Habits developed over decades do not go away overnight. I just devote myself to repentance. Again and again. And again.
You know my deep dark secret now. It still grieves me. But I hope it also encourages you to look inward and challenges the stigma of admitting our transgressions.
White supremacy has sold us a load of shit. We need to unlearn it.
Here are a few. questions I would encourage you to consider to help your own self-audit:
- What was the racial/ethnic makeup of your hometown?
- What examples, if any, of black/brown leaders did you see growing up?
- How have you seen black folks portrayed in the media?
- In what kinds of settings are you uncomfortable seeing black people?
- What music/movies/TV shows/entertainment have impacted you?
Remember, absence can be just as powerful as presence. If you didn’t, or don’t, have much exposure to black culture, evaluate the implicit message of that.
And do me favor: Unless you have explicit permission, don’t go process this with your black friend. Do the work on your own or with a non-black friend. Our black brothers and sisters do not owe us the favor of helping us become anti-racist. That’s on us. And don’t go seeking absolution or affirmation from your black friends that you’re “not that bad.” That’s co-dependent, and they don’t need that. Do the work. Own your mess. And learn from it. In the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
I hope you’ll have mercy for me as I try to work through my mess. I’ll do the same for you. Just don’t stop. We can’t afford it.
And go watch Get Out.
To my black friends: you are incredible. Beautiful. Talented. Prolific. And possess an intelligence that I’ve only just begun to comprehend. Thank you for the unmerited patience you’ve given me.
With you en la lucha,