Note: Today is Day 10 of my 30 day blog challenge. If you want to get my random thoughts about random stuff in your inbox, you can subscribe at the bottom of any post or mash the RSS button if that’s how you roll.
First, a disclaimer: I had lunch with a good friend recently and she explained to me the following steps in her continuing journey of unlearning racism. I don’t know if there’s any official literature about this specifically, but as she explained these steps, it made incredible sense to me and gave light to many conversations I’ve had with people in every stage she described.
I’m recording it here so I don’t forget, because I will keep having those conversations with people as long as I’m still Black1 and alive. Remembering that there’s hope for people who are earlier in the process helps me to stay compassionate. 2
Stage 1: Racists Are Lynchers
This is what many white children in many predominantly white communities learn about racism: It was a terrible thing done by terrible people a long time ago. There were sheets, and beatings and lynchings and slavery and then Martin Luther King came and now the President is Black and it’s all better!
So if that is someone’s idea of racism and you come along and call them out on some (non-lynching) racist thing they have said or done– well no wonder they’re so defensive! Not only is it impossible for them to be racist, as it’s defined in their minds, but there’s no way they even know anyone who’s racist.
Stage 2: The Opposite of Racism is Color Blindness
@KarvelDigital Respectfully asking… Why does it matter? I don't see colour. Should I?
— Charlene Daub (@4444Charlie) June 8, 2013
This is a pretty logical leap on the surface. If people are being discriminated against because of their differences, then we should just work to see everyone as being the same, right?
Except, everyone is not the same. In fact, people (even within the same race–gasp!) are wildly different. The problem is that people in marginalized groups (not just racial), are not quite seen as full people. It’s a terrible thought, but there it is. If we were, then people in the dominant group–especially people in the media–wouldn’t be so quick to get some token Black person to ‘tell us what Black people think about’ (fill in current event of the moment).
Stage 3: OK, I Recognize That There’s a Problem. Someone Teach Me!
Congratulations! You’ve figured out that your experience of the world as a privileged white person is not in fact universal. But now you expect people of color to explain to you What Is Really Going On And How To Fix ItTM.
Guess what? We’re busy. We’re busy trying to live our lives, keep our houses clean, do good work, get good grades, play video games, go to the beach and keep mentally sane despite dealing with at least one bullshit *ist incident per day.
Luckily there’s Google. And the library. And bookstores. And great blogs, vlogs and podcasts. And Twitter and Facebook. You want to learn about racism and what it’s like to live as a Black person in the United States? There are plenty of ways for you to do that respectfully. Unobtrusively. Without putting a greater burden on people who are already being oppressed every day.
You want to talk to Real Live Black People while you’re doing all this? Fine. There are places and times for you to do just that. I bet there’s some in your area too. Or if you’re really stuck in whites-ville, again the Internet will come to your rescue. Join a mailing list. Create a book club via Skype and read Black authors.
Oh and by the way? If you actually make use of all these resources, that is awesome. But don’t go looking for your gold star. This is the stuff that falls under, ‘being a decent human being.’ You don’t get a cookie for it.
Stage 4: Depression. (I Can’t Believe How Bad Things Are)
I participated in a six week discussion series about unlearning racism. In one of the sessions we watched a movie from I think, the eighties, about a mixed race group of men who come together for the weekend to talk about racism.
In the movie, there’s one white guy who, despite being open enough to volunteer for the experience, spends almost the entire time denying everything that anyone of color says to him about their experiences. It was maddening to watch. I thought they were never going to get through to him.
Finally, one of the facilitators just asked him over and over again: “What if what these men are telling you is true?”
And the guy, who has been in such deep denial, just starts to cry. He really didn’t want to believe some of the horrible experiences that he had heard from the other men. When white3. people educate themselves and begin to get an understanding of just how bad things still are, it can feel like a crushing weight. They might feel guilty, sad, overwhelmed. What are you supposed to do with this information? It seems unfixable and like there’s nothing you can do.
I can’t give you any comforting words about this stage. This is the stage I spend my life in, to some degree. The difference is that now you understand that as a white person, you have the choice, the privilege of choosing not to think about it–because that’s one of the luxuries of fitting in to the dominant group. Now you know the answer to the question, “Why is she always talking about race?”
Stage 5: Loneliness
My friend didn’t come up with this one, but when I pointed it out, she readily agreed.
So now you’re a somewhat enlightened, actively anti-racist white person. But guess what? Maybe your friends, co-workers, family and acquaintances haven’t been on this journey with you. But now you suddenly notice them saying things that you know are probably a wee bit racist. What to do? Are you going to spend every conversation calling people out? Are you going to lose all your friends? If you stay silent, are you a bad person?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I have watched friends struggle with them.
It might feel like there’s nothing you can do, but the good news is, if you get to step five, you’ve already done something pretty amazing–you’ve managed to begin clawing your way out of racist conditioning that everyone receives from birth. That’s actually a big deal. And chances are, though you may not spend every Thanksgiving convincing your family how fucked up Thanksgiving is, you’re probably going to start talking to someone, sometime. And that means they might begin to break out of the conditioning too. And that, I believe is the only way this thing will get dismantled. First, enough people have to know what the hell is happening. Then we can work on smashing the systems that are keeping it in place.
Do you relate to any of these stages or experiences? Let me know in the comments!
1. If you’re wondering about my decision to capitalize, see this article (Back)
2. Compassionate doesn’t necessarily mean being willing to engage directly with people who don’t have a clue if I’m not in the mood. (Back)
3. Sub straight, cis, male, able-bodies or your privilege group of choice. (Back)