My biggest learning from living in St. Louis during the Ferguson unrest and protests was that most white people behaved as if it really had nothing to do with them. Sure, lots of whites felt fear, the heat of being in the national spotlight, and the inconvenience of the disruptive nature of massive protests, but for the most part my peers behaved as if the content of the protests weren’t about them. In fact, many people didn’t and don’t understand why people were protesting in the first place. I wasn’t really surprised by either the indifference or the very unshakeable racism I encountered, but I was surprised by the lack of connection and community. Ferguson may as well have been 100 miles away instead of 10. There are lots of complex reasons for this attitude, and many reasons to change it
(My most recent favorite article on the topic says: “Some people argue that when whites and affluent people segregate themselves, it can erode empathy, and it can inhibit the pursuit of region-wide remedies. It can inhibit a sense of shared destiny within a metropolitan area.”)
But aside from the impacts of physical segregation, what I kept thinking about is how early I was taught that things for or about black folks were not about me. I never owned a doll that wasn’t white. I never had anything but required reading for school that was about black people or characters – the equivalent of a broccoli movie. Seriously, the most diverse non-fantasy character that I chose to read about was Claudia (a Californian Asian-American girl) in The Babysitters Club. Most of the products I bought/buy don’t have pictures of people of color on them. I’ve spent most of my life filtering the world according to what is “for me” and “not for me” based on skin color. Desirable toys, characters, authority, power were all always white. They were also well educated, spoke with proper grammar (skinny language according to Nayyirah Waheed), and generally lived according to pretty traditional values. So I’ve had to work hard to dismantle the fact that those things are not a recipe for intelligence, wisdom, or worth.
It wasn’t until high school that I really began to feel the discomfort that comes along with playing a complicit role in racism. But I do remember experiencing my first complicated feelings on race. The below picture is my kindergarten class. I’m the little white girl huddled up in the middle next to the only black girl in the class. I remember getting this class picture back and feeling really upset that I was sitting so close to her, and only her. Not because I didn’t like her. But because I was fearful that the extent of our friendship would be misinterpreted and that I, too, would be marginalized. Even at age 5 I recognized the costs that come with aligning too closely with people of color.
So it’s from this position of hesitancy that I have “carefully” engaged in various conversations about race over the years. And from this position of hesitancy that I have participated (both actively and passively) in a variety of racist environments and institutions, occasionally sticking my neck out, but not too far.
I remember my mostly white private co-ed day school holding a series of diversity roundtables which both my mother and I were asked to participate in. I’m certain this was an important early part of the awakening of my awareness to both racism and it’s ubiquity as well as my own racial identity. It was also an education in the power of white guilt, the reductive nature of alleged “colorblindness” (thanks to Amanda Seales for giving me the language to describe this), and even more so in the treason that comes along with calling out fellow white people, which of course I wasn’t brave enough or aware enough to do at the time.
I left this school for a southern boarding school where I promptly went into culture shock. The racism here was much more palpable and uncomfortable for me. Many students had confederate flags hanging in their rooms, something that even 20 years ago seemed incredibly inappropriate. Our school mascot was “the Maroons”, which I was told at the time was slang for a runaway slave. Back then I didn’t have many sources to verify that, but today Wikipedia concurs with this definition. I heard things that made my stomach churn. They were passed off as “cute” or “funny” or “the way things are”. I was told on many occasions that if I was really honest with myself I’d admit that I felt the same way. Somehow it was honorable or brave to own up to your strong racist views. I didn’t feel the same way but I still had lots of work to do around my own racism and biases. But at the time the difference between those two things was confusing for me. Was I really just in deep denial? Was I really just trained to be more politically correct? Not having any clear white role models or access to white folks talking about any kind of inclusion and diversity meant that this lurking fear and confusion went unanswered for years.
I realized early on in this environment that if I wanted anything resembling the social life that I was accustomed to, I’d have to compromise on some of my values – i.e. ignore hateful things that were said or insinuated. Shamefully I did…most of the time. It’s actually really hard for me to keep my mouth shut so I did get quite a bit of heat for sparring on topics racism, sexism, and sexual orientation but the futility of it all was exhausting and I quickly and easily gave up trying. No one was surprised when I quickly returned north for college.
It was in college that I finally (after a couple of less academic years) found amazing professors and classes that spoke about the importance of social justice. I learned about racial identity theory and institutional racism. I had classes on feminism and queer studies. They were the best experiences I could have asked for and were no doubt life and perspective changing. (Yay for liberal arts!) I participated in the issues du jour about the campus cultural center and publicly identified myself as a white ally. But I still did so cautiously and safely.
Eager for more I went to graduate school to specifically study racial identity theory. It was an incredibly intense experience. I learned a tremendous amount about the field and myself…probably as much as I was able to at the time. Although my professional career tracked more closely to issues of sexism (a place where I felt more authorized to contribute), I have stayed in an advocacy role and have continued to engage in race work albeit in a bumbling, stumbling kind of way. Being in NYC and Philadelphia, I still felt close to it all. Of course there is no place on earth where racism doesn’t exist but the allegiance to issues of civil rights and social justice is uniquely strong in big urban cities in the Northeast. It’s not hard to find advocates. It’s not hard to find allies. It’s not hard to find engaged and engaging thought leaders. When I moved to St. Louis I realized that I had taken that common camaraderie for granted.
St. Louis has a wonderful city. The park system, accessibility, and the ease of living alone make it remarkable. I feel like I need to say this because I’m sensitive to the feelings of white people in St. Louis. The things that are great about St. Louis are truly great and fairly unique. The things that aren’t great about St. Louis sadly aren’t that unique. Very segregated cities can be found all over the US. The problems associated with those cities are known and common. But the problem is that I don’t know how many of my white peers consider those problems to be problems. Ya know? But I do. And that’s why I feel lonely.
Despite a wonderful social life and a rich community I’m still very lonely in my journey. I want more peers and allies and advocates (I understand the problems inherent in these terms but am struggling for better ones). I want to participate in more in the dialogs and conversations about race that I “safely” follow. There is (still) (of course) a gap between the way I think and the way I live. I feel incredibly grateful for the philosophical diversity that I’ve encountered here. My friends that feel very differently than I do about religion and politics are some of those that I hold most dear. They’ve challenged me to be better on many issues. And yet, I feel the pressure to conform and “hush up” all the time. To insulate and protect genuinely well-meaning people who don’t see themselves as trampling on the civil rights of others. To issue the benefit of the doubt again, again, again. And this pull, this compromise is familiar. And selfish. It’s playing it safe. I’m amazed how often my presumed opinion is counted before I even give it…just because I’m white I must agree, right?
And as a parent I have to recognize that I am not just the steward of my own experience but my children’s as well. I think critically about the messages I’m giving my children all the time. We talk about race, and gender, and sexual orientation. We read books with a diverse array of characters. We identify people of different shapes and with different skin tones as beautiful. We buy things that have people of color on them. They go to an amazing and diverse immersion preschool where they have the gift of learning a second language.
But is any of that really enough?
I want to ensure that they look for wisdom and kinship in faces that look different than theirs. That they recognize the responsibility that comes with privilege. That equality matters. That civil rights matter. That sameness is vapid. That there’s always more room at the table. That racism is white people’s problem too. That sexism is men’s problem too. That LGBTQ issues matter to those of us that are straight. That marginalization for stepping out of the box of privilege is actually a small price to pay. That you don’t have to have the answer and that progress is pain and pain is progress.
So in that vein, this blog is going to be a place where I hope to process, and capture, and connect, and be challenged by those who also believe that racism is their problem (too). I understand the challenge that comes from white people putting themselves at the center of a conversation on race. (It’s about you but it’s still really about me, right?!). I’ve long used that understanding a “hush up” rationale though. And I’ve also shrunk away from conversation and action and connection because I haven’t seen white peers participating. So I’m shedding the hesitancy and caution.
Talk to me.