Let me talk a bit about my racism and anti-blackness.
I don’t know when I learned to not call racist statements and behaviors racist. But by high school I was surrounded by kids and teachers who made racist comments all the time. “Those people” was a popular statement. Or, “I love black people but not n-word.” I knew by then that I wasn’t to point out the issue with their language. I knew it was wrong, not passively but actively knew, and yet I knew that to say anything was to invite wrath. I also don’t know when I learned that. That’s racist culture. My silence participated in perpetuating it.
College and Air Force was more of the same. Somewhere people learned to keep this to themselves for most part. But “culture” became a new euphemism for blackness. Or “ghetto.” Working in military law enforcement I heard that a lot. I also knew that confronting my troops would cause problems for me. I prided myself on being one of the people who didn’t like those comments. Like that set me apart from them and meant I was better.
I also saw and heard no alternative to this silence. A lot of folks would condemn this as wrong privately “you know what x said was wrong” but would never confront anyone in public. Even the thought of doing that would create a discomfort. If you looked someone in the eye as you contemplated this the language that passed between you was clear. “Confronting that directly would be ‘problematic’ and I’m not doing it, might you be willing to?” No one, ever, was willing to break the gaze and confront it. No one.
I could have learned how to do this. I could have studied how to do this well. I could have sought out a mentor, or I could have done it poorly but spoken anyway. I didn’t. I was terrified.
I once told my mom something she said was racist. She didn’t speak to me the rest of the day. Message was clear. “That’s not what we do.”
I would say things like “I don’t think this a race issue, it’s a cultural issue” talking about drop out rates and crime. I truly thought this was not racist. Even as the images of people I had in mind were all non-white.
I had zero experience in until I was 26 or so with anyone talking openly about resisting racism. I thought that sounded like something people should do. I still didn’t.
Eventually I came to a couple communities that were beginning to wrestle with racism and anti-blackness. My new faith community, and then in adult education. I had to have white people tell me to listen to black people about race. I had to do my work. Here’s some books. Read. Think.
I tested the waters and then pulled back. I tested the waters and pulled back. I’ll just be not-racist. We need more people like that.
And at some point, probably after I said something racist, I had a black classmate share her experience. At some point, I finally heard her. HEARD HER. I resonated with pain she expressed. Realized the patterns in my own behavior and choices. I felt. I was able to do that, because I was practicing mediation in that class. I was playing a racist, and she was playing a black woman and prior to that role play we had spent weeks working on deep listening. So the first real pain of racism I fully heard was through a drama. Probably because the space was set aside and trust had been built, and someone gave me some actual skills. So not naturally. Not organically.
That class on mediation changed me. Practicing mediation work changed me more. I learned I’d never actually be taught how to listen. Listening until then meant being quiet and not talking. This listening meant connecting. There is a practice to it that the kind of tennis conversation of information exchange that was my culture of midwestern and military masculinity never modeled for me.
About 5-6 years ago I started to do the work for real. It’s still hard for me to talk about my racism. I still don’t want to be public about it. I don’t want people to know how long I knew it was wrong and still participated. I don’t want people to know how much I resisted even while feeling superior to people I considered actively racist. You know, the ones that are vocally against ‘sensitivity’ training. The ones who openly say that western/white culture is superior. “I’m not like them.” But then we give them the floor and let them keep it.
I’m still racist. Because those feeling of discomfort when I’m speaking with non-white person about race—they are still there. I also wouldn’t have the life I have had I not been educated the really good public school in an intentionally white town in Indiana that sent me to the Air Force Academy with decent but not stellar grades and scores. I benefited from this system of racism. I’m a ‘successful product’ of it.
I’m still racist in my resistance to have these conversations about race with my family. It doesn’t keep me from doing it. But I resist it fiercely.
I’m still racist in anti-blackness and how when I hear stories or read news I picture people as white or black in my mind. Certain words invoke certain faces. Automatically.
These are just some of the ways I’m racist. There are more, some I know and some I don’t.
When they are pointed out I’ve made the decision to hear that, own it, apologize, learn, and choose to figure out how to be anti-racist in that situation in the future. Because it’s not enough to not actively participate in racism, because that is participating in racism. It’s shoring up the foundation of racism, which as Ibram X Kendi so describes in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America:
The principal function of racist ideas in American history has been the suppression of resistance to racial discrimination and its resulting racial disparities. The beneficiaries of slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration have produced racist ideas of Black people being best suited for or deserving of the confines of slavery, segregation or the jail cell. Consumers of these racist ideas have been led to believe there is something wrong with Black people, and not the policies that have enslaved, oppressed, and confined so many Black people.
Suppression of resistance is a design feature of racism. That’s the racist culture my mind was formed and shaped in. Undoing that will be the work of a lifetime.
But I’m going to do it. Because Black Lives Matter. Because racism kills. It kills through systems intentionally crafted to keep my mind from seeing itself as racist. That keeps me from seeing the zoning and policing policies that kept my town white. That hoarded opportunity, safety, support. That did so through enslavement, oppression, segregation, and confinement.
I hope someone might read this and see that facing your racism is not easy. But we can do it. We can face our racist patterns of thinking and choosing and behaving. And once we see them, we can start to figure out how to change them. But until we face them, they will keep killing people. Not because our knee is on a throat, but because our culture of whiteness is on the throat of blackness. We aren’t individually at fault for each racist killing. But we are individually responsible for participating in the culture that says “don’t think yourself responsible. These are the acts of random individuals. You don’t need to change. And definitely don’t work to end it. We won’t like that. ”
Examine how you refuse to challenge or get involved in both individual acts of private racism and systems of racism like zoning, defunding of public education, and militarization of the police.
What would anti-racist, non-violent nation look like? What does that demand of you?
Now, why are you resisting doing that work? What might it cost you?
And you are thinking about the cost, aren’t you? I am too.
And we can choose to bear that cost and work to destroy it, root and stem, and support one another as we do so.
Because otherwise we are striding through the killing fields, witnessing and refusing to act.