The Other Side Of Discomfort
I’ve been thinking about this essay by Ijeoma Oluo “I am drowning in whiteness” since I read it yesterday. It was one of those things I read, and then read again, and then found all of my favorite parts and read those a third time.
I don’t need someone standing right next to me doing what I’m doing. If black people could end racism, we would have ended racism. We have died trying to end systemic racism. I need you to do the work in your community. And it starts with looking at the day-to-day things.
This is a sentiment I’ve read a lot, that we “woke white people” have to truly figure out how to disrupt or at least acknowledge systemic racism in our day-to-day lives. And our black friends can’t tell us how to do that because A) It’s not their job and B) They’re not part of the systems so their addressing them is always going to come from the outside.
We have to figure it out for ourselves. And I think a lot of it is finding moments in our lives where we open our eyes to the difference of experience. Like when my son wears a hoodie and acts rude to people in public. No one thinks it’s cute, but no one calls him a thug either. My kid has a terrible attitude some days but he also has angelic blond hair and blue eyes and so it’s easily overlooked where as his black counterparts could have their life taken for wearing the same outfit with the same attitude.
We need to train ourselves to see those moments every day. Those moments where our skin gives us privilege and protection so we can draw attention to it, or try to dismantle it. AND WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT IT. My kids and I talk about race every day now. My daughter noticed that there’s no people of ANY color at our pool and we talked about it for awhile. I pointed out that, even if they lived in our neighborhood, they would probably rather find a pool where maybe they wouldn’t feel like such a minority. We talked about how that’s a privilege we don’t ever stop and think about, that we can just join the pool closest to our house and not worry about if we’re the only white people…BECAUSE WE ARE NEVER EVER THE ONLY WHITE PEOPLE. So she and I both opened our eyes that day to the fact that when you are in the majority, you can be confident that everywhere you’ll go, you’ll fit in – at least based on your skin color.
Talk about race to your kids. So that they’re more comfortable with it than we are.
That may sound a little arrogant, but if you are a person of color who grew up in an area like this, you understand that every decision you make, you’re going, “What will white people think about this?” You have to. You find out around kindergarten, usually, that you’ve misjudged something and there were disastrous consequences. Maybe at a friend’s house you’re no longer allowed to go to, or a letter home from your teacher.
None of us can ever imagine what it’s like to be a person of color in a world built by white people on the backs of our ancestors. Ever. But in order to really feel the necessity of the movement to abolish systemic racism, we need to find the moments in our lives that give us a taste of the pain they feel so that we can harness a sincerity and an urgency and not just bask in our own comfortable privilege. It’s easy to nod your head and agree and hope things get better, but until you find some sort of emotional connection to harness you are not going to be moved to rock the boat. It’s like I have said before, what if I had “ATHEIST” tattooed on my forehead. I can choose to draw attention to the thing that makes me different, or I can choose to “pass” in the group I’m in. But what if I couldn’t just take off that “atheist” label so easily, especially if I found myself in a group of people who hated atheists and wanted THEM ALL DEAD.
I like to think we can all dig deep to find moments in our lives and try to imagine this. Moments where you’ve been in the minority for one event, or for one day, or for one job, or in one school. Not our whole lives, because we don’t wear that “thing” that made us unique as a skin color in a world belonging to another color of skin. But think back to a moment where you found yourself trying to figure out how the dominant group would react to you. Maybe you were the Deadhead hanging out with a bunch of sorority girls. Maybe you were the scholarship kid at a private school. Maybe you were the only woman in an all-male office. You would evaluate the “dominant” group in every move. Sometimes you would intentionally work against that group to highlight your differences, sometimes you would try your best to figure out how to blend in. Either way, you spent a lot of time thinking about how the group with the power of numbers would react to you.
And you know the disastrous consequences of which she speaks. Maybe that’s what you were going for, to be noticed and casted out. But maybe it wasn’t – like the time my kid learned the hard way that saying, “I don’t believe in God!” as a matter-of-factly as expressing a distaste for pizza, is offensive to some religious ilk.
Now, imagine those moments, or those jobs, or those clubs or those schools were your entire LIFE. And imagine that in some moments, the wrong decision lead to death. Really sit down and think of the group in power that you were different from that one time, imagine if they had the power to incarcerate, or the power to give and take away jobs, or the power to choose schools, or the power to carry weapons and badges. Now, how important would it be for you to guess their mindset accurately? Now, imagine the spiritual burden your soul would carry to constantly be trying to interpret the reaction from the group you don’t belong to, imaging how stifling that would be. What would that do to your heart and soul? How angry would that make you? Would you try to become a cog in the system just to protect your life or would you trying to tear down the machinery in anger? I think I would try to blend in for awhile, but then I think my soul would shatter and I would need to fight the system trying to mold me.
Do not wait until you are ready to sit down and address race to address race. Because I do not get to decide when to address race. I don’t get to say, “I feel safe, I feel comfortable; I’m going to look at racism now,” because racism hits me in the doctor’s office. It hits me when I’m driving down the street. It hits me when I’m taking my kids to a movie.
I’ve become a lot more bold talking about racism lately and Oluo is right when she says, “Be the person that nobody wants to invite to dinner party.” I’m that person, I think. I’ve definitely had my share of pushback. And it’s tough, what if I become that person no one wants to be around? The Killjoy? Many moons ago my friends would comment about how much they loved my Facebook feed because I was always writing something funny or cute or self-deprecating that would make them smile.
No one says that anymore.
I worry constantly that maybe people wish I wouldn’t talk about race so much. Maybe people who work with me or people who run with me or people who serve next to me at volunteer jobs. Maybe I’m annoying. I just recently conquered my social anxieties to build a tribe of wonderful people around me, what if they shun me?
It’s not easy, is what I’m saying. I’m constantly waging that war in my heart between “CHANGE THE SYSTEM! USE YOUR PRIVILEGE FOR GOOD!” and “SIT DOWN AND DON’T ROCK THE BOAT.”
Some of what you have, you don’t deserve. But when you can see your identity clearly as it is, the good and the bad; when you can see where your whiteness is more than your heritage, more than just culture, but also a system of oppression, you then have the power to do the work to redefine it to something that you can be proud of.
And this is what I guess I try to remember. I try to use Martin Luther King’s words calling out the White Moderate as my guide. I don’t want to be the one that is scared to rock the boat that only holds white people. I want to read things like this essay and feel a little bit of pride because the first essays I read like this over the course of my learning curve, they all made me feel very uncomfortable. They spoke too many painful truths I wasn’t willing to see yet. But over time, I’ve become less and less uncomfortable and more and more aware of the systems that helped me because of my skin color, and more and more comfortable with my position in trying to shine the light on them so we can tear them down.
For the first time, I read something like this – an essay calling out White people – and I felt a tiny bit of pride. Yeah, maybe I’m not getting the invitations to the dinner parties anymore, but I’m proud to have finally joined the battle that has waged behind me for centuries. I haven’t figured out how to help in the best way yet, but at least I’m here and can see the casualties of this war I ignored for far too long.