If You Think You Don’t Have a Racist Bone in Your Body, Think Again. (And, some resources and action steps you can take.)

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Original photo by Bayeté Ross Smith.

The other day, I was driving down to the beach with the kids to meet my sister and brother-in-law. Just as I was about to get onto the on-ramp, I remembered I needed gas first and did a quick, last minute U-turn. I’m not even sure whether or not it was legal.

If this had happened two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Or, maybe a vague, “Oh, I hope I don’t get a ticket” at the most.

But it happened two days ago, not two weeks ago, so I did a mental double take. I recognized it would never occur to me that a minor, stupid move like that could end up costing me my basic human rights or even my life if I got pulled over. Knowing nothing about such fears is white privilege. It’s just one of the countless ways it manifests, I’m learning.

The killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, closely followed by peaceful protests met by militaristic and brutal response by police forces, and the killing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, mark the most violent and racially charged two weeks many of us can remember in our country.

The latest horrifying tragedy involving Baton Rouge police officers’ shooting deaths is still unfolding as I write this, but we do know that the Black Lives Matter movement has called for peaceful protest and an end to all violence, the movement’s leaders condemn these murders just like everyone else, and the motive for the killings is still unknown.

These events have brought me to my tipping point and ended my relative silence and inaction on racial issues.

Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice’s murder and the subsequent travesty of justice for him and his family should have pushed me beyond social media posting and handwringing with like-minded friends and family. I don’t know why it didn’t, given how heartbroken and outraged I felt. No doubt, part of the reason is white privilege again, since as a white person, I have the luxury of deciding whether or not to grapple with these issues on an ongoing basis, even as tragic events fade from the headlines.

I’m finding ways to take more direct actions for racial justice. In a moment, I’ll list the best information resources I’ve come across so far, and some concrete action steps to take. Many of them require very little time and effort. First, I’ll share some ways my thinking has changed in the last two weeks.

Before: I’m a person in a biracial, bicultural (Asian Indian/white) marriage who deals with one form of racial bias against my family. I’ve always felt deeply and strongly against racism. I’m well aware of the appalling racial disparities in maternal-child health care, my chosen profession. And I’m a bleeding heart liberal if there ever was one. So I thought I pretty much knew what racism was about.
After: I’m learning that actually, I don’t know shit about systemic racism and implicit bias. It’s humbling.

Before: While understanding that people are complex and multifaceted in just about every other way, racism was the exception. I’ve thought of people in one-dimensional, oversimplified terms with regard to racial bias. I operated on the assumption that people were either not racist (good) or racist (bad).
After: I see that while we must speak out against racist acts and structures, polarizing people into good/bad feeds the problem. And “good” people practice and uphold the subtler forms of racism every day.

Before: I was secure in the knowledge that my own life doesn’t perpetuate racism in any way.
After: I began to wonder about that when a friend who is an educated, white urbanite (like me) as well as a sociologist, asked these questions:

“Why is it that so few of us have close black friends? How often do our children play with black children? How often do they even see them to interact with? In what contexts (e.g., at the neighborhood playgrounds or behind the doors of elite private schools)? Do we live in communities that are truly diverse, or ones that are simply heterogeneous? How do we teach our kids to recognize structural inequality when they (and we) benefit from that very inequality? And how do we do this when so many of us are living segregated lives?”

Before: I thought it was possible not to participate in or benefit from racism at all.
After: I know now that racial bias is a continuum. Because of societal structures and the implicit bias that permeates our culture, I’m on this continuum whether I like it or not, regardless of my conscious, heartfelt beliefs. The work, along with educating ourselves about systemic racism, is to sniff out our own inherent biases and allow them into our conscious awareness, however unpleasant that may be. Then, maybe they won’t drive our behavior, even in the subtlest of ways.

Before: My attention, or lack thereof, to current events involving racial injustice (as well as other tragedies) has tended toward extremes, and this has limited my ability to take action. My typical M.O. has been to swing between immersion to the point of complete emotional overwhelm and “taking a break” from news and “thinking about all this stuff.” We all need to give our minds and hearts a rest at times, but my “breaks” would stretch into months or even years (yet again—since I have that privilege).
After: I’ve been afraid to stop thinking about these issues for five minutes for fear that I’ll become complacent, and therefore complicit, again. I see that I need to change my way of being with the horrors of the world in order to have some stamina and staying power. I’m exploring how to integrate sustained attention to these issues with living out the rest of life. I’m feeling into what it means to hold joy and despair, hope and fear, all at once. I’m visualizing making phone calls, attending a political action, or reading about some aspect of these problems in one moment, feeling fully whatever difficult emotions arise. Then, I want to be able to play with my kids or laugh with a friend and feel the joy of that fully as well. (Just as I was beginning to see this in a new way, this post from a woman I don’t know showed up in my Facebook feed and spoke directly to my heart.)

Before: I would go back to “normal” after a few days or weeks, as outrage, horror, and despair got replaced by powerlessness and resignation.
After: I’ve stopped indulging in my powerless feelings and letting my despair paralyze me. Dealing with my fear of saying or doing the wrong thing from the clueless white person’s perspective is the least I can do, considering the fears people of color have to deal with. I’m committed to being part of solutions now. Sorry I’m late.

What we can do now:

1). Educate ourselves:

Is systemic racism really still as big a problem as people say? And does it have anything to do with me?  There’s no shortage of white people who feel very comfortable spouting opinions on these questions—opinions that came from where, exactly? We need to be willing to learn more about systemic racism from people who, unlike us, actually know what they’re talking about. That’s people of color who live it every day and people who spend their careers studying it. Oh, and actual data.

Is it appropriate to say, and to name a movement, “Black Lives Matter?” And since we can all agree that everyone’s life matters, why do people find the retort “All Lives Matter” so hurtful?

Can we support and respect law enforcement while insisting on prevention of and accountability for excessive force, brutality, and fatal shootings by police officers?

What about books? Short articles and videos are great, but if you have more time to devote to reading, here is a recommended book list (Disclaimer—I haven’t read any of them yet! Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander are first on my list). Better yet, start or join a book club. 

2). Take direct action for racial justice:

This is a shorter list. I’m just beginning to find ways to act. Last week, I participated in a national conference call with the organization SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) to mobilize people (white people specifically, in this case) to get involved in the movement for Black Lives. Most of these suggestions come from that source. We are hearing and reading everywhere that people of color need white people to be vocal and get involved, and that lasting change can only occur if we do.

  • Sign the Pledge for Black Lives, share it via social media, and encourage your friends and family to do the same.
  • If you’re white, join SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice.
  • Donate to Black Lives Matter or SURJ.
  • Attend a peaceful demonstration. Information on where and when they will be held is available via the above organizations. If someone hands you a mic while you’re there, though, don’t take it. White people are needed for support, not to speak for people of color.
  • Donate to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). They are busy working to defend Americans’ constitutional right to peaceful protest. People are being arrested, often violently, for peacefully exercising their first amendment rights.
  • If you hear racist remarks, speak up. It’s really uncomfortable and awkward and maybe even panic-inducing, but we have to do it anyway. We can say, “I’m really uncomfortable with that comment, especially with all the racial tension lately.” Or, “Would you say that if a black person were here?”
  • And finally, keep praying, if you’re the praying kind, or send positive energy, thoughts or vibes, or whatever you do, for our country. Send love to whomever you perceive as the enemy, if you can. Take good care of yourself so you can stay strong and make a difference however you can.

With love for people of all colors, religions, and occupations,

Camille

This post is dedicated to my mom, Laura Weil Deutsch, who talked to me regularly about the evils of racism when I was a child growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the site of so much injustice, violence, and suffering today.

© Copyright Camille Williams and Wake Up, Mama! 2016. All rights reserved. 

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