Friday, June 19, 2015

What I'm Responsible For, & Not, As a White Person

I know I promised you the second half of yesterday's feminist movie reviews, but there's something more important worth interrupting the regularly scheduled program.

It's two days since a white man sporting racist flags went into a historic black church with a gun and killed nine amazing people. Today's also Juneteenth, the 150th celebration of emancipation in the US when black slaves began to be fully recognized as free men and women.

Nine wonderful people didn't live to see it.

They aren't the only ones. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice (a child!), Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and many others killed these last 12 months alone. They could have lived to see today, but they didn't.


Eric Garner is survived by his wife Esaw, pictured,
as well as 6 children and 3 grandchildren.

Which ought to leave us asking, what can we white people do about it?

As Jon Stewart eloquently said, "the nuanced language of lack of action" has taken over the dialogue. A potentially fruitful discussion has been hijacked by the fact that we can come up with seemingly no actionable solutions.

Today, I want to offer a solution.

But first we have to understand something. We white folks tend to get tetchy whenever someone brings up race and racism. We nod our heads and look concerned, making sure that everyone can tell from our body language and our words that we are not racist. We react with hurt and anger if someone tells us we are living off of or perpetuating institutionalized racism, because we are not racist.

We have never made racist comments. We have never been violent, or made threats, or bullied, or trolled on the internet, or done any other sort of damaging and hateful behavior that was aimed at people of color. We did not cause there to be economic and political inequality between white folks and folks of color.

We are not responsible for setting up the system of institutionalized racism.

But we are responsible for changing it. We white people cannot help the way the world is stacked in our favor (and yes, my friends, it's stacked in our favor). We didn't choose things to be this way. But we can choose what happens next.

Where do we start?

Simple: we have to make black friends.

But where do I make black friends? Or Asian, Latino, or Native American friends? There aren't any in the microcommunities I'm involved with. Racial segregation--splitting off into groups based on race--is a huge perpetuator of institutionalized racism. If we don't see each other, we don't hear each other's grievances. We're ignorant of each other's pains.

When we don't really know each other, we end up with stereotypes as our best model for how the other person thinks and acts. And stereotypes are another huge perpetuator of racism, because stereotypes put people in boxes based solely on the color of their skin. "Asians are smart and good at school"--but what about the many who aren't? Are they "not Asian enough" or not "real Asians"?

Chescaleigh relates the story of being told, "You're pretty for a black girl." All that says is all black girls are ugly, she's pretty in spite of being black, and she's still not pretty enough to compete with white girls.

When you walk into a room--a meeting at work, a church event, a conference, a classroom, a nerdtastic convention, anything--your instinct will be to make friends with the first person you see who looks like you. There's a subconscious idea that you and a fellow white person will have more in common. Not to mention that race is such a charged issue that we're a little afraid of going up to a person of color and being rejected. We know/fear/assume some have a defensive reaction to whites and don't want to be around us because they (understandably) can't trust us to understand them. It's all so complicated!

I've learned a secret over the past few years. In general, if you walk up to someone of a different skin tone than you and strike up friendly conversation, they won't shoot you down.

You're in a room full of nerdfighter fans, so you can walk up to someone and say something about nerdfighteria. Or you see the person next to you in a bookstore considering your favorite book, and you say, "I love that book! If you like corgis in space, you should buy it!" They smile and start a conversation.

From the Corgis in Space Official Tumblr.

In whatever situation you normally make friends, make more of an effort to befriend people who aren't white.

This sounds really awkward. I prefer friendships to develop naturally. So do I! But your subconscious is going to target fellow white people, and you have to actively fight your brain in order to do anything other. You didn't program your subconscious: society did. But you are still responsible to change it.

This is my solution. Make friends who aren't white.

Here's why it works.

When you're friends with people who aren't like you, you'll begin to hear their stories. I, as a white woman, do not see my privilege because it was handed to me when I was born. I only see my privilege by comparison with others. I won't see institutionalized racism until I hear others' stories.

For example, my black male friend's story about chapstick. He was in a Target looking for a card for someone, stuck his hand in his pocket, and pulled out his chapstick because his lips were dry. And then he froze, because he had just violated a law he had been taught all his life: black men don't ever put their hands in their pockets in stores. Now that he had his chapstick out, he was trapped: if he tried to put it back in his pocket, anyone seeing him would accuse him of stealing. He knows men to whom this has happened. We have a cultural predisposition to assume black men are thieves.

I was appalled. I, as a white lady, will never in my life be suspected of stealing my own chapstick simply by pulling it out of my pocket.

When you are friends with black people, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans, you'll hear stories about these careful rules they have to follow. You'll hear about confrontations people had with them over minor stuff that nobody would confront us white people on. Or the times police hassled them.

Secondly, when you build a strong, trusting relationship with someone who isn't white, you'll be faced with your own accidental racism and have a chance to apologize and change. For me, this has included being shown that I sometimes appreciate my black female friends' hair in a way that points out their other-ness from mainstream societal beauty. I was also called out when I made the offhand comment about black being the color of depression.

(That's a whole different discussion--how the color white is associated with purity, goodness, truth, and joy and black with dirt, sin, sadness, and death.)

Several of my black friends taught me the harm of doing and saying these things. No white friend of mine had ever told me, nor could they: my white friends don't have the ability to speak from the experience of racism.

Having black friends in my life showed me how much is handed to me as a white person. I don't feel guilty about that privilege because I never asked to be this way. What I feel is anger that they don't have the opportunity, voice, and power that I do. That life isn't equal, isn't just.

Fighting racism shouldn't be about white guilt. It should be about relationship. Positive action. Love.

If you want to change racism, get out of your white community and go make friends. At the very least, you'll meet some cool people.