We white liberals need to face our internalized racism

As a white liberal/progressive, my racism is complicated. Everything in my background has always been about being not-racist. I’ve asked former high school classmates if they remember ever hearing the N-word or overtly racist things, and as far as anyone can remember, we didn’t. I certainly never heard such things in my family. Our cultural norms were built on the certainty that racism was bad, racists were bad, and we were not going to be racist.

In hindsight, I suspect I probably did come across overtly racist talk in social settings but I imagine I would’ve felt so uncomfortable that I would’ve wanted to ignore it. My racism was passive and has required intense denial. Mostly, though, I think it’s likely that hearing overtly racist talk among my white peers from my childhood into my adult years was very rare.

Part of that was probably that in my circles (especially my family), we spent time actively trying to assist in social justice work. My father’s church in the 1980s was in Hartford, Conn., in a mostly Black and Latinx neighborhood with devastating poverty and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. He was involved in community organizing, helping to found the Asylum Hill Organizing Project. As a child and as a teen, I participated in community organizing events. We marched and we boycotted. I’m not mentioning this to say we deserve a pat on the back. What I’m saying is that being not-racist was absolutely essential to my identity. Being racist was not who we were, in my mind. That was the other people. The bad white people.

So many white people I know now have similar backgrounds. So many of us spent a lot of energy focusing on how bad being racist is rather than on the impact racism has. In fact, to be “not racist” in our liberal/progressive way, I believe we have had to pretend things weren’t actually as bad as they were or are. As soon as we start seeing that the racism we live with—I’m talking about the systemic and institutionalized racism, not personal bigotry—benefitted us tremendously, it gets really complicated. We needed to look away, or we’d have to see that we aren’t who we thought we were.

Some of the harms we white liberal/progressives cause are so deep because we want to be not racist. It’s ironic, maybe, that because in our hearts we so honestly and desperately want equality and even authentic equity for all people, that we avoid our own part in racism. I can’t be sure that my own experience would be similar for you, my fellow white liberals/progressives, but my gut tells me it might be. I want to tell you there is freedom on the other side of facing what might exist in you as it has existed in me.

I have not shed my own personal racism entirely, and I absolutely still benefit from whiteness and from the many institutions in our society that assume the worst of Black and brown-bodied people. As I practice facing and cleaning away my racism—the personal bigotry I thought I didn’t have when I was focused on being “not racist”—I’ve found the truth of sincerely wanting equality and equity for all people remains.

It takes effort, but I regularly clear out racist garbage. For example, to this day when I hear “arrest rates are higher for Black and brown people” I have flashes of the thought “they must commit more crime” despite knowing that’s a lie. I have to check myself frequently to see if I’m filtering things to make them seem less racist. I use meditation/mindfulness and other spiritual tools to face my internalized racism that I had been denying and, though it regularly tries to sneak back in, I usually catch it and get it out of me. Now, my desire for racial justice is stronger and clearer and includes more actions and is, therefore, more effective. It’s better this way. It’s better for everyone. I’m still a part of the problem, but I’m also actively working to be a part of the solutions.

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The crisis of anti-black racism

People in the city where I live (Portland, Maine) have been rising to the occasion as a welcoming community for approximately 300 asylum seekers mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola who have arrived here in just the last few weeks. Some local folks even organized a picnic on the Fourth of July. My own spiritual community, the Quakers, have been on the ground gathering and sorting donations, and doing all kinds of hands-on volunteering. It’s amazing, and wonderful!

At the same time, across the country there has been outrage at the inhumane treatment of people crossing the southern border of the USA. There have been #ClosetheCamps protests, and the national media is finally sharing the story of the “detention facilities.” My father’s family came from Germany, so I feel especially compelled to not look away as so many Germans did before the Holocaust; the concentration camps there were established before the “extermination” or “death camps.” It may not be exactly the same, but we can’t pretend it isn’t similar.

So, believe me when I tell you I’m not here to yuck on anyone’s activism yum, so to speak. It’s true that our mostly white town here in Main has done the right thing and has been welcoming our newest neighbors. And, it’s true that activists are kicking it into high gear to get the government to change their policies, reunite families, and let the people out of the CPB prisons at the border.

But it’s also true that we white people are very, very good at avoiding even talking about anti-Black racism, let alone taking action to change our anti-Black racist systems.

It’s been my experience that speaking about anti-Black racism to my fellow white people can be so fraught with feelings of guilt and shame that we will do anything to distract from the topic. Just bringing up anti-Black racism very frequently leads people to tell me they don’t think they should feel guilty. And, um, no, I never said you should. I never mention “guilt,” but someone almost always brings up that word. To me, that’s revealing.

The reason I identify this common need to change the subject or make statements about “not feeling guilty” as feelings of guilt or shame is mostly because of my own experience learning about racism as well as the experience of other white people I know who have really dug into this crap.

First, I didn’t know how bad it was. Then, I started to know how bad it was and I felt really bad-sad-mad feelings, peppered with feelings of what I now think of as “white guilt.” I didn’t want to be a bad person, and racists are bad! The next phase, that I’m in now, was that I realized my feelings aren’t the point: anti-Black racism exists and I benefit from the white supremacist society that depends on it. So, sure, I think it’s awful and ideally I’d love to not be a part of the problem. But there’s not a lot I can do, realistically, to get myself out of the benefitting-position of the systems around me so “guilt” is a waste of energy.

In “How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective,” edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, #BlackLivesMatter co-creator Alicia Garza points out that “anti-Blackness is the fulcrum around which white supremacy works.”

So as these good and right protests and volunteer efforts have been happening, I’ve been glad to see it and participate in them. But I’ve also been angry and frustrated. Anti-Black racism, the fulcrum of white supremacy, has been a crisis all along. It’s a set of systems that morph to keep Black people at the bottom rather than an enormous bang-splash crisis *event.* Because it creeps along, it’s easier for us white people to avoid seeing it. Most of us white people aren’t ready or willing to dive in as real allies, accomplices, or just generally good human beings to see—to really face—the crisis that includes but is not limited to mass incarceration (slave labor) and housing/healthcare/education/wealth disparities. As Black Girl In Maine Media’s Shay Stewart-Bouley has written about extensively, simply existing in our country as a Black person puts people at risk of punishment or death.

I’m not suggesting we should stop supporting asylum seekers, or stop taking action to free the people imprisoned at the border. I am suggesting we white people need to notice how we are not doing the same for Black Americans, despite the ongoing crisis of white supremacy. We white people need to notice, learn (skip the guilt!), and do something about it.

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Parenting white children (A book review)

Parenting white children (A book review)

Co-sleeping or sleep-training? Bottles or breastfeeding? Parenting is filled with complicated decisions. How we respond depends a lot on our backgrounds, our support networks, and our individual personalities. As a white parent of white children, I’ve thought quite a bit about how I want to address race and racism with my children.

My children are 15 and 10, now, and my parenting regarding racism has grown as my own knowledge and awareness has grown. For example, as a relatively typical white liberal parent who knew I wanted to be not-racist from the day my first child was born, “exposing my children to difference” was important. (It took many years before I realized that, for me, white was the default and “difference” meant not-white, but that’s another topic.) We bought dolls with different shades of skin, books with stories about children who were Black or brown, and we attended festivals held by different ethnic communities celebrating their cultures. We didn’t go so far as teaching “everyone is equal, race doesn’t matter” in the color-blind way, but we were on the parenting-white-children road without a map.

In my gut, I knew we weren’t doing enough. The trouble is, I didn’t know what to do differently.

I’ve been reading books and writing and talking with people about racism for years. Despite that, most of the time I really and truly feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like I’m flailing, though I keep trying. There are resources out there to help us white people dig into our own biases and privilege, and there are many, many ways we can actively begin undoing whiteness in our lives. Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey is the book I wish I’d had when my babies were littler, though I’m glad to have it now. (It’s never too late to start parenting race-conscious children!)

Among the white people I know, there is a deep hunger to figure out what we can do. We know that talking isn’t enough, though we also know that’s not nothing. The guidance in this book is concrete and clear. On the publisher’s website, it describes how the book “offers age-appropriate insights for teaching children how to address racism when they encounter it and tackles tough questions about how to help white kids be mindful of racial relations while understanding their own identity and the role they can play for justice.”

In the book, among many other things, Harvey addresses the common fear I hear from my white peers when it comes to teaching our white children about racism: We don’t want to scare them; we want to keep them safe from the ugliness of the world for at least a while. That understandable fear blocks us from being honest with our children about racism. Setting aside the fact that parents of color, especially Black parents, don’t have the option to keep the ugliness away from their children if they want them to stay safe (so educating our white children in solidarity feels like the least we can do), Harvey makes a strong argument that equipping our children with the specific language of racism, including some of the harsher realities, will ultimately protect our children. As she points out, our children hear and learn about scary stuff—police killing Black people at higher rates than white people, for example—even it we aren’t the ones teaching them. If we haven’t been there proactively helping them build a vocabulary for talking about the issues, we make it difficult for them to process what they learn and they may turn to denial, shame, confusion, fear, or even racism itself. For example, maybe they will begin believing the lie that all those Black people did something to deserve being killed.

Rather than clumsily try to restate what she says in the book, I want to encourage parents or teachers of white children to read it. (Or, do what I do, and get the audiobook.)

And, honestly, though the book is meant to help parents of white children, I feel like it’s also a guide for us white adults about how we might talk to each other about racism. The fact is, most of us white people haven’t learned how to talk about it, I know I haven’t. We’re like little children who don’t have an extensive vocabulary, and it can feel super-awkward. The examples Harvey gives are easy to imagine happening in a wide variety of contexts, not just in conversations with our children. Plus, she recognizes that white adults also need some basic education about racism, including information about the process of racial identity formation. She gives us that. So, we learn more and can be better prepared to help our children learn and grow.

This book isn’t the end-all be-all for dismantling white supremacy, of course. But as I imagine the ripple effect of many of us parenting white children in a race-conscious way, it fills me with hope. We and our children might become much more effective participants in building a more just and fair society where all children get to be safe and get to be children, for all of their sweet little childhoods.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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