After the turning point, Part 1

Losing a friend because I was steeped in white supremacy (and didn’t even see it) was the beginning of my turning point in racial justice work; she showed me that my “writing for white people” in a newspaper, however good my intentions were, had the impact of harming people of color. Without realizing it, I erased them entirely from my consideration, as if they didn’t matter. It was this new perspective, that I was much more racist than I realized, that was transformative.

So, what did I do next?

Before I answer that question, I need to be clear: I do not think I have somehow passed into “the good ones” group in terms of racial justice. I want it understood that I’m talking about my own personal journey. I also do my best to share in community with others who recognize the value of inner racial justice work for us white people. The fear of seeming like a “know-it-all” has kept me quiet in many ways. So, I’m going to share with you what I did after that pivotal moment with the caveat that I think what I’m doing is the bare minimum of what it means to be a decent human being. I’ll write here about the time immediately following our conversation, and I’ll write later about the more recent past, present, and future actions.

One reason I spoke with my former friend is because I was expanding my spiritual life. In my spiritual practice, built in great part on a twelve-step program of recovery from substance use disorders, I examine my past and identify where I have harmed other people. I approach those people, asking if they would be willing to talk with me about my making amends. The conversation I referred to in my last post was related to the growth of my spiritual life. At that time, I was doing my best to flow in life, rather than trying to force change; doing those things I knew were under my control, and accepting those things (most things) that weren’t.

Something happened in that conversation. It felt like blinders had been ripped away from my eyes. For decades, I had been involved in some way or another in social justice work, including anti-racism work. In that conversation it hit me that I lived inside whiteness (see “Key Features of Whiteness here: http://www.aclrc.com/whiteness). I began some very uncomfortable self-searching. I’m not exaggerating when I say I wasn’t sure who I was. If I could be this wrong about myself, where else was I also unaware or wrong?

I’ve mentioned Rev. angel Kyodo williams here before, and I will be forever grateful to the synchronicity that introduced me to her work at just this time. Because of her words I could take what I had learned from spiritual leaders like Thích Nhất Hạnh and practice examining my whiteness with those tools. I was able to hold concepts I felt were deeply in conflict—that I believed with all my heart in racial justice, and that I was also moving in the world causing harm to people of color—in my awareness at the same time. I connected spiritually in a way that freed me from the fear that had been blocking me.

For all of the research I had done about the life experiences of Black and brown bodied people, for all of my understandings of how systems in our country were set up to keep them down, it was terrifying to see that I wasn’t really comfortable with what might be required of me. If I really want to dismantle white supremacy, what might I have to do? How might I have to change? What might I have to give up?

In the last three years, I have incorporated my inner learnings and some answers to these questions into an ongoing spiritual practice that involves actions in the private and public spheres. I find the more I practice, the more effective I am. However, one of the biggest lessons in this is that I must shed the idea of getting “good” and “not racist” anytime soon. I can’t. It’s been a lifetime and generations of living in whiteness. I can’t unlearn it quickly. In my next post, I will write about the day-to-day and longer term actions I take to unlearn whiteness and work toward racial justice.


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My racism turning point

It required a lot of emotional pain for me to begin understand how, as Rev. angel Kyodo williams says, “love and justice are not two. without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.”

For a few decades, I haven’t been entirely clueless about racism. From the 1990s to the 2010s, I began to understand that I couldn’t help but be racist because of our country’s historical foundation of patriarchal unchecked capitalism built on a system of discrimination based on a social construction of race, e.g. white supremacy. I think I was a little proud of the fact that I’d figured out that that I wasn’t a bad person; that as a white person I couldn’t help being racist. I liked my willingness to be bold, to say things we “weren’t supposed to say,” as white people. Of course, admitting my racism as a white person in a white supremacist society didn’t really carry many risks. Some white people closed their emotional/social doors, but for the most part, people thought I was “brave” for speaking out. There were more benefits than costs for me and I went along like that for many years.

In my whole 49-year-old life, I’ve had two close friends who are people of color. I don’t write about this much because intimate cross-racial friendships are not simple, and I feel deeply protective of these bonds. However, sharing about my process of trying to face my addiction to white supremacy is part of what I do in this space, so, with the permission of the person involved, I’m going to tell you just a bit.

About 10 years ago, my racism—my whiteness, the way I moved in the world—cost me one of the best friendships I’d ever had. As I said, I had been speaking out about racism for years and, as far as I knew, that boldness was mostly doing more good than harm. I had been writing an opinion column in the Bangor Daily News since 2012. In July of 2013, when I decided to use Trayvon Martin’s murder to point out to white people like me that we need to face our own racism, my column was harsh.

In the column, I start out by revealing some overtly racist thoughts I had worked to admit to myself I’d had in passing in my lifetime. I had recently recognized that trying to quiet racist thoughts (that I didn’t even know I was having!) was blocking me from being relaxed or normal around Black people; an idea I’ve shared in this space. I was referencing what Shankar Vedantam’s calls the “‘hidden brain’…shorthand for a host of brain functions, emotional responses, and cognitive processes that happen outside our conscious awareness but have a decisive effect on how we behave.” I knew the first lines of my column would be shocking, and I used those words intentionally. I wanted to draw in readers in the same way people “rubberneck” as they pass a car wreck on the highway. This was a mistake.

Before the column was published, I thought about letting my one friend who was Black (I hadn’t yet met my other friend who is a person of color) know about it. It was going to be startling, I knew. But, I reasoned with myself, with the exception of the first extreme couple lines, she and I had discussed and mostly agreed about the rest of the content. It wouldn’t be too big of a deal, I thought.

It was a big deal.

I broke our friendship. I hurt my friend deeply. It was one of the most painful losses I’ve ever endured, and there was nothing I could do about the hurt I had caused. I thought I understood why she was so upset. I thought it was because what I said was disgusting and racist and that she’d been blindsided that I could have such ugly thoughts. And, to be sure, that was part of it. But I didn’t come close to a full understanding of the harm I had done until that ex-friend was gracious enough to talk with me about it a few years later.

What I missed after making that terrible mistake in 2013 was how much my view of the world centered on whiteness. I reasoned that most of the readers of the paper as white—“Maine is a white state” was a phrase I still said in those days—dismissing the possibility that any readers would be Black or brown. The truth is, beyond a twinge wondering if my friend might be “startled,” I never seriously considered what impact my words might have on Black readers. I thought of myself as writing “to white people.” But I only thought about how white people might respond to my column; how Black or brown people might feel didn’t cross my radar in any significant way. What a selfish and self-centered asshole I was.

The loss of this friendship, and her generosity in taking the time to share with me just how I had harmed her, helped me start moving forward again in my path toward liberation. Over decades, I had tried to be a better white person and tried to work toward racial justice, but I hadn’t recognized the spiritual sickness my addiction to white supremacy was causing in my heart. The cognitive load required to stay in denial about racism, both systemic and personal, kept me from being fully human. I hurt someone I loved, and quite possibly I hurt other people, too. I was doing harm where I wanted to help because I was so deeply in the world of whiteness, I couldn’t see any other way.

Every single day, I address my addiction to white supremacy just as faithfully as I address my substance use disorders. The spiritual solutions I use for my alcoholism help in my addiction to white supremacy and both paths of recovery require regular actions to stay spiritually fit. I know that complacency will lead to relapse which will lead to pain for myself and people I love. My recovery depends on my connection with powers greater than myself, including connections with other people. Recovery is a path of progress, not perfection, and I hope my experience might benefit others.


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In the fear of being racist, failing to be an ally

Trigger warning: this essay discusses sexual abuse and assault.

When I saw Dave Chappelle’s skit in 2003 of a music video parodying someone named R. Kelly, I’m ashamed to admit I thought it kinda gross but also kinda funny. (My shame today wants me to not tell you this, but I won’t let it stop me.) At the time, I didn’t know why he created the video. I also didn’t try to find out. So I didn’t know it had anything to do with sexual assault victims of R. Kelly. I just cringed, hummed along to the song, and laughed. A lot. I’m now horrified I was so dismissive of Kelly’s victims, but this isn’t about me and my feelings.

If you don’t already know about it, a documentary called “Surviving R. Kelly” recently aired on Lifetime television last week. The documentary exposes Kelly as a serial and sadistic abuser of young girls and women. Highlighting interviews with women who survived his abuse, it shows how his career has been “riddled with rumors of abuse, predatory behavior, and pedophilia.” And, “[d]espite damning evidence and multiple witnesses, to date, none of these accusations have seemingly affected him.”

It’s only because I follow many Black women on social media that I became aware of this documentary. In addition to the palpable pain and outrage the women expressed, I saw anger at white people’s silence. Anger at how we didn’t listen, didn’t see, didn’t hear when Black girls and women told us about the abuse.

For example:

Or this powerful tweet thread (several tweets connected together) by @DrSamiSchalk:

I tried to answer her questions (in my mind). Because I’m a sexual abuse and assault survivor myself, I certainly had thoughts about his predatory behavior, but it didn’t feel right to tweet about it. Why? Because he’s Black. I’m not saying I think it’s racist to bring awareness to his crimes, but I am saying part of me preferred speaking up about white perpetrators instead of a Black one. I am sure, too, that I was afraid it would seem racist to “pick on” this particular criminal. Tweeting about Jeffrey Epstein? Sure, but a Black man? Should I really do that?

Back to Dr. Sami Schalk:

Yes, I think my fear of being racist—and in this case, I mean causing harm to people of color as an individual rather than racism as the structure on which our country is founded—my fear is sometimes stronger than my solidarity with Black women and girls. (I recommend reading the whole thread, here.).

The solution for me is not to criticize the abuser himself—though I certainly wouldn’t defend him—but to talk about the system that allowed him to continue harming Black girls. A society that doesn’t value Black girls, doesn’t hear Black girls or women when they speak, or tells them to shut up when they raise their voices loud enough that they’re harder to ignore.

So many people were just like me, laughing along with Dave Chappelle. (Chappelle even went as far as saying 15-year-olds are old enough to offer informed consent to sexual acts with an adult.) Again, I won’t let my shame about the truth silence me: It must be that I didn’t care enough about Black girls and women to notice what they were saying.

It’s because of this that I will be talking with people about the systems that allowed Kelly to abuse these girls and young women. Twitter white woman Erynn Brook has some good thoughts on how to be white and against R. Kelly. The #MeToo movement, started by Tarana Burke, a Black woman, is a movement that stands against all abusers. But the truth is, not all survivors are treated equally. I will actively make sure my fellow white people know about “Surviving R. Kelly,” bringing to their awareness how our society has especially let down Black girls and women. Yes, all abuse is bad. But we’ve got to start recognizing that all survivors are equally deserving of our response; that thus far we haven’t acted like that is true. We need to care about Black girls and women more. We need to do more for and with Black girls and women so we can, together, destroy misogynoir.

If you want to learn more, check out Feminista Jones’ “Surviving R. Kelly’ and the Inherent Violence of Being a Black Woman;” this piece by Morgan Jenkins in Teen Vogue, “R. Kelly and Other Powerful Men Have Always Manipulated Their Teen Fans;” or, especially, this piece that includes viewing advice for those of us who haven’t yet seen the documentary: “After Surviving R. Kelly, What Now? How About Trusting Survivors and Dismantling Systemic Misogynoir?


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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