The racist garbage in the back of my brain

Every time someone shares the image of the cartoon supposedly depicting Serena Williams,* it hurts. It’s like a stab. Stop! Stop showing that to me! I don’t want to see that ugly racism!

I’ve written about the internal, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual process I’ve been going through over the years, working to shed my own racism and step out of the fish bowl of whiteness. One thing I refer to quite often is “the ugliness” or the “racist thoughts I know I shouldn’t have.”

I’m going to write “out loud” the things I have frequently discussed with white people offline. Maybe it’s the rules of whiteness (see Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility for more on that) keeping me quiet even more than fear of harming any more people of color.

As I said, seeing the image that’s supposed to be Serena Williams is jarring and upsetting. In a similar vein, watching documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s 13th that have clips from The Birth of a Nation make me physically uncomfortable. I have sometimes fast-forwarded so I wouldn’t have to see the vile caricatures of Black people as subhuman.

Why are they so awful to see? Of course, seeing people depicted as less than human just hurts my heart. No one did anything to deserve such violent and disgusting treatment. Words fail me when I try to express how wrong I think the images and ideas are.

They are also awful to see, I now understand, because they’ve been a part of the way I have seen the world. The way I see Black people was built on racist imagery and ideas like that comic. To be clear, I was never exposed directly to The Birth of a Nation. I have no memory of being exposed to overtly racist imagery or ideas, although I’m sure I was exposed to them (think antique stores with “kitsch” like a “lawn jockey”). If anything, I was raised in the era of Black is Beautiful. (I won’t go on a long rant about my background here. Just know that I’m being entirely honest when I tell you that no one I know ever used the N-word, ever, unless they were explaining something awful that happened and even then I don’t remember them saying the actual word. The racist garbage in my brain didn’t come from overt racism expressed in my presence.)

Here’s what I found out about myself, and I feel very sure I’m not the only white person who feels this way: I found out that when I looked at Black people I was immediately thrust into the mental gymnastics of keeping the racist imagery (that I didn’t even know was in my head!) out of my mind. I saw full lips, and oh my god without even realizing why I was in turmoil inside, I felt uncomfortable and it turns out I was trying to not see Black face or other “old-fashioned” racist images. I saw groups of Black people laughing loudly and moving freely with expression and something felt not-quite-right but I didn’t know why. It turns out there was a part of me—a part that I recognize now isn’t actually me—that associated those louder sounds and freer movements with centuries’ old stereotypes (similar to the horrific comic that’s supposed to be Serena Williams). I swear, I didn’t even know I knew about these stereotypes until I started getting curious about why I couldn’t just be normal around Black people.

I looked into the old, old stereotypes. I’m talking about during slavery and post-slavery, into reconstruction and into Jim Crow. I’d examine them and I found they were there, hidden in corners of my awareness that I didn’t really know was there.

Guess what? With practice, I’m finding I can get them out of there. It hasn’t even been that long (a few years) and most of the time, I can interact with Black people without feeling oddly nervous or overly friendly. It’s because I saw the ugliest garbage was taking up space in my being and it didn’t belong there.

I still don’t want to see the comic that’s supposedly about Serena Williams. It really does hurt my heart that Black people are still subjected to such disgusting treatment, and it hurts my heart that we white people are still so damaged that we don’t see Black people as fully human. But I’ve experienced waves of liberation, and I’ve had deeper connections with people of color, including Black people, since I sorted through what racist trash was cluttering up my brain and began the process of getting rid of it.

I don’t know how to change the world so white people realize how wrong that comic is, but I do know that I can change how I interact with the world and I can help my white friends do the same. That’s not nothing.

* Editor’s note: If you have somehow managed to miss the story about the Serena Williams cartoon, here is a take on it by The Root. We don’t wish to give the cartoon any more play than it has already gotten, so we aren’t posting it here, but do be aware the image appears in the article linked to above.

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This white woman’s inner work

In this post on Black Girl in Maine, Shay Stewart-Bouley writes to white people: “You aren’t going to read 75 books, amplify marginalized voices online, donate money, attend rallies and occasionally have an uncomfortable encounter and earn a good white person badge. That’s not how any of this works. Instead, your mission if you accept it is to strike at the heart of white fragility both internally and externally.”

What does doing “internal” racial justice work look like? I wrote a bit about doing internal work here, and here, but in this post* I’m going to experiment with going inside some aspects of my experience in a train-of-thought way. (This won’t be a post that offers solutions.)

I’m a middle-aged white woman with a nice smile. As I’ve become less visible in our culture, carrying more weight and showing my age, I’ve noticed a decrease in some of the special treatment I used to get when I was younger and thinner.

When I started learning about white privilege, I became hyper-aware of the good treatment I receive in public spaces, even as a relatively less-visible older woman. I’m also able-bodied, cis-gendered, and come from an upper/middle-class socioeconomic background. The world generally treats me well. Sometimes, when I’m out in public being treated well, I feel a nervousness.

This is what it’s like: I feel an emotional shakiness. Maybe twinges is the right word? There’s a wordless sense that I’m going to lose something valuable. In my body it’s a whispery bad-butterflies in my tummy kind of feeling. Anxiety. My nervousness is that part of me doesn’t want to lose what I have.

Some of me likes trusting the police will look out for me and assume the best of me. Some of me likes that I’m frequently called on first when a group of us is waiting for [insert any group-waiting activity like boarding a ferry or purchasing something at a store where the line isn’t well-formed]. It’s convenient and nice to know most servers will defer to me and give me what I want. Store clerks won’t assume I might steal something.

Why do I feel like I might lose this? Realistically, our whole social structure of white supremacy isn’t going to change overnight. I’m not going to lose my nearly-top-of-the-heap social status overnight. Plus, in some ways, the ideal would be everyone gets to be treated as well as most white people are treated. Why do I feel scared or uncomfortable? Part of it is that I’m working on finding ways to change these structures. I am actively working to change a system that benefits me. It’s confusing!

There’s nearly constant cognitive dissonance. I know it’s not right that I get all this good treatment, this assumption of innocence that people of color don’t get to have. The nerves are probably related to shame, too, that I get this and other people don’t. Not that it’s my “fault,” but as I benefit from the good stuff, people of color don’t. What do I do? Do I walk around saying “don’t treat me so well!”

And then, there are my own emotional/spiritual sickness issues of too frequently putting other people’s needs first. I’m working on those issues, too. So should I celebrate the fact that I expect to be treated well? Should that be an example of how I move in the world in a positive way, that my needs matter?

As I said, I’m not talking about solutions in this post. I’m only talking about how much of my mind and emotional energy goes into sorting through these confusing feelings. I feel the fear, the anxiety, and the shame. I feel the enjoyment of good treatment by strangers when I’m out in public. Feeling all of these mixed up feelings is a part of what I have to do to clear away the garbage and get to being just human.

Part of this noticing all of these mixed-up feelings has led me to realize how much of my racial justice work has to be done on a spiritual and emotional plane. I can’t think my way into not being complicit in white supremacy. I can’t even act my way into changing. Like an addict who wants another hit, I like being treated really well and believed the lie that it doesn’t hurt anyone. In many ways, it goes against the ugliest parts of my nature to change the system. My addiction to white supremacy wants me to keep coasting.

For me, and I recognize this won’t be the case for many other people, I need to turn to prayer and meditation to help clear the garbage out of my head. The fear of losing my status is something intellectually I know is foolish—I want the system of status to be dismantled and I’m working on being a part of that change—so I use my spiritual tools to release me from the bondage of self, of fear, and I let go.

Usually I don’t try to put into words how things are changing inside of me, but they absolutely are. I have no gifts like spiritual leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh or Rev. angel Kyodo williams who can use words to describe spiritual transformations. But I want other white people to know that the messy emotional expression I just did in this post is only one part of the inner work I do. I have the over-thinking (thinking enough?), hyper-awareness (absence of denial?) and I have new peace.

I can be with my advantages, notice them, and always be on the lookout for ways I can share them. Racial justice work is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes I’m a mess inside, sometimes I’m grounded and okay. As long as I’m continuing to learn and practice in my everyday life, I’ll be doing more good than harm.

* As a writer for Black Girl in Maine Media’s blog, I was tasked with writing about racism without centering on whiteness. Through that work, I realized I haven’t yet found a way to do that. In the introduction to Robin DiAngelo’s new book, White Fragility: Why it’s so hard to talk to white people about racism, she says she’s going to center on whiteness because she hasn’t figured out how not to do it while also using her position as a white person to bring important issues to wider audiences. I suppose that’s where I am, still, in my own racial justice work. In this post, I’m writing mostly to white people. I welcome readers of color, of course, but, again, what I say may cause harm because I haven’t learned how to not center on whiteness. As I said: yet.

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Learning about white culture to unlearn it as the default

Driving through Oxford County, Maine, over the weekend, my daughters and I were talking about how fascinating and puzzling it is for us to imagine being a family whose idea of fun would be hanging out in an RV in the parking lot of the Oxford Plains Speedway and going to the races. We talk quite a bit about racism and whiteness, as well as socioeconomic differences and similarities among people here in Maine. I got to thinking about the question: What exactly is white culture? I have my own ideas, but surely scholars have studied this, right? (They have.)

I have some ideas about what I think “white culture” means, but that’s informed by my own background. What are the qualities that make whiteness, the culture? Maybe something about being restrained and tight in communications? I don’t actually know. I’m curious. I want to know more. What is white culture? What do I think about this essay describing white culture? What are the traits that make someone “seem white,” and how are our children taught those qualities in school and in life?

And that’s when I realized what I’d like for young children to learn today. I’d like there to be lessons about white culture and whiteness. I’d like for us (especially white people) to examine how we learn how to be white; what are whiteness’ expectations for social and economic success? As Ijeoma Oluo wrote in “White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves,” “Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance.” She’s not the only voice of knowledge sharing this concept—we white people need to understand whiteness, how we learn it and perpetuate it and expect it wherever we go. (Again, my curiosity runs away with me here…those of us white people from financially comfortable backgrounds probably expect everyone to be like us even more than white people who come from poverty; how is that taught? How can we unlearn it?)

I’ve been imagining what it might be like if young children learned about whiteness: that it is one culture out of many. Perhaps then it wouldn’t be assumed that the default is whiteness. Children could go through their schooling with a critical eye. I’m confident they would catch many of the ways whiteness seeps into every facet of their lives if they were taught early about the ways we’re steeped in the expectations of whiteness. The teachers and children could still continue with their studies, but they’d bring with them an awareness that most lessons are taught with an assumption that whiteness is the default. They could take apart everything they learn as they go.

And, because there are few spaces that are 100-percent white, I’d want these lessons to be shared with the understanding that almost everyone in the United States learns how to be white—to survive, most people of color must learn to code switch—but to be sure to bring in Black and brown racial justice experts to guide the lessons, making sure Black- and brown-bodied children aren’t harmed by the study of whiteness.

It turns out (remember, Google is always our friend!) there are tools to help teachers as they are teaching while white, including a “build a learning plan” tool. Even in just a few Google searches I can see that the study of white culture is definitely already a thing (here’s one example); I just haven’t studied it myself, yet.

So, alongside the valuable lessons children in many schools are learning about “different cultures” (e.g. music from Indonesia, cultural studies of South American countries, fundraising for Puerto Rico, attending performances of theater groups like Maine Inside Out, etc.), students might learn about white culture as just one of the many “different” cultures. And, instead of those “other” cultures seeming to be exceptions to the whiteness-rule, the children could know that whiteness as default is a lie kept in place by power-hungry, greedy, selfish people who don’t know how to share. (Children recognize how not-sharing is problematic!)

Perhaps if generations of children learn about whiteness and white culture, we might have a better chance at dismantling white supremacy. As I’ve mentioned before, a white friend of mine pointed out that white supremacy wants to keep us apart. Understanding whiteness can shed light into those spaces we’ve been tricked into ignoring. Let’s walk together in the light.

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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