Looking at Black people like you would any other people

[Just as a reminder that I’m a white person writing mostly to white people about working through and dismantling our racism toward people of color, particularly Black people, see my first BGIM post here for some background – Heather Denkmire]

There’s shyness. There’s social anxiety that trips us up when we encounter people. And then there’s racism, subtle but powerful, that makes us unable to simply look at a Black person without seeming creepy, dismissive or utterly awkward.

I’ve talked to a lot of white peers about this tendency we have. How we’ll be going along being normal and a Black person enters the sphere of our awareness and suddenly we feel awkward and kind of weirdly giddy, like, “oh oh oh here’s an opportunity to be a good white person!” A lot of that probably comes from a sincere desire to be good—but often it’s also overcompensation for our race-based presumptions—but even with good intent, all it does is make the interaction awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved.

I’ve known I do this for decades. I’ve known that part of it was because I simply didn’t have a lot of experience being around Black people. On the other hand, I don’t have a lot of experience being around people who speak French, people with freckles, or people with spiked fluorescent hair, and none of those situations turn me into a gibbering fool. What was going on?

I looked at my past. Almost every area of my life has been almost entirely made up of white people. My high school had some Black students, but as far as I know, they were all “bussed in” from Hartford and, therefore (I thought), seemed so foreign. I began looking back at that. Why didn’t I know any of those students well?

I remember walking through the hallways and being aware there was a big group of Black students, maybe some of them were in a circle? There was a lot of loudness and laughter. There was maybe sometimes even dancing? Is that possible? (Yes, it’s possible.) My memory of it was so vague because, as I’ve discovered, my whole life was fed by the need to try to not notice race. I needed to not see that someone was Black because…why? Why did I need to not see it?

I needed to not see Black people because I was afraid. I was afraid I’d find out that I thought “they all look alike” and, ultimately I found out I was afraid I’d find out I thought they were less than human. That’s the truth.

As it turns out I did think that Black people weren’t the same as white people. I thought Black people were different in ways that made them less sophisticated, less intelligent, and less worthy of respect. There was a loudness and a physical expressiveness, in the periphery of my life that I didn’t understand and was too scared to look into.

So, I mostly looked away when Black people were near me. I knew I’d feel uncomfortable, though I didn’t know why, so I avoided that discomfort.

It was much later in life that I would start to feel bad enough about these thoughts to not simply ignore them or try to stuff them down and instead to ask hard questions of myself, as I think almost all white people need to do. Did I really think they were (all!) not as intelligent as white people? Did I think Black people were less than human? Did I really believe their actions and the things they liked were so different from my own?

There are many studies showing that implicit bias http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40124781 affects people when it comes to racism. It’s been my experience that the implicit bias comes from an underlying belief that Black people aren’t as human as white people. This leads us to spend loads and loads of cognitive energy avoiding discomfort, avoiding situations where we might have to notice these disgusting beliefs.

But it’s possible to shed those beliefs and even not just look Black people or other people of color in the eye like anyone else—and to speak coherently around them without babbling—but also to move past the inability to talk about racism itself. I’ve made noticeable progress on that, many other white people have done the same, and almost all of us need to do more (and most still need to begin the process).

One of things I did to start normalizing blackness (rather than thinking only whiteness was the baseline norm) was to start looking at Black people. Not staring at them or anything like that but actually seeing them as individual humans. When I first started doing it, I felt many uncomfortable feelings, especially because I’d never done it before. Most recently, starting a couple years ago, I searched the tag #BlackOutDay tag on Twitter (More about Blackout Day here) and then other hashtags like #blackexcellence and #blackmensmiling and more. I didn’t have to feel awkward or nervous, because all of the photos were people who wanted to share their faces and their blackness. I felt a little uncomfortable at times, wondering if I was “using” them almost like they were an exhibit in a museum, but that was only at the start, in part because doing that was only meant as a start to stop seeing blackness as exotic or alien. To see Black people in all their humanity and difference.

The end result for me over the years—and I hope for you as well if you are having difficulty just looking at Black people like you would a white person, much less interacting with them on some level, if only to say “good morning”—is that I am so much better at being around Black people without feeling a need to do something that will prove I’m a “good white person.” Walking through the grocery store, I’m able to do the quick-face-scan I’d do with anyone—most of us avert our eyes, of course, with most strangers, but with Black people there was a sort of ‘double aversion” that I’ve mostly shed now.  that’s gone away for me, for the most part. I can’t say that I’m totally free of the awkward meeting of eyes and tight-lipped smile followed by looking away quickly, but it’s less a problem now.

More a connection of two humans, however fleeting, and less a thought about being two separate beings with nothing in common and relegated to segregated worlds.

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.

Photo by Yamon Figurs on Unsplash

Healing the wounds of racism, or, being a better white person

Today’s piece is written by a special contributor. Heather Denkmire doesn’t describe herself as an accomplice or an ally, and she’s certainly not “woke.” She’s just a woman whose spiritual and physical health depends on daily work on racism in herself and in the wider world. As a writer https://serenebabe.net/writing-credits/ and a person in long-term recovery from alcoholism, she has found that sharing her life experiences can sometimes benefit others; she’s grateful for the opportunity to share some of those experiences here on BGIM.

When my daughter was little, I wanted her to live a life that was more diverse and inclusive than my own childhood had been. But, how could I do that? I knew simple exposure, ideally leading to communication and relationships, to people who came from different backgrounds was essential. But, again, how could I do that?

A major problem I faced, and I know it’s a problem a lot of my white peers face, is that I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t white. I considered joining some parenting groups for families who had children of color. But, joining a group just so my daughter to “experience” difference? That felt gross.

In the end, I didn’t join any groups. I didn’t want to begin relationships with new people based on my own attempts at feeling less racist or making my children less racist; that felt disingenuous and unproductive, perhaps even harmful. Instead, I bought books featuring people of color, selected brown-skinned dolls, and talked with my daughter (and, eventually, her sister) frequently about structural racism whenever learning opportunities presented themselves. I actively sought out “teachable moments.”

I’m sharing this story because I want to draw attention to the fact that addressing racism is always a choice for me. And while I have always thought it was vitally important, dismantling racism has never been a matter of life or death in any overt way like it is for people of color.

As Shay Stewart-Bouley wrote on this blog a few weeks ago, “we are trapped in a cycle that for many white people is hard to escape. In part because of the seductive allure of whiteness that makes conversations about race and difference an option and not the matter of survival that it is for many people of color, especially Black people. Until these conversations become urgent for all of us, nothing changes because we will continue our scattered and surface approach rather than a strategic overhauling of all that harms us.”

While I think I did and do an okay job keeping anti-racism themes present in the lives of my daughters, in the last few years I’ve become more aware of how urgent this work is for me. The truth about racism is that it had been killing me, too, if only on a spiritual level. The urgency (to participate in the work of reinventing our economic and social structures on a basis of justice and equity) came only after I realized how sick I’ve been, how much hurt and pain I was carrying. At that point, I began relating to whiteness as an addiction, a spiritual disease. When I did that, I was able to use spiritual tools to address the psychic damage that I had denied in me for so long.

Let me be clear, I’m not talking about the sincere and genuine sadness we white people can feel as empathetic human beings when we consider the ugliness of racism. I’m not talking about the “white women’s tears” that are so tiresome for people of color. I think there’s a time and a place for expressing those feelings (with other white people), but how we feel about racism isn’t the point (it’s not helpful or even necessary). What matters, I’ve found, is my willingness to see the truth—the real, ugly, horrifying truth—about my own racism.

Of the white people I know (and that’s most people I know), being “not racist” is an important value. As I read Shay’s piece about the response to the article she shared, I was reminded of how many of my white peers believe strongly they are not racist. And, while I’ve known since the ‘80s that I am racist—I’m a white person who benefits from our country’s racist structures, a country that only exists because of the historical and continued decimation of Black and brown bodies—I only recently recognized how deeply my need for whiteness runs. It’s truly an addiction that I must address everyday so I can live an authentic spiritual life. I need to address the wounds inside myself—caused by my dependence on whiteness—before I can be of any real use in the world of anti-racism work.

If you are a white person who wants to be not-racist, whether you think you are racist now or not, in this space and with gratitude, I will share with you my experience understanding my own complicity in racism. I will share with you what I did, and continue doing, to be a better white person; to heal the wounds racism caused in me that I didn’t even know were festering and keeping me sick.

In recovery (from alcoholism), we talk about sharing our “experience, strength, and hope” in an effort to help those who are still suffering. In that light, in future posts I will share my journey with racism in the hopes that my experience might benefit others.


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.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.