I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and more than a bit ambivalent, as I sit here, trying to begin this
diary post. I took part in the boycott last week, in solidarity with a group of folks whose voices I value and respect. As a blog dedicated to electing more and better Democrats, voices of diversity should not only be tolerated, but cultivated. There are more than enough mostly, or only, white spaces in my life, and the life of our body politic.
Anyway, I promised a dear friend (made on Daily Kos, by the way) that I would turn into a diary an email I'd written to her during boycott week. I’m not convinced of its utility, and I’m already uncomfortable with the number of times I have typed “I,” recognizing that I will be typing it many more times before I am done.
We were talking about the possibility of a series of diaries, in response to her realization that there were more than a few folks who wanted to be part of the conversation, but who were worried about saying the wrong thing, or stepping on a land mine, or hurting someone’s feelings. So they lurked, or stayed away. Here is my response (slightly edited for readability) to her discovery of another friend who felt that way:
I was one of those good-hearted, right-minded, scared-to-death people not so very long ago. And that is after attending a majority black high school. The experience of stepping on land mines, with all good intentions, and the ferocity of the responses sometimes, can be traumatic.
I think the most important lesson I learned (which gave me the courage, and, to some extent, the 'permission' to speak up, even if still scared) was to be real. Just be honest about where you are coming from, what you hope for, what you are afraid of.
The second most important lesson was to be ready to deal with perceived negative consequences. Really, having someone angry with you on the internet is not a big deal. It doesn't even come close to what victims of racism must deal with every day.
So, be real, be ready to take some lumps with equanimity, and possibly most important of all - number three - LISTEN! (shoulda started there.) If you speak up, and are taken to task, listen. Non-defensively. Ready to learn. Thank the person who has taken the time and energy to educate you. It's not their job, and it is a gift.
I know you know how to do all this, but it really is the very basic 101 stuff that well-meaning but often clueless white folks need to learn. And you might not know that, as you are not clueless, and haven't been for a long time. I'm still only a tiny little bit removed from cluelessness myself, around this, and still remain very nearly without a clue.
You may disagree with me (vehemently, perhaps), but I think the fears of stepping on land mines, making mistakes, causing unintended harm can be traced back to a more fundamental fear – the fear of facing and owning internal, unconscious racism. Most people don’t want to be racists. It’s heard as an insult right up near the top of the charts, evoking ugly images of white supremacy and overt bashing of people of color. Most of us don’t see ourselves that way, and don’t want to do so. It’s painful.
Kindness is my guiding principle. I’m not callously dismissive of people’s feelings or experiences. At least, I don’t see myself that way. But it was brought home to me that the discomfort of facing our internal racism, and institutionalized racism, doesn’t hold a candle to being a person of color growing up and living within a culture that has institutionalized racism. It’s not entirely valid to compare different sorts of hurt. However, the awareness of the damage done by racism needs to be made explicitly clear, and held up to the light. Most of us (I hope) want to eradicate racism. Okay, so we may need to tolerate some discomfort. And be willing to hold that discomfort within the space of the larger purpose. This may be easier if we stay clear on the far greater and more damaging trauma of growing up and living without the benefit of white privilege.
Yep. I said it. White privilege.
Lots of folks don’t seem to like that term much. I guess because the word privilege conjures up images of country clubs, and European vacations, and Ivy League educations paid for by your parents. Many of us didn’t and don’t have those kinds of privileges, in fact we may have grown up and/or live in circumstances of extreme poverty and hardship. So we don’t associate the word privilege with our lives, in any way. But here’s the thing, if you grew up white in the United States of America, you grew up with white privilege. Even if you grew up in a ghetto filled predominantly with people of color, and dealt with what some folks call reverse racism (which, in my opinion, shows a distinct lack of understanding about the meaning of the word racism), you still had, and have, white privilege.
Maybe I should back up a bit and talk about my experience. After all, I’m no expert on any of this. I’m a white Renewal Jew with Buddhist leanings, 44-year-old single mother of three, State-employed, pragmatic idealist, progressive Democrat. I had a fairly typical, for the socio-economic strata, upper-middle-class childhood. Private grade school, public high school, undergrad degree in biology. Married right out of college, three kids in the next seven years, spent mostly as a stay-at-home mom.
My dad was a bail bondsman, an odd mix of racist in his talk, but not so much in his walk. He would say things that pissed me off no end. We argued a lot when I was a teen-ager, about nature vs. nurture, about affirmative action, about society’s inequity and how that manifested. At the same time, he worked tirelessly in several community organizations to lift people up, make society more equitable, and where all else failed, to give material assistance. Still makes my head hurt to think about it. I didn’t know he had cultivated so very many relationships with people of color until his standing-room-only funeral, held in our synagogue because the funeral home was too small, and filled with an astonishing array of diversity. I stood in the receiving line hearing story after story about how my Dad had had a powerfully positive impact on the lives of all these black and brown people he had never mentioned. Cognitive dissonance: I have it. I think he did too.
Anyway, all that is to say, I remember always, way back to when I was a small child, feeling sad and mad and bewildered by racism, and wanting to help change it, but not understanding how to take even the first step in engaging in that work. Mostly because I was scared of making a mistake. Scared of saying the wrong thing. Scared of hurting someone’s feelings. Scared of stepping on a land mine. Scared of making it worse when I was only wanting to make it better. Scared of getting metaphorically slammed into any more lockers, as had literally happened when I began public high school and tried making friends while being so unconsciously steeped in my privilege that I was offensive without having any idea of why that was so.
Fast forward to graduate school, fourteen years after getting my bachelor’s degree. I was lucky enough, privileged enough, to have an amazing, amazing experience in Naropa University’s Transpersonal Psychology Master’s program. There I met some of the most awake, aware, conscious and present people I’ve ever known. Also, more to the point of this post, I was required to take a multiculturalism class. Thanks be to whatever it is we thank. And thanks to Soltahr, our professor. She didn’t pull her punches. She was generous and transparent in sharing her own experiences as a person of color. She made us go into our discomfort. Class projects invariably included real life interaction with those things that scared us most. We were supported by the community of our cohort, and our shared meditation practice, so sitting with the discomfort became a positive. This allowed us to go further and further into the places that were so deeply frightening: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I just can’t express my gratitude enough.
As I said, I’m no expert, and I’m absolutely guilty of all the "'mistakes," if you want to call them that, alluded to above. This little list of mine is not even close to the whole picture, it’s just a few useful things I learned. Your mileage may vary.
Further, I don’t write diaries. I signed up here in November 2008. My first, and only other diary, was completely not scary because it was for Netroots for the Troops. I read and rec and learn. I comment, but mostly only in one community. I find the GOS intimidating, and generally choose to lurk about while out there... Out here.
So this one feels scary. From what I’ve seen in other diaries dealing with this topic, I expect I may get some pushback. That’s cool; dialogue is the point, after all. But I’d be contradicting lesson number one above, if I pretended not to be worried about it.
Which brings us back to the block-quoted email above. My hope is that it will encourage a few more scared but well-meaning folks to speak up and get engaged. We need to do that, if we’re to have any hope at all of tearing down these walls; the ones inside our hearts and minds, and the ones out in the world.