I had a coworker call me racist recently.
Actually he didn’t call me racist. What he said was that something I said was racist. They are not the same thing, but when a white person is told by someone else, especially a person of color, that they are doing something racist, the white person often hears them calling them personally a racist.
At work I tell jokes, mostly rated G, to the patients on a mental health unit. Usually the jokes are kid jokes. At one point I ended up on a string of “Juan” jokes. The jokes centered around how Juan sounds like one, a play on words. My coworker is Latino, and when I shared the joke with him, he told me that it felt racist to him.
I am only beginning to wake up to my privilege. This was one of my wake up moments. While I didn’t defend myself, my response was bumbling. In fact, it wasn’t until weeks later, as I am reading the book by Robin DiAngelo called White Fragility, that I realize that I hadn’t even considered thanking him. My focus was on how uncomfortable I was, missing the opportunity to realize how uncomfortable I might have been making him.
I had thought I was just making a cute joke, one that didn’t have bad words or inappropriate sexual references.
In the days that followed, it occurred to me that it didn’t matter what I thought about it. It felt racist to him, and that was enough. If I wasn’t developed enough in my understanding of how these kind of actions felt to other people, the least I could do was respect those who where willing to point them out as racist when they come up.
I am a racist. Not the KKK kind of racist, but the kind of racist that doesn’t understand the world I grew up in, a world that has the weight of history pushing at it’s back, a world where white people have the power and have done everything they could do to keep that power. I am one of those racists, ignorant and struggling to see what is hidden in front of me (for a more detailed description of different ways we look at what it means to be racist, I refer you to DiAngelo’s book.)
That hidden, sometimes unconscious, racism is shocking to the white person when they first start to see it. It was shocking to me. I thought I wasn’t a racist. I thought I was one of the good guys, fighting the good fight. Whites, especially those in power, have created a world that hides racism, gives the illusion we are past it. As I peel away that veil, it is almost overwhelming. It took me a minute to realize what was overwhelming to me is a person of color’s everyday.
It is a commonly held belief that racists are of the KKK variety, and morally wrong, and if you claim someone is a racist, they must be morally corrupt. Whites bristle at having their morals called into question. I remember all of the politicians claiming they weren’t racist around their defense of Charlottesville, saying they had black friends.
I have black friends, latino friends, pacific islanders, asian friends, indigineous friends, and I am still a racist. As I reflect on my own life about this viel that hid structural historical racism from me, what I remember about my life changes. I am discovering that while that racist structure was hidden from me, it is simultaneously part of my world view, one I benefit from at the expense of others. Memories of what seemed innocent becomes painfully wrong. It is hidden and white people get really angry when confronted with this, hence the term, “White Fragility.”
Then there is the justified anger of people of color, their long held suffering at the hands of white oppression. Whites dismiss this saying it is in the past. Can a white person say the same thing about the history of their family? The addiction, physical and emotional abuse? Just say that it is in the past every time you get triggered?
There are studies that show that if there is victimization in a family history, the children of those parents will be very likely to be victimized themselves, even if the parents aren’t the ones to do it. Trauma is passed on, whether we understand the links or not. The trauma of slavery, genocide, war, imprisonment, rape, and servitude are not so far in our past. Much of it continues, a topic for deeper study and reflection that I will leave for another time.
I don’t know if I can handle this, and that is a luxury of my whiteness. And I don’t know how to deal with that except to feel into it as best I can everyday and raise my awareness about how I treat others, my expectations, and how I think of myself. I am not willing to be silent about racism the way I was before.
The intention of my blogs is to bring to light how an ordinary, middle-aged white male sees racism, sexism, and classism in his own life. I want to learn and share my history, to unearth it and hold it to the light for examination, understanding, and hopefully compassion. All trauma requires compassion.
Being lied to and misguided as a white person by my own culture is painful and will require patience. That patience must be given, in my observation, by white people. I don’t feel we can ask for that from people of color. If they want to give it, fine, but it is not okay for me to expect it.
When I think of patience, it is not the kind that lets anyone off the hook. It is the kind of patience that holds true to it’s center while speaking the truth, that allows others to struggle and not withdrawing because that is difficult. That is no different than any other healing process in life. It is a form of forgiveness, and forgiveness always ends with the hardest step, the one we don’t want to take--forgiving ourselves.
We have a long way to go before that step resolves itself, if it ever does. The beginning of a long journey that may not even come to completion in our lifetime. Unconditional love is the willingness to start a journey of compassion that has an unknown destination.
If you are interested in this topic, I recommend reading a summary of White Fragility in the New Yorker, by Katy Waldman at the following link:
Geo Freedom is a middle-aged white male artist and writer who is learning to reclaim his white identity in order to unmask his own racist, sexist, and classist biases.