For the last several weeks–before Charleston and McKinney and too many more–I’ve been thinking about this post.
On Monday evenings after work I’ve been sitting in the cafeteria of the elementary school and talking about race.
Our school decided to take part in the Community Dialogue program run by YW Boston. At first I wasn’t sure if I would go. I already do a lot of meetings, my time with the kids is limited, and I wasn’t sure if I needed another thing in my life. But I’ve been unsettled and troubled and sad about so many things over the last year and I thought that maybe this would help me cope. I also thought that it might help me figure out what I could do to help with the racial problems that still exist in our communities.
Sometimes I struggle to know what my part is in the conversation. I’m a white woman brought up in white suburbs who attended white schools. Sometimes race played a role in my life, like the year we moved to a town in California where half of the school was Japanese, but usually my life was one where I was overwhelmingly surrounded by white people.
But things changed for me as an adult. I spent years working in prisons and as a public defender where I worked with all races. I saw racism playing out in front of me every day. Atlanta is a pretty segregated city, but before I lived there I lived in a town outside the perimeter that was only 8% white. Boston is pretty segregated, too, but for the last few years I’ve lived in a neighborhood that is 50% white. and my specific area is probably more like 30 or 40% white. My kids attend a school where they are the minority, not the majority. Race has played out very differently in my life for the last 10 years than it did in the first 25.
I know I understand a lot more than I used to. But often my background leaves me feeling like I don’t have the right to say anything. I worry that I’ll offend someone, I’ll decide to wait for someone else to speak up. After all, that’s how race is in many predominantly white neighborhoods. It’s not something you really talk about. I remember being a teenager and thinking how great it was that we all just didn’t care about race and how we were all just the same. A lot of people still think that way, but I don’t anymore.
The Dialogue sessions were made up of a small, racially mixed group. Our school has a minority white population but we tend to have majority white parental involvement and we have a majority white faculty. It’s something the school continues to struggle with and work through and part of the reason we were having these sessions.
There’s a lot of ways that our hours spent together sharing personal stories and very raw emotions will help our school moving forward. But the biggest benefits was for us, the attendees. The conversations we had were honest and eye-opening and engrossing. I looked forward to going every week and I was sad when someone couldn’t make it. I felt really close to all of them when our sessions ended. All this from sitting on folding chairs and going through guided discussions about a truly difficult topic. I never realized just how much we are all missing by not talking about race. Being “polite” is hurting us. Speaking up opens eyes in ways you can’t imagine until you do it.
I won’t share their stories because they’re not mine to tell. But I can tell you about the themes that came back over and over again. Some of it was what I expected, the struggles that come from a school with a large population living in poverty, the places where race and class get intertwined, the achievement gap, the delicate balance between race and cultural heritage and ethnicity. Much of it was different. There were a lot of personal stories shared to show just what is happening to us on a daily basis and just how different your day-to-day experience can be when your skin looks one way instead of another.
One exercise that was particularly eye opening divided our large group into the whites and the persons of color. Each group was told to list ways they felt like their racial or ethnic heritage was celebrated and ways it made life more difficult.
The minority group had a lot of celebrations: festivals, parades, community activities built on a shared ethnic or racial background. White participants struggled at first to find ways we were celebrated and our list ended up being a lot of the things that we now call “white privilege.” Seeing white people in media and in positions of power. Being treated politely. Assumptions people make that we are educated and well off.
The other side of the list was drastically different. The white list had a lot to do with the specifics of our school and the neighborhoods we live and work in: trying to reach out to others and sometimes being treated like we don’t understand because we’re white.
The list from the group with people of color, however, was long and troubling. Being watched and monitored in a store. Being stopped by security or law enforcement for no reason. People assuming you didn’t belong or were in the wrong place because you weren’t white. People making blatantly racist comments. Feeling threatened and unsafe. These were not occasional happenings but daily occurrences.
The differences between these lists struck me in a way I haven’t been able to shake and it’s helped me to understand a lot about why our discussions about race over the last year or so are playing out the way they are.
When you’re a minority, you have to work harder to celebrate who you are. You have to be visible and vocal and work for respect.
When you’re the majority, you just don’t realize how good you have it. Almost every privilege you get as a white person is silent. It happens every day, all around you, and no one says anything and you don’t notice it happening. But it happens constantly. I wonder what would happen if a little bell dinged every time you enjoyed a white privilege. Would it make people see things differently?
The celebrations of the minority? Sure, they exist, but they happen only a very small amount of the time. No one is coming together to celebrate whiteness or help build the white community, and that can lead to some white people who feel like they don’t get a fair shake.
This is, of course, ridiculous and shortsighted. It’s the same kind of thinking that took #BlackLivesMatter and turned it into #AllLivesMatter. It denies the hurt and fear of being treated as an other even if it’s under the guise of equality. Of course all lives matter. But black lives are under attack in a way that’s different from other lives. If we value all lives equally we have to pay attention when one set of those lives is being targeted and taken cruelly and horrifically. (You can and should read Claudia Rankine’s stunning essay expounding on this.)
As a white person going through life, when you’re treated respectfully you don’t assume it’s because of the color of your skin. But the honest truth is that your skin color has a lot to do with it a lot of the time. Just because you don’t hear a bell ringing doesn’t mean you aren’t coasting on privilege.
No one has ever told me I was in the wrong place because of my skin. (On the contrary, they tend to be kind and solicitous because I’m a white girl and that makes people want to treat me sweetly and take care of me.) No one ever assumed I was the maid or the janitor. When I tell people I went to law school, they aren’t surprised.
I have friends from other races, but we don’t talk about these things beyond sharing articles and comments on social media. Every single person of color in our meetings had stories of rejection, displacement, fear, and danger. And even more stories they’d heard from their friends and family members. As I heard them over and over again, I realized that we’ve all been doing each other a disservice. We don’t tend to share these stories across racial lines.
And among groups of white people, we don’t call out racism when we see it.
We need to tell our stories, not just share whatever makes national news. We need to tell our friends when we experience racism or when we see it happening to those around us. We need to call out people who enable racism whether through ignorance or willful action.
I had one of these moments recently. It wasn’t anything big. It was just one of those times when I was in a group of people, most of them were white, and someone said something casually racist. For the last year or so I’ve become much more aware of these occasions. With a few weeks of Dialogues under my belt I decided to open my mouth and try to stop it. I was gentle at first, trying to shut it down with indirect disapproval. But that didn’t work. So I said something I don’t think I’ve ever said anymore, “That’s kind of racist.”
I look at that “kind of” and wish I’d left it out. It was my manners trying to come in and smooth things over and counteract the pointedness of my comment. But I should’ve just said, “That’s racist. You need to stop,” and left it at that.
Regardless, it stopped the line of conversation and we moved on. No one got upset. I actually felt much more awkward and uncomfortable before I said anything. After saying it I felt relieved.
This is a duty we all share. You may feel like a conversation doesn’t matter much. But it does, And there’s more you can do.
You can look at life around you and ask if there’s racial discrimination. If there’s something around you where people of color are underrepresented, you need to examine it and ask what may be behind it. Sometimes it’s systemic racism, sometimes it’s the ignorance of the majority, but either way it should be changed. You can look at systems in place at work, at school, and in government that put a burden on people of color. It doesn’t have to be the serious stuff on the news. It can be something you’re involved in, somewhere you have influence, something you care about.
At Book Riot, for example, we make a conscious effort to read books by authors of color because the publishing industry still dramatically favors white authors, it publishes books mostly about white characters, it pigeonholes authors of color as being incapable of creating universal stories, reviewers pay more attention to white authors, and publishers push their marketing dollars behind a very white list of authors. (I saw this in person recently at BEA, the publishing industry’s largest trade show.) We use our platform to draw attention to the problem and to celebrate books by authors of color.
I have started to talk about it on Facebook because most people don’t know about the problem and just how bad it is. Awareness is the first step to changing a system. I get comments sometimes wondering why I bother or what’s the point. These people say they just want good books and they don’t care about race. They love books by authors of all races.
This is the same way I used to think as a teenager. It’s responding to an accusation of prejudice supported by data and evidence by ignoring it. So saying they “don’t care about race” may actually be true. It’s less that they don’t care about the race of the author but don’t care about whether racial injustice is occurring in an industry.
If a system is racist, you not caring only allows the system to stay just as it is.
Sure, my steps to change publishing are small. But I do what I can with my influence. I talk about it. I educate myself. I make an effort to expand my reading to include more authors of color. I bring needed attention to deserving books and authors. I provide my readers with information about books that they may not get from other places. And that is the beginning of change. Even if it’s just one industry in a big, giant system.
If you are in the Boston area, I’d encourage you to consider bringing the Community Dialogues to a part of your community that could use it, whether it’s your neighborhood, school, or business. If you’re not in Boston, do a little research to see if one is near you. (I’d just google “community dialogues on race (insert city name)”) Listen to the people around you, really hear their stories, and look at the world around you to see what you can do.