My confession is not that I feel shame about being “white,” which I do, because that’s pretty normal in my social circle. Race may be a social construct, since we are all just variations on how much melanin we have in our skin, but it’s one with disturbing implications in our society. I love a quote from Frederich Buechner on this because it encapsulates much of my sadness and anger around the senselessness of the situation,
“Nothing in American history is more tragic surely than the relationship of the black and white races. Masters and slaves both were dehumanized. The Jim Crow laws carried the process on for decades beyond the Emancipation. The Ku Klux Klan and its like keep going forever. Politically, economically, socially, humanly the blacks continue to be the underdog. Despite all the efforts of both races to rectify the situation and heal the wounds, despite all the progress that has been made, it is still as hard for any black to look at any white without a feeling of resentment as it is for any white to look at any black without a feeling of guilt.”
It’s a state of affairs that makes me sad whenever I think of it, which is frequent. I’m not a fan of shame. As a friend has pointed out, it takes me out of my heart and into a place where I respond according to what I believe others are thinking or expecting than from a place of love.
Feelings about shame aside, the awareness of my white privilege is a good thing. It keeps me thinking about whether and how my language and actions may be unconsciously motivated by race based on either intentional or unintentional messages I absorbed throughout my life. I’m grateful that we’re hearing stories in books, television, and movies from increasingly diverse voices helping us to counter long-held racist messages, understand better and have more empathy. Making what efforts I can to become less racist, however, and do whatever small bit I can to help us become a less racist society, doesn’t mean I don’t fail on a regular basis.
I’m fortunate to have friends who point out the implications of how I’ve said or even done something that suggests an unconscious bias. Most often this occurs in my writer’s group. A recent example being a piece I wrote about living in Botswana. In it, I referenced “local” and “South African” guides. It hadn’t occurred to me that these words subconsciously expressed race when, in the context of the story I was telling, neither race nor nationality had relevance. Ultimately, the words suggested division rather than shared humanity. I’ve made far worse gaffs. I appreciate that these friends trust my intentions enough to point out these moments so I can learn from them, even as much as I feel incredible shame and embarrassment when it happens.
My confession, rather, is around how the hair on my neck stands on end and blood rushes to my head, whenever someone makes generalized statements such as “white people are racist” or “white people are (or do) x” or worse, when such accusations are lobbed directly at me – usually when I’m calling someone out for bad behavior.
Growing up, I learned that being racist was a conscious belief that a white person was better than a person of color – and this played out most prominently toward blacks. I understood that a racist was one of the worst things I could be. Racists were bad. For this reason, what I hear when people say these words is – I, Jennifer, because I’m white, am a bad, bad person.
Roxeanne Gay speaks to this hurt in her essay, “Peculiar Benefits”
We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone. Of course we resent these accusations . . .
Others, however, have seemed to condemn my reaction such as Robin DiAngelo in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. In fairness, I’ve only read excerpts of the book, and I normally would not reference it, but its title and spawning of the common usage of the phrase “white fragility” are part of the shame around my hurt.
I recognize that DiAngelo acknowledges the hurt that comes from how I grew up understanding racism, but she contends that I should understand being called a racist differently and that I do not is what evidently makes me fragile. So, I hear the phrase “white fragility” and I understand that I’m not “supposed” to feel angry and defensive. I’m “supposed” to acknowledge that I’m part of a racist system that I can’t always quite identify. I’m “supposed” to admit I’m racist, not take every statement about white people personally, pay attention to my own racist tendencies or when I’m furthering the system, and then get on with my life, hopefully getting better as I go.
That’s all well and good, but if I’m honest, I look around and see white nationalists who, not only aren’t trying to overcome the racist system, but trying to perpetuate it. Who not only aren’t trying to become more loving people, but are reveling in their hate. And when I hear someone call me racist, I can’t help but feel I’m being lumped in with them and it hurts. Of course, that’s just me trying to think of myself as better than someone else.
I contain beliefs, stereotypes, prejudices, biases, and whatever else toward people who look differently than me. Yes, that makes me racist and I’m part of a deeply entrenched racist system. Both realities make me sad. Yet both statements also make me cringe and bother me only mildly less than having to acknowledge that I’m a sinner. They imply to me – I’m bad, rather than being simple acknowledgements that I’m human.
Gay, again, speaks beautifully to this reality.
Surrending to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it’s really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgement of my privilege is not a denial of the ways in which I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.
I’ve wanted to write about this shame place for a long time. Originally, I wanted to tell people to stop what I perceived as name calling because I believe there are better ways to create dialogue, learn from each other, and solve the problems around racism. I wanted to write a similar piece about women talking about men in such generalized name-calling terms, which I think is just as unhelpful.
A friend asked what I hoped to achieve with such a piece. I didn’t have a good answer except that I felt hurt and I wanted people to know it – my version of lying on the ground, pounding my fists and feet and screaming “it’s not fair.” It was a typical reaction for me when my sense of self is threatened – argue with people to get them to concede I’m actually a good person. In other words, I was going to show the world my “fragility.” I didn’t write the piece because such a demonstration seemed even more shameful than being racist. Instead, I kept my mouth shut.
Recently, I broke up a fight between two thirteen year old boys – both black. I saw them fighting across the street from me as I biked home one afternoon after school had just let out. Another adult stood nearby at a corner waiting for a light to change, seemingly intentionally ignoring the brawling children and shouts from their respective friends. While I have learned to stay out of fights between equally matched adults, I feel more of a responsibility with kids. So I biked across, threw my bike down, wrapped my hands around their skinny pubescent arms and pulled them apart.
I gathered from their disconnected shouts as I separated them that one of the boys must have said something about the other boy’s father and didn’t realize the father was dead. He kept trying to say that he didn’t know, but the other boy wasn’t having it and his friends were backing him up.
The angry boy kept lunging toward the defensive boy and I kept grabbing his arm and pulling him back. This went on for some minutes and I wanted to go home, but they weren’t leaving. “You all need to go home. I’m not leaving until you do.”
“We don’t need to go home.”
“You can’t tell us what to do.”
In exasperation, I pulled out the one scary threat that popped into my head, “if you don’t go home, I’m going to call the cops.”
“Fine. Call them. They’re right there anyway.” I turned around to look. They’re often patrolling these streets so it wouldn’t have been surprising, but I didn’t see one. I didn’t really intend to call the cops; it seemed ridiculously excessive for a kids’ fight. The other idea I had was to run to their school to get a teacher, but it was a block away and they’d likely start fighting again while I was away. Why it didn’t occur to me to call the school, I don’t know. In any case, my threat didn’t prompt them to leave, but they calmed down. The angry boy hung back with his friends, no longer lunging. I returned to pondering what to do next.
And then a girl, the only one on the scene, said to her friends loud enough for me to hear, “of course the white woman calls the cops on the black kids.”
My heart fell into my stomach and rolled around like a baseball. I was hurt that this girl saw me as racist (e.g., bad) and not as someone who just kept two boys from hurting each other. While I knew better than to engage with her comment – it was a distraction from resolving the fight at hand – it also froze me. All I could think of was how I was a middle aged white woman that these kids probably didn’t want meddling in their lives and maybe she was right. A part of me wanted to prove her wrong, but I had no idea how. Another part wanted to actually call the cops because it would serve her right.
Fortunately, at that moment, our neighborhood mailman, a young black man, appeared and started talking to them. Thank God. “Can you help them resolve their argument? I think it’s just a misunderstanding.”
“Yeah. I know these kids. I’ll talk with them.”
“Thank you so much.” I shook his hand, handing off the baton as it were, and left. I believed that they were in much better hands with him than me.
As I do, I couldn’t let this incident go. I talked to friends about it, including black friends who told me they would have handled it just as I did and that I was being too hard on myself. What has troubled me, however, is that I’m a trained mediator, and although it has been many years, I used to mediate for teenagers of all different races.
I’ve realized that I didn’t mediate because I worried that these black kids wouldn’t want to work with a middle-aged white woman. I can blame a lot of societal messaging these days that has brought me to this place, but here is where shame took me away from being the loving person I am.
A friend has pointed out that my reaction was not dissimilar to the boys’ fight. One boy said something that hurt the other boy and instead of telling him he was hurt and talking it out, he got angry and went into fight mode. In my case, I felt shame and hurt and went into flight mode. Instead of being the person that could model and help them learn good communication skills, I became just another white woman who threatened to call the cops. It’s not who I am, even though it’s who I was in that moment.
It took me some time, but I realized that my problem isn’t with messages floating in the ether about how I’m racist by virtue of being white, lumping all white people (and middle-aged women) together in negative generalizations, nor the girl implying I was racist. The people speaking those words are simply expressing the truth of their experience. I’ve read enough books and articles, watched enough movies, and spoken to enough friends to understand why many, if not all, blacks distrust whites to varying degrees. I’m saddened by what many, if not most or all, have been subjected to even today. For that reason, I have no intention of lecturing anyone on how they should talk about their experience with racism or what words they should use.
I’m confessing my hurt and shame, however, because the real issue is with how I take in those messages. It drives me nuts that simply by virtue of being white, certain people (including friends and neighbors) will see me in a negative light. I want people to see me as the loving person I believe myself to be, who is trying really hard to not be racist and to do what little I can to move us as a society past it. My defensiveness and desire to shut down is not unlike my reaction to the woman who reprimanded me for walking my dog off leash that I wrote about in Accepting All the Parts of Me.
The irony of the situation – that blacks have been contending with this same issue of being seen in a negative light that has nothing to do with who they are as individuals or even within their various cultures for centuries – is not lost on me. It’s a little hard under the circumstances to say, “poor me.”
My problem isn’t what other people think or say about me, directly or indirectly, but what I think about me. I’m having to learn this lesson over and over again. I know who I am – a good and worthy person, who’s also human and makes mistakes.
Given the systematized racism in our society, I may never be entirely certain of the subconscious drivers of my actions around race (and so many other areas). I am, however, trying with all my might to love the best I can. Other people’s words or beliefs do not change that. Only by remembering this truth about myself can I let go of the hurt reaction to hear anything that might help me learn and behave as the loving person I am – such as by trying to help those fighting boys talk about their dispute rather than use their fists.
Ross Gay (unrelated to Roxeanne to my knowledge) speaks beautifully to this issue in his essay about his experiences of racism as a black man in, “Some Thoughts on Mercy” in the Sun magazine.
What if we honestly assessed what we have come to believe about ourselves and each other, and how those beliefs shape our lives? And what if we did it with generosity and forgiveness? What if we did it with mercy?
It seems to me that part of my reason for writing this — for revealing my own fear and sorrow, my own paranoia and self-incrimination and shame — is to say, Look how I’ve been made by this. To have, perhaps, mercy on myself. When we have mercy, deep and abiding change might happen. The corrupt imagination might become visible. Inequalities might become visible. Violence might become visible. Terror might become visible. And the things we’ve been doing to each other, despite the fact that we don’t want to do such things to each other, might become visible.
If we don’t, we will all remain phantoms — and, as it turns out, it’s hard for phantoms to care for one another, let alone love one another. And it’s easy for phantoms to hurt one another.
It’s hard for me to confess my feelings here because on more than any other topic, I’m afraid people will hate me for it or that someone will point out how my having these thoughts is more evidence of my badness. Shame and its corrosiveness thrive in the dark, however.
By bringing the truth of my hurt to light, I don’t seek to change anyone else. Rather, in the light, I hope to release its hold over me so I can remember my worthiness and instead of separate myself from others, or become a phantom, remember our inter-connection. Because we are all human. Perhaps this is the mercy I understand Ross Gay to be talking about. I won’t always fully understand my motivations and sometimes I will make the wrong choices. It’s okay that I feel hurt, but by losing the shame around that hurt, I can remember who I am, and rather than react to another’s words, I can better stay in my loving place and act from there, whatever that may look like.
Also published on Medium.