Updated: Apr 26
Picture a family- two parents and three kids. The parents feed their kids a variety of foods: fruit, meat, dairy, bread, pasta. But never vegetables. “Vegetables are great!” the parents say. “We love vegetables!”
But at the grocery store, they smile as they walk by the rows of curly lettuce and the stacks of ruby tomatoes, never picking them up. Never placing them on the conveyer belt to slide toward the speedy hands of the cashier.
“Vegetables are yummy!” The parents proclaim. “Vegetables are good for you!” Yet there are never vegetables in the fridge or on the plates. There are never vegetables tossed into salads, chopped into a soup or sliced raw for snacks.
Raise your hand if you think those kids will grow up to like vegetables, to cook them for themselves, to feed them to their own kids.
The messages I got about race as a child: There is no difference between Black* people and white* people. Skin color doesn’t define who someone is. People are all the same on the inside. Be sympathetic about the plight of inner-city schools, crowded public housing largely populated by Black families and the pain of past discrimination.
As a child I remember a nagging confusion and unease, like there was some essential piece missing from the puzzle. I could never understand how it all began. No history lesson ever explained why whites thought themselves better in the first place. Nothing my parents said clarified the origin of the split, why there was ever a need for Martin Luther King, Jr. to have a dream or Rosa Parks to claim her seat on that Montgomery bus.
Because if skin color doesn’t matter, doesn’t define us, then why did it seem to? Wasn’t skin color just like hair color, eye color or height, a biological trait you were born with and couldn’t control? How could the outer film of your body determine anything about who you were on the inside?
When I would look at my pale arms, I saw nothing definitive about who I was. My white skin couldn’t tell you that I was obsessed with the musical Annie, that I was afraid of nighttime and that I loved ketchup but despised tomato sauce.
Why did it seem that my white skin said nothing about me while dark skin seemed to define Black people? It was a discrepancy that I could not articulate, nor resolve.
I grew into adulthood believing in equality, affirmative action, devoting resources to building Black neighborhoods, schools and families. If you’d asked me, I would have told you I did not see Black people as different from white people, that I saw people as humans. If you’d watched me, you’d see me smile at every Black person I passed, almost overly friendly in my attempts to connect. I voted for leaders who supported boosting minority communities and raised money to support those causes. I was thrilled to see people of color move into the predominantly white town where I live.
I thought I got it. And yet, it turns out there is a big difference between believing in racial equity and practicing it. There was much I didn’t know and hadn’t thought to find out. Ignorance is shockingly, embarrassingly, blind.
Which is how I ended up on a friend’s couch at our monthly book club, waving my flag of unconsciousness. We were discussing The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas) and I said something about how I understood that many white people were racist, but not all of us! I felt offended, misunderstood and a little wounded. I know I uttered the words reverse discrimination. (Cringey, I know.) What I meant was I didn’t like being judged by my skin color either. I didn’t want to be considered racist and small-minded just because I am white. I’ve worked to be on the side of good!
White fragility anyone? (A real book. Find it at your local bookstore.)
Enter in my friend Mary. She is one of the sweetest, most lovely people this world has ever made. With a stunning balance of directness and tenderness she said to me, “I don’t think you can, as a white person, say reverse discrimination without it sounding, well… gross.”
I’m not sure I could have heard that from just anyone. But I heard it from her. It made me uncomfortable. It made me want to understand. It made me want to be better.
I started to read. That was three years ago.
Here’s what I understand about racism now: people and governments intentionally associated certain values to skin color that were arbitrary, unscientific and economically and politically self-serving. Those evaluations translated into unequal laws which then created social biases and white supremacy, resulting in systemic racism. Racism isn’t just about the KKK or one person being hateful to another. Racism is about power. Who has it and who doesn’t.
Recently, Jodi Picoult, an author I greatly admire (I highly recommend her race-themed novel, Small Great Things), tweeted that if you are white and staying silent on issues of racial justice then you are part of the problem.
I’ve been quiet. I’ve let my fear of saying the wrong thing keep me silent on the subject of racism. For good reason, too. I have a history of saying the wrong thing (my kids can attest to this), of my good intentions getting lost in my uninformed words.
I wonder if there are a lot of people like me, people who believe in racial justice but are just coming to terms with the staggering reality of racism in America. People who are ashamed, embarrassed by what they don’t know and afraid of speaking out of turn.
So I’m going to get this part right out front. Here are some of the stupid things I’ve said.
I once asked my Black neighbor if the Maine winters made her miss Puerto Rico. “I’m from Jamaica,” she corrected. Of course I knew that. It was an honest mistake but one so easy for a white person to make. I was mortified.
I got into a heated debate with my friend Ange over the truth about Columbus when she said he wasn’t the curious, heroic explorer I’d been taught he was. She’d had to look it up to convince me. (Sorry, Ange. You were right. I was dead wrong. Thank you for not rubbing it in.)
In my seeking, I have become well acquainted with my profound ignorance. I want to share with you what I’ve learned. I am not a scholar; I apologize now for anything I might get wrong. I’m done having perfection ruin good enough.
But first, a backdrop. I am a white woman in my forties, and I live in Maine. I started out in a middle-class, white, mostly Jewish and Christian suburb of New York City. When I was still a kid, my parents moved to rural, white Maine. In high school, l lived in a more progressive town that was inclusive, very liberal, highly educated but still very white. My understanding of racism was limited to slavery and relational racism (bigotry, unkind treatment from whites) which I somehow thought was limited to metropolitan areas and the South. I recall being troubled about the white homogeny of Maine, but it was also very normal to me. From the moment I learned of the Holocaust, I was horrified and obsessed. I read books and wrote many research papers on the topic, compelled to face it, to understand it, certain it might someday be up to me to make sure it never happened again.
I chose to attend Occidental College- a small, liberal arts college in Los Angeles, CA that prided itself on its multiculturalism. (Fun fact: Barack Obama went to Occidental for two years before transferring to Columbia.) As the child of a single mother who worked as a social worker, I was given both an academic and need-based scholarship.
My roommate was a Latina girl from South Central, L.A., a first generation born American, whose second language was English. While I felt cramped in our small dorm room, she was thrilled by all the space. Her mother, excited to meet her daughter’s college friends, invited a group of us to their home for lunch. My roommate had warned me about the dangers of her neighborhood- known for its gang violence and drive-by shootings- but as we walked up to the one-bedroom apartment she and her three siblings shared with her parents, all I could see was her smile. She was happy to be home. Her mother welcomed us around her small kitchen table, her family standing nearby, and fed us heaps of steaming tamales with a generosity I will never forget.
In college I read Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and bell hooks. I had professors and classmates of all ethnicities. I learned about immigration politics and the plight of the families seeking asylum or a better life in America. I was haunted by a sign on a highway near the Mexican border warning motorists of humans attempting to cross the six-lane freeway. It was a chilling sign, a yellow rhombus with an image of a mother and her darting children. The pavement was stained dark with what my friend told me was blood.
These were my first real experiences with privilege.
I tell you this so you know where I come from. I was not someone with my head in the sand. I had a stanch, liberal mother and was an honors student, an eager learner, some might say a teacher’s pet.
Yet when it came to racism in America and how it came to be what it is today, I knew almost nothing. And like most people, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I left college feeling socially aware, maybe even a touch righteous, and returned to Maine. I surrounded myself with people who believed as I did. I did not see racism (nor did I see much diversity- twenty years later in 2018, the population of Black people in Maine made up 1% of the total). A liberal, vegetarian, earth-friendly woman, I felt comfortably part of the solution. I went through my 20s and 30s letting myself believe progress was being made in the places where racism was more of a problem.
Only now do I understand that exercising that option, that the entire mindset, is a fact of white privilege.
I drove home after that humbling moment at book club with a sick feeling in my stomach. Maybe I wasn’t where I thought I was. I realize in retrospect the power of a moment like this. It’s a crossroads, a choice. Path one, rationalize and maintain. Path two, investigate and admit there are things I don’t understand.
I’m guessing I had been at this crossroads many times and, blinders on, chosen path one. That night, for whatever reason (Mary’s kindness and courage, the small voice in me nudging me to open), I chose path two.
I started to see. If there was no difference between Black people and white people then why did we not have Black neighbors when I was a child? Why didn’t my parents have Black friends who came to our house for Saturday dinners? What were the real messages I had internalized?
Why, even now, do I not recall having any Black classmates? And why, if I did have Black classmates, was I not friends with them?
My friend Ryan** recommended what turned out to be the single most transformative podcast I have ever listened to - Scene on Radio’s season two, Seeing White. Across 14 episodes, this podcast taught me things the whitewashed history curriculum of my childhood omitted about race, both then and now.
Some of the things that have occurred and continue to occur are so illogical, so far-flung, so obviously corrupt, I found myself having a knee-jerk response of denial. No, if this was happening, surely something would have been done by now.
First, I learned about color-blindness. Like many whites, I was proud to think I don’t see color. Or more accurately that color doesn’t matter to me. I’m no racist.
I was right but I was also incredibly wrong. Turns out for a white person to not see color is one of the most dismissive things we can say.
What I meant by “I don’t see color”: I see you as a human being. To me, the color of your skin has no bearing on who you are as a human.
What is implied: I don’t see the unjust, prejudiced, racist system that remains part of our society still, a system that started with enslavement and continued on through laws, unjust treatment, unfair access to resources, an unrelenting smear campaign of your character, your values and your work ethic. In other words, I don’t see the very thing that we, as the majority, have used to harm you.
Next, and perhaps most surprising, I learned that though race is declared as a scientific, biological fact, it is not.
On Seeing White, Suzanne Phlick of the Racial Equity Institute says, “Science now tells us that in the beginning of the human story, people evolved in Africa from one common ancestor a couple of hundred thousand years ago. We are all kin and all African if you just go back far enough. Over time, some people walked out of Africa and spread across the world, the branches of the family that spent thousands of years in colder places without a lot of sun lost much of their melanin and turned a bunch of different shades depending on the conditions where they were. That’s how we became a species ranging from the darkest brown to the lightest pink beige and everything in between” (Biewen, 2017).
“We know from the human genome project that humans are 99.9% genetically the same. There is more genetic variation in a flock of penguins than the human race. There is more genetic variation in groups that have come to be called races than there is across groups” (Biewen, 2017).
She goes on to say that it is statically more likely for a Black person to be genetically closer to a white person than to another Black person. Race is politically and socially real, but not biologically. Humans constructed race. And did so for one very specific reason.
Slave trading dates back to ancient times, far before any ideas of race, far before the chattel slavery of our U.S. history. The Greeks, Romans, Chinese, West African kingdoms and the Vikings enslaved people of all colors including Eastern Europeans (the word slave comes from “Slav”).
But Ibram X. Kendi (Stamped from the Beginning and How to be an Antiracist) purports that the notion of race was born in the mid 1400s when a Portuguese man, Gomes de Zurara, was hired by the King to write a biography about Prince Henry who was the first slave trader to exclusively capture and trade African people. Zuraru, basically a spin-doctor, claimed that Prince Henry captured them to bring them to Christianity and that slavery was an improvement to how they “lived like beasts” in Africa. He lumped these varying ethnic groups and skin colors together, labeling them as inferior, the idea of “Blackness” born to rationalize and perpetuate this system of free labor. In short, Zurara was commissioned by slave traders to invent race to rationalize the lucrative business of slavery. Race served as a tool of legitimacy to feed their greed and power (Biewen, 2017).
I learned how our country was built on the backs of Black people, quite literally, with slave labor as the foundation of the slave-built infrastructure that created wealth that only whites had (and mostly continue to have) access to (Grandin, 2015). I learned that while Thomas Jefferson was dipping his quill in ink, writing the legendary words, “all men are created equal”, he was one of the largest plantation owners in Virginia, and the owner of hundreds of slaves. How at age 44, he began a sexual relationship with his fourteen-year-old bi-racial slave, Sally Hemings, and is believed to have fathered six of her children (Biewen, 2017).
I learned that the Jim Crow laws and Black Codes put in place after the abolition of slavery (laws that remained in place for 100 years until desegregation) were really just a legalized way to keep former slaves as indentured workers. Though they ranged from state to state with the strictest laws in the South, these laws and codes enforced racial segregation, prevented Black Americans from voting, owning private property and carrying firearms, controlled where they lived and traveled, who they were allowed to marry. The intent was to keep Black people destitute after the Civil War, to keep them as workers. They had no representation in government, no legal voice. It was just another form of enslavement (History, 2021).
I learned about the lie of the American meritocracy, the fantasy that if Black people were willing to work hard, they could have the same resources, wealth and opportunities as whites. In truth, white affirmative action can be traced back to the 1700s. In 1785, the Land Ordinance Act offered 640 acres of land for $1 only to citizens. And citizens, by law, could only be white. This is land that was, consequently, stolen from Native Americans (White on Race, 2017-2021). The notorious “40 acres and a mule” executive order made in 1865 at the end of the Civil War apportioned 40 acres and a mule to some formerly kidnapped and enslaved Africans. A year later that land was taken back and given over to whites (McNamara, 2019).
The myth of American meritocracy is like saying two teams playing in a basketball game have an equal chance of winning even though one of the teams has their hands tied behind their backs.
Fast forward to redlining, a federal systematic housing discrimination against Black people in the 1930s wherein FHA loans were given to people in predominantly white neighborhoods and denied to people in predominantly Black neighborhoods which, thanks to segregation, were the only neighborhoods where Black people were allowed to live (Bouie, 2017).
No loans meant no investments made, no infrastructure improvements, thus destroying the value of inner-city housing for decades while growing and maintaining the value of the mostly suburban white areas. These barricades to standard lending made Black homebuyers easy prey to “contract buying”, a scheme where white real estate agents financed homes at inflated prices with high interest rates but low down payments, sometimes as little as a few hundred dollars. The catch was that the Black homeowners had no equity until the loan was paid off and could be- and were - evicted for a missed payment, regardless of their payment history. Eviction meant losing everything, triggering a vicious cycle of poverty. Against the backdrop of job discrimination and intentionally impoverished neighborhoods, the emergence of ghettos was a horrible inevitability (Bouie, 2017).
For the next thirty years, up until just before desegregation, the government would give out $120 billion dollars to stimulate the economy; 98% of that money went to white people. (Biewen, 2017)
Trevor Noah says: “People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing” (Noah, 2016).
In 2019, the typical white family had eight times the wealth of the typical Black family (The Fed 9/28/20). “Gaps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception” (Brookings, 2/27/20).
For any white people who still believe they have what they have only because they worked hard and that Black Americans have the same access to opportunity, I implore you to read more about racial economic injustice.
This is the part of the story that is often omitted and then used as the battle cry of racist blame, demanding that Black people just work harder to achieve. Here is the vicious truth: the system has been rigged from the start and is still rigged today. When I hear white people say they are being discriminated against, I can only assume their ignorance of these facts. Then I hope they learn them and never, ever say it again.
I learned about the interplay of racism and medicine and the injustice of infant mortality rates. According to the CDC, in 2018, 10.8 of every 1,000 Black babies dies within the first year of life compared to 4.6 of every 1,000 white babies. The two conditions most attributed to infant mortality among Black babies is low birth weight and maternal complications. This is not about genetics but about alarming structural problems - socioeconomic status, Black mothers experiencing discrimination and even neglect by medical providers (Solzhenitsyn, 2020).
“Black women [are] four to five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than White women, regardless of income, education or lifestyle. A Black woman does not have to be poor for her life or her baby’s life to be at stake” (Russell, 2021).
A study that reviewed 1.8 million births between 1992 and 2015 found that when Black newborns were cared for by medical practioners who were also Black, their mortality rate, as compared with white newborns, was cut in half (Russell, 2021).
Rachel Hardeman, one of the study’s researchers, says, “By adulthood so many disadvantages have accumulated to affect a Black woman’s health that the race of the doctor may not make a difference... That the cumulative experience of racism and sexism, throughout the lifecourse, can trigger a chain of biological processes, known as weathering, that undermine Black women’s physical and mental health” (Russell, 2021).
Weathering, a term coined by Arline Geronimis, is the hypothesis that the predominance of health issues in marginalized communities comes not from genetic predispositions, but from the chronic exposure of discrimination and social and economic stress on the body. This compounded emotional and physical stress takes a biological toll over time. Most staggering is the belief that these external factors begin to impact the body early on, even in childhood, creating changes in DNA gene expression which lead to poor health outcomes in the future
Enter in the politics of medicine, wherein the bias of the white lens has led scientists to assign causality rather than co-occurrence regarding race. For instance, sickle cell disease has long been assigned as a Black disease. In fact, it is a hereditary disease that effects all people, but notably those who live in, or descend from, malaria-ridden regions. Because of the transatlantic slave trade, many of the Black people in the U.S. share that ancestry. The disproportionately higher rate of sickle cell disease in that group is not about race, but about geographical ancestry (Power-Hayes, A, McGann, P. 2020).
This is called race-based medicine. It’s when doctors use race- which remember is a social construct, not a biological one - in evaluating and diagnosing patients. Thanks to systemic racism, a racial lens can only ever be a biased lens. The consequences of race-based medicine are many, including under medicating people of color for pain, the use of outdated diagnostic tests based on race, and improper diagnosis and treatment. Equally as startling, pharmaceutical companies have even been approved by the FDA for race-specific medications to be marketed to Black patients (Roberts, 2015).
This is how deeply entrenched racism is in our culture, how blind the white frame is. We have a scientific community functioning in a blatantly non-scientific manner, using a parameter that is known to be genetically irrelevant in medical treatment, to the detriment of patients. I don’t believe this is intentional racism. I believe it is internalized racism.
Race-based medicine is, essentially, a convenient out. It lets us avoid the real social causes of these sicknesses – the long-term effects of poverty, racism, disempowerment, police threat. Race may not be biological, but it is arrestingly real as a social construct.
Next I learned about the racial inequities of our criminal justice system. The research and statistics on this subject are extensive; here I provide a simplified overview. In the U.S. Black Americans are killed by police at twice the rate as white Americans (Fatal Force, 2021). Though Blacks make up 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 40% of the prison population. Black males receive prison sentences 19.5% longer than white males. Black people are three times as likely as white people to have their vehicle searched during a traffic stop. And it starts young. Black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled from school. Seventy percent of students arrested or referred to law-enforcement at school are Black or Latino, and juveniles of color make up 67% of the juvenile jail population which is almost twice their share of the U.S. youth population (Hagler, 2015).
I learned that Black parents talk to their kids about race, safety and interacting with the police on a weekly, if not daily basis. As a white mother, how often do I talk to my kids about race? Occasionally. During election cycles, when my reading incites me to educate them or when racial injustice is in the news. This is white privilege.
Let’s talk about privilege. Glennon Doyle gives this very relatable analogy. “Privilege is being born on third base. Ignorant privilege is thinking you’re here because you hit a triple. Malicious privilege is complaining that those starving outside the ballpark aren’t waiting patiently enough” (Untamed, 2020, p. 181).
Examples of white privilege:
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
- I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
- I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge", I will be facing a person of my race.
- If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.
- I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
- I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children's magazines featuring people of my race.
(Peggy McIntosh, year unknown)
I’ll be honest, this education in racism has left me shattered. The small amount of patriotism I had deserted me. I’ve wanted to tear up the constitution, to spit on the words “we the people”, to call bullshit. I’ve wanted to start over, to flee the country. I’ve wanted to shake the shoulders of my white friends and family and yell, “DID YOU KNOW?? Did you know this happened, is still happening?”
I’ve wanted to take the hands of all the Black people I saw, look in their eyes and say the only words I could offer. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
But 2020 brought more devastating insight. Black Americans disproportionately affected and dying of COVID and the onslaught of police killings of unarmed Blacks. The discriminatory responses to peaceful Black Lives Matters protests couldn’t be a starker example of white supremacy at work.
I thank the sacrifice of police officers as a whole but support urgent training to help them understand their conditioned fear, bias and racial profiling. They, too, are products of our white supremacist systems. It’s easy to focus on the crimes of the police– and certainly their actions are more immediate and deadly, and they must be held accountable- but are they really more damaging than the “weathering”, the slow drain of the health and hopes of Black Americans, the prevention of their wealth, the constant barrage on their bodies and minds in the toxic environment the rest of us perpetuate and participate in every day without even knowing it?
The hard truth: our country was built on white supremacy. It was built on the notion that white people are superior to Black people, built that way to secure a free labor force and ensure profitability. To me, what is even more devastating than capturing and enslaving millions of human beings, is the systematic laws that were created to protect the rights of slave owners, prevent uprising and the pursuit of freedom, to legally bind Blacks to a fate of inescapable labor, of being owned, of being born as someone else’s property, of families being separated and children sold off to other owners, of the cruel reality of “seasoning” slaves (a process compared to the inhumane “breaking” a horse) wherein slaves were branded and underwent a host of physical and psychological conditioning to adjust to their life of brutal servitude.
These practices, legalized by our federal government, methodically created chattel slavery which lasted for 246 years, a structure whose echoes still reverberate. A structure from which systemic racism was born, wherein white people hold all the power and control the institutions. It did not end with Emancipation Proclamation, with desegregation or with the election of Barack Obama. We are a country built on a singular, profound discrepancy between Black Americans and white Americans that still exists today.
The real shift to be made here is from thinking about racism as individual race relations, attributing certain traits or values based on someone’s skin color, prejudice and bigotry and moving toward the understanding that racism is structural, institutional, systemic in our nation. Because the idea that we, as individuals, are not racist isn’t enough. In fact, the very fact that most of us don’t know the pervasive and destructive levels of systemic racism is a sign of our privilege. (Me, up until recently.) And if we are defensive about this reality, these facts? Yup, that’s privilege talking.
You know that children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes? It’s about an Emperor obsessed with his clothes and his image. When a man comes to town who claims to weave clothes out of a special fabric invisible to anyone unworthy of his status, the Emperor hires him, thrilled to have his prestige confirmed. When the weaver presents him with a robe he cannot see, the Emperor claims its beauty, trying on the invisible garment to the cheers and applause of his officers and underlings, all of whom wish to validate their own standing. Ego drives everyone to claim they can see it. The Emperor wears his new clothes in a procession through town and all the town folk proclaim its wonder, no one willing to admit they cannot see it. Until finally, a small child points to the Emperor and exclaims, “But he isn’t wearing any clothes!”
This is us. Without realizing it, white people have been conditioned into a racist world view. We don’t know our own histories. We don’t know the poison in our well, the bones that hold us up.
Do you know how Hitler designed his blueprint for ethnic cleansing and his devastating pursuit of a master race? From the American Eugenics movement (Black, 2003). Slavery, Eugenics, the Holocaust. History tells us. But only if we listen.
We are functioning with a green screen behind us, onto which we have allowed white supremacy and those in power (whites) to project whatever truth best suited them. We have been fed and absorbed a whitewashed history. And our egos and unconscious (and sometimes conscious) minds find comfort in a social standing that has created the perfect storm of total and absolute blindness.
It is hard to be counted among the ranks of the oppressors. But whites are not victims. We must tear down this screen and look, really look behind us. So we can understand. So we can repair. It is on us to do.
I know you may at first deny the truth of these facts. I know this is hard to swallow. But countless times we have seen history written by the victor, the narrative controlled by those in power. This is no different. The majority of our country has been sold a faulty bill of sale, an incorrect rendering of our nation’s past and our present.
In many ways, I’m still coming to terms with the reality that those in power have no intention of doing the right thing. That those in charge aren’t interesting in giving up their power. And power is just the word for it. Because when it comes to race and racism, power is the commodity, the goal, the point.
At that liberal, multicultural college I went to, I had a friend (white male from a wealthy family) who used to complain about how he was being discriminated against. How he almost didn’t get into the school because of affirmative action. He was a kind, gentle soul with a good heart who was devoted to this warped belief. Looking back I can see him, like myself, as a product of his environment, his rhetoric a result of his taught “truth”.
This is what calls me to share the information I have gathered. It turns out it is not easy to investigate your own lens when it is shared by the collective, when you see it everywhere you look, when it is all you have known. Few things will be powerful enough to make you question it.
Some essential ingredients: willingness and evidence.
Facts (from 2016-2017):
- Ten richest Americans: 100% white (seven of whom are among the ten richest in the world)
- People who decide which TV shows we see: 93% white
- People who decide which books we read: 90% white
- People who decide what news is covered: 85% white
- People who decide which music is produced: 95% white
- People who directed the 100 top-grossing films of all time, worldwide: 95% white
- Teachers: 82% white
- Full-time college professors: 84% white
- Owners of men’s pro football teams: 97% white (DiAngelo, 2018)
I saw a bumper sticker the other day. This is America. Speak English or go back to where you came from. I stood in stunned silence, mouth guppy-open, staring at the dirty tailgate of that pickup. I wanted to leave a little note that said, excuse me were you here first? Do you understand your ancestors were not the first people here?
Luckily my children tugged me toward our car.
Honestly, the idea of “we the people” and “all men are created equal” feels tinged, polluted to me now. Our country was created on and built upon white supremacy. (And where do women even fit in that pledge?) It is the literal structure of our foundation and what continues to define our social hierarchies. It’s time to tear them down, to build something new.
The only way I see to repair and rebuild is to go back to the beginning, to plant ourselves, all of us, in something richer and more sound.
It is impossible, really, to lift the burdens of such heinous past deeds and injustices. But since we cannot undo the past, we must figure out a way to heal the essential, ragged truth of our origins. And the first step is an honest reckoning.
I am struck by the pervasive and insistent denial of American racism. In Germany, teachings about the Holocaust are part of the school curriculum. It is taught as part of owning the country’s tragic past and to ensure it is never repeated. High school students are required to visit a concentration camp, to know of the horrors done there. With respect and reverence, these sins are acknowledged.
This is the time for white Americans to humbly recognize these truths. Racism, as they say, is a white problem. Acknowledgment is where the solution begins.
In my reading, I keep coming up against the idea of whiteness, the white lens and how white people don’t think of themselves as having a race. It comes up in language. There are Black Americans and Native Americans and Asian-Americans. If you are white, you are just “American”. Often, white people think of themselves as “normal”, which is a mark, of course, of privilege.
It reminds me of how, growing up, I never thought I had an accent. I thought I spoke normally and everyone else had an accent. A British accent. A Southern Accent, an Australian or Irish or Indian accent. Of course I now know that, to the rest of the world, I have an American accent. Though there was never malintent, this ego-centric perspective is a defining component of whiteness. Whiteness is almost no race to us whites, as though we are exempt. As though we aren’t the ones who started this whole thing.
The white lens is often hard for whites to see. I have a white friend who lives in an urban area of California with her Black son. She is currently relocating to provide a more diverse neighborhood for him. She described the invisibility of “white framing”; when she searches for safe neighborhoods, the Google search turns up neighborhoods that are “safe”, which by definition means safe for whites. Those same neighborhoods, because of discrimination, are unsafe for Black people, unsafe for her son.
Another friend, a Black woman, has a son who faces the insidious sort of racism in his predominately white school that most whites have difficulty seeing. If there is a group of boys being noisy at a cafeteria table, only her son will get sent to the principal’s office for “being too loud”. If there is a group of boys running through the halls, again her son gets singled out for “breaking the rules” when other boys are seen as just being boys.
She found herself repeatedly asking the administrators, “What about the other boys? Didn’t you say it was a group of them?” The confused and puzzled looks on their faces confirm that it never occurred to them that singling out the one Black boy hanging out with his white friends might be a problem. This is the everyday reality of parents raising Black children in the U.S., always seen but never truly seen.
She said she would like to be the sort of mom who bakes cupcakes for the staff, gets involved during teacher appreciation week or volunteers in her children’s classrooms, but often her energy is spent fielding disciplinary phone calls, sending emails trying to justify the need for her children to be treated equitably and trying to educate the school about the unjust ways Black children are being disciplined at the school. She finds herself on the defensive, always ready to advocate and on high alert doing her best to protect her children’s hearts from trauma, while often ignoring her own.
These are the sorts of things that smack me over the head when I hear them. These are the sorts of things that make “weathering” so strikingly clear. It’s not hard to see the toll of these repeated experiences at school and with authority figures, the juxtaposition of treatment for white students versus Black students on a kid’s entire self-concept and how that compounds and solidifies and shapes their perspective and their future.
As challenging and uncomfortable as it is to own and see my whiteness (it initially felt automatically racist to me), to not do so renders me “colorblind”. To not see my whiteness means I cannot see my privilege, cannot access the truth of my role in society and so I cannot effect real change.
Ibram X. Kendi, in his book How to be an Antiracist, talks about the fact that not being a racist isn’t enough. In order to bring about transformative change, we must become anti-racist. Part of that is changing how we think, being willing, for the good of the whole, to dismantle systems that might benefit us, understanding privilege and speaking out and redistributing social, political and economic power (Kendi, 2019).
Back when we were fighting for equal rights for gays in our state and nation, facing failure after failure, it was crushing. I would emerge from those votes emotionally wrecked, so disillusioned by the hearts and minds of those I lived among. How could they vote in favor of people like us being fired from our jobs, evicted or disallowed from visiting each other in the hospital? How could they think it was best to deny our children the right to be legally adopted by their non-biological parent?
I was so tired of hearing people say that they loved us but could not vote in favor of those legal protections, often due to religious or ethical reasons or a general loyalty to fear.
The truth is the minority of gay people did not have enough power to effect change. Real change only happened when enough straight allies spoke up and demanded change. When the numbers of people in favor of equal rights were greater than those who weren’t.
Full racial equality follows the same trajectory. With Black people holding neither a majority nor enough positions of power, the solution is an allied approach.
I just keep thinking, what if this was me? I would look around at the people holding all the cards, especially at the ones I could see wanting to be part of the solution, and think, help us. Please.
I’ve asked myself what in me has changed since I began this journey three years ago. Most profound is my awareness of my white lens. I had no idea how white my world was. I now see the lack of diversity everywhere, in TV ads, TV shows that rarely have Black main characters in a “mainstream” series – meaning, intended for whites-, in media images of people in power (CEOs, politicians, billionaires), in the teachers in our school district, in our school’s curriculum.
(My tenth grader is learning about racism in school for the first time, minus a second-grade unit on the civil rights movement and a very adorable play with a reenactment of Rosa Parks holding her seat on the bus and some off-key singing of We Shall Overcome. My seventh grader is learning about slavery right now but, if my older child remembers correctly, the lesson won’t follow with information about what happened after the Emancipation Proclamation and won’t include an impressionable conversation about racism. This means kids rely on their parents to impart this history and, in a white supremacist nation, that is a terrifying dice to roll.)
What I’ve learned is that I’m going to get it wrong. I’m going to misstep and misspeak. I have hard questions to ask myself. Like how am I raising my kids? If kids grow into adults who build lives around what is comfortable and normal for them, then what world have I shown my kids?
The hard truth is, in many ways I have raised my kids how I was raised, teaching racial equality with my words while raising them in a bleached world. We march for justice and are outraged by discrimination and oppression, but we don’t have Black friends who come over for dinner.
Vegetables are great. We just don’t eat them.
In her Netflix comedy show, Not Normal, Wanda Sykes talks about how white people need to have a Black friend.
I asked my Black friend if its racist to seek out a friendship with someone because they are Black. She gave me this example: if I want to lose some weight and get in shape and I have a neighbor who is into fitness, wouldn’t it be okay to seek out that person? Wouldn’t that be life enriching, making a connection based on a shared interest?
And that’s when I realized that was how we became friends. I contacted her after she spoke at a School Board meeting about the unjust things that were happening to her son at school.
Here’s a question I’m currently pondering: how have I hurt others as a result of white supremacy? (Not if, but when.)
And so I invite you to join me. I invite you to learn, to open, to read, to, jointly, begin to see the water we swim in, the bones that structure the body of our nation. Robin Diangelo talks about the freedom that comes with acknowledging our racist conditioning, not defending ourselves and saying, “but that’s not me.” (guilty)
This is opportunity to do the internal work of examining ourselves as well as the larger work of advocacy and change.
And just what is that change?
This has been one of the hardest questions for me to answer. I trust this answer will continue to reveal itself to me as I open toward change. First and foremost, I continue to read. I also put my money where my mouth is and financially support racial justice groups. I am involved in our school district’s equity audit and am pushing for a reexamination of our district’s curriculum of history and racism. Our next generation can only be leaders of equality if we properly and justly educate them.
I am consciously changing the white landscape of our family’s life. By watching movies and TV shows with Black protagonists, by reading books by people of color, by building more diverse friendships, by discussing racism actively and regularly with my kids to help them understand their role in the system and in the solution.
We are all eating vegetables now. Sometimes it's kale. Sometimes it's French Fries. We are a work in progress.
Though I have read little about reparations, at a gut level reparations make total sense to me. I get that one of the arguments against reparations is that it will create more animosity between Blacks and whites, but I cannot really think of a more concrete way to begin to right this powerful wrong. In many ways, it’s like seeking damages for a wrongdoing through a civil lawsuit.
There’s an idea: how about if the descendants of slaves band in a class action suit against the federal government? A legal pursuit of damages.
We can never undo what we did. But we can offer a symbol of atonement, a promise to never, ever repeat these crimes. Money, in itself, cannot heal. But given the massive wealth disparity, it can certainly do something.
Here’s the thing I keep coming back to. While people vary greatly – in personality, language, skin color, culture, preferences, fears, dreams, priorities and beliefs- at the end of the day we share the singular commonality of being human beings.
Sometimes the pain and suffering we have inflicted on Black Americans feels like a brick wall, a burden too large to even conceive of. This is when I remind myself to lean in, to open, to be vulnerable and humble. To learn. To question. To listen. To not need to be right.
Because I can envision a future of equality. I can envision a world of shared power, of collaboration, of celebrated culture and ideas. I look toward a future of positivity and celebration of what it means to be a Black person in America. There are people leading this vision, a movement called Afrofuturism. Check it out (Dumming, 2017).
With social media and technology, our voices have never been louder. It’s time to use our voices, to use our power to demand change. It’s time to educate ourselves.
And when someone says something ignorant about race, even if it’s well intentioned, correct them.
You don’t have to be a jerk. Assume people simply do not know. I didn’t know. I am humbled by my lack of knowing. You can say, “Hey, I’m not sure you have the whole picture there.”
Or when you hear someone’s privilege speaking with defensiveness, hatred or aggression, be bold. Say it like Mary.
To my fellow Black humans -
I heard the term social trauma regarding the effect racism has on people of color. This felt sickeningly right. I want to apologize for the atrocities, for wrongs stacked atop wrongs, compounding and settling like sedimentary rock until they became hardened and fixed, so normal the people around you stopped seeing them.
I want you to know that my heart is broken for all that has happened, but that compassion drives me toward activism, not weakness or pity. I step aside, make space. I happily give up some of mine to share with you. I want you to rise, not just because it’s right and it’s time, but because you have so much to offer this nation, this world. Your gifts, your talents, your voices shall no longer be hidden or silenced. I want you to take your place, to let your truths be known, your power full and expressed.
You deserve safety, opportunity, equality, justice and power. As far as I can see, you deserve far more than these basic rights. You deserve 400 years’ worth of being celebrated, cherished and honored.
This is the drumbeat of my individual activism. It is holding this vision and moving toward it each day in my intentions and actions. I detach from the advantages of my whiteness, stand strong with you and for you as a human hungry for change. I will read. I will listen. I will ask myself hard questions. I will confront injustice when I see it.
And I will love. In the end, it’s the thing I know how to do best. And no one will ever convince me that that isn’t the most powerful tool I have.
You have my promise. And my heart.
*After much reading and debate, I have decided to capitalize the word Black and not capitalize the word white. Though the idea of Black as a race is not a biological, genetic truth of people with dark skin, the term Black refers to a collective group of people with a shared history and identity who have suffered extensive discrimination in the U.S. Equally, it is a more accurate term than African American since not all Blacks are from Africa. Many media outlets have chosen to capitalize white as a result of capitalizing Black, but others have not since the capitalization is used by white supremacist groups. On a personal note, it just feels right to have white be smaller than Black for once.
**a special thank you to my friend Ryan Bachtel for tossing so many resources my way in his own quest for racial justice
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
How to Be an Anti-racist by Ibram X. Kendi
Scene on Radio podcast, Season 2 “Seeing White”
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Harriet, 2019 film
My to-read list:
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
One drop: Shifting the Lens on Race by Dr. Yaba Blay
Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD
From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century
by William Darity and A. Kristen Mullen
Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century by Dorothy Roberts
Biewan, J. (Host). 2017. Scene on Radio: Seeing White. [Audio Podcast]. https://www.sceneonradio.org/seeing-white/
Black, E. (2003, Sept). The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics. Columbian History of Arts and Sciences, The George Washington University: History News Network. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/1796
Bouie, J. (2017, July 12). How we Built the Ghettos. The Daily Beast.
Center for Disease Control (2021, September 10). Infant mortality.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White Fragility. Beacon Press.
Doyle, G. (2020). Untamed. The Dial Press.
Drumming, N. (2017, August 18). We are the Future. This American Life.
Grandin, G. (2015, May 1). Capitalism and Slavery. The Nation.
Hagler, J. (2015, May 8). 8 Facts You Should Know about the Criminal Justice System and People of Color. Center for American Progress.
History. (2021, January 21). Black Codes. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-codes
Kendi, I. (2019), How to Be an Antiracist. One World
McIntosh, P. (year unknown). Quoted in White Privilege Checklist. Arizona State University.
McNamera, R. (2019, April 14). Forty Acres and a Mule. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/forty-acres-and-a-mule-1773319
Noah, T. (2016). Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood. John Murray Press.
Power-Hayes, A., McGann, P. (2020, November 12). When Actions Speak Louder Than Words — Racism and Sickle Cell Disease. The New England Journal of Medicine. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2022125
Roberts, Dororthy. (2015). The Problem with Race-Based Medicine. TedMed.https://www.ted.com/talks/dorothy_roberts_the_problem_with_race_based_medicine/transcript#t-174548
Russell, T. (2021, January 13). Mortality rate for Black babies is cut dramatically when Black doctors care for them after birth. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/black-baby-death-rate-cut-by-black-doctors/2021/01/08/e9f0f850-238a-11eb-952e-0c475972cfc0_story.html
Solzhenitsyn, D. (2020, July 2). Why the Mortality Rate for Black Infants Is So High. The National Review. https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/07/why-the-mortality-rate-for-black-infants-is-so-high/
The Washington Post. (2021, Feb 18). Fatal Force. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/
Trevor, Glenn. (2020, September 16). The Weathering Hypothesis. Digital Momentum.https://thedigitalmomentum.com/the-weathering-hypothesis/
White on Race. (2017-2021). Timeline of Racism in the U.S.https://whiteonrace.org/timeline-racism-us/