La La How The Life Goes On

White Folk

Posted on: March 3, 2016

Hello. My name is Mama and I’m a member of White Folk. I was raised white. I did white things. I came of age white. I have an understanding of our country and our world from a white perspective.

As a result of having children who are not white I have had many a rude awakening. One might argue I ought to have had all this Woke business under my belt before I was ever entrusted with children of color to raise. But when we know better we do better, right?

So please allow me to share some of my larnins with you. Please be prepared to feel uncomfortable. Please resist the urge to explain why you feel my conclusions and experiences are mistaken. Please simply, honestly, openly, just situate your heart and your mind in a place that allows you to hear what I am saying without needing to judge it, question it, litigate it or debunk it. In short, I am asking you to humbly allow for the possibility that even if something has never been your experience or a part of your world that it very well still might be true and real for others. To live in the spirit of humility that understands your experience in the world may not be the universal one.

One.

Racism exists. Racism = Prejudice + Power. And it exists. When the levers of society are designed to maintain power structures of one race over another, that is racism. Whether by intent or neglect, if redlining occurs, if job seekers with certain-sounding names are passed over, this is racism. Racism exists.

Two.

“Reverse racism” does NOT exist. Inter-racial prejudice and bigotry certainly does. There are countless examples of people of different ethnicities hating on each other. But until an Asian or Black guy has the power to deny mortgages to entire neighborhoods of white people in multiple counties and states for decade after decade, I’m going to go with the Nope.

Three.

Living as an American of color is often a very different experience than living as a white American. My children (who have been American citizens since infancy) are still complimented on their English by strangers and asked where they are “from.” Yet the answer “Boston” does not seem to satisfy. You know why?  Because Asians are The Perpetual Foreigner. If you are honest, you will admit that you are sometimes surprised when you hear an Asian person in the grocery line speak in perfect English with a local accent, because some little part of your lizard brain was thinking they were not from here. It’s okay to admit it because it’s a very real phenomenon.

When you see a large Black man in the hospital corridor and a little part of you is surprised to see that he’s the cardiologist and not the janitor. Or worse, a guy coming to mug you. It’s okay to admit it because it’s a very real phenomenon.

When you see the Indian/South Asian woman at the JCC or your temple and you are momentarily confused by her presence at the Askenazipalooza. Then you see her white Jewish husband and biracial kids and go, “oh…” But your first thought was she took a wrong turn on her way to somewhere else. It’s okay to admit it because it’s a very real phenomenon.

When you see a Black woman in a store and you assume she works there even though she isn’t wearing a nametag. It’s okay to admit it because it’s a very real phenomenon.

When you go to the valet station and mindlessly hand your Toyota Celica keys to the Indian surgeon in a tuxedo who is waiting for his $50,000 car. It’s okay to admit it because it’s a very real phenomenon.

But what this very real phenomenon is, is a subconscious notion that American = white. That professional = white. That Jewish = white. That the norm = white, and people who deviate from that norm need to explain themselves to your satisfaction.

But they don’t. What we need to do as “decent white folk” is recognize these subconscious assumptions in our heads. Then we need to root them out, examine them and discard them. I will not lie when I tell you that this sh*t is WORK. But it’s not more work than living with this kind of BS every day as an American citizen who is not white. (Every single one of those examples happened to people I know. Not one is fiction–and not one happened just once. Or twice. These are regular occurrences in these post-racial United States of America).

Four.

Pointing out racism, discussing racism, trying to end racism—is NOT racism. The corollary being that pointing out that an act or statement is racist or bigoted is NOT the same as “calling me a racist.” When I was in college I made an off-color joke about the Chinese food delivery guy (karma is a bitch, Mama). My Black friend stopped me and called me out. My first reaction was TOTAL DEFENSE. I am not racist! I am not a bigot! I don’t have a racist bone in my body! Ask anyone! Then ANGER. How DARE you call me racist! You’ve got some nerve! You don’t know anything about me! Then DEFLECTION. Well, it’s not like you have never made fun of people. And geez where is your sense of humor? Then INTRANSIGENCE. I refuse to acknowledge that you may have a point because doing so means I have to say I’m wrong and I’m actually now kind of embarrassed about what I said and good god do we have to do this? Now? Tonight? Ugh. Then ACCEPTANCE. Damn was that a really ugly thing to say and do and think. Almost more disturbing that it was so thoughtless and subconscious and “without intent.”

And therein lies the rub. My definition of bigotry and racism was a hatred for people of a different race or ethnicity. And I felt no such hate of any kind, so when I was called out for bigotry I resisted mightily. But when you expand the definition–and indeed–expand your heart toward a place of love and decency and kindness and humility and respect–  you know that you did or said or thought a sh*tty thing to and about another human being based on nothing but his race. And the realization hurts because we all want to be good and decent people. We want to think well of ourselves. We want to think we are walking the walk. So when someone calls you out, it sets off every alarm in your being to resist the characterization.

Five.

White Woman Socialization and Fragility (also known as Respectability Politics) is a thing. WWS is the belief that “you get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” That we just need to “agree to disagree.” That “there is no need to use that language in this discussion.” Every last one of these I attest exists because I have at some point in my past used them. They are tools of controlling controversial discourse. If you say something in a way that offends me, I get to ignore your message. If our conversation turns heated and I get uncomfortable, I get to make it all nice-nice again with “agree to disagree.” If you use bad language or feel strongly about something I get to discredit your message due to “namecalling.” Again: every single one of these is how we were socialized to communicate and when we interact with people from other upbringings, we fall back on them for comfort and control. White Woman Fragility is the practice of claiming to be “attacked” or “bashed” when confronted with facts not in support of our argument. It’s a form of deflection, because if we are now spending our time talking about how we really didn’t mean to hurt your feelings and of course my list of evidence debunking your theory on drug addiction was not a personal attack on you? Well, then, we don’t have to discuss all that nasty drug stuff anymore, do we? We can get to recentering the discussion on you and your feelings rather than on the uncomfortable stuff we were talking about 5 minutes ago.

Sometimes difficult topics must be addressed, and while it would be great if we could discuss emotional topics without emotion that just ain’t gonna happen. So if you find yourself in the middle of a discussion of race relations in our nation and our world, resist the urge to keep it nice. Resist the urge to miss the message for the messenger. Resist the urge to decide that YOUR method of communicating is the best and that YOUR needs must come first. Sometimes people speak from a place of pain that will make you uncomfortable.  Make the choice to sit in that discomfort and hear and believe the message. Even if what you hear makes no sense to you as a person who has not walked in the other person’s shoes and skin.

Six.

Understand that there will be things you just will not understand. Back in the day had I heard Donald Drumpf talk sh*t about China or Muslims or Mexicans I am pretty sure I’d have been all, “pffft. It’s just talk. Settle down everybody.” But now that the human souls closest to my heart and for whom I would take 1000 bullets are included in his nativist ramblings, I just cannot discount his remarks and how they might influence his followers. I feel genuine FEAR for my children. Yes, FEAR. You can tell me to not worry all you want. You can think I’m over-reacting all you want. But you don’t walk in my shoes. You don’t walk in my children’s skin. You and I don’t live with the existential threats that face our fellow American citizens when passions like these are inflamed. You and I don’t live this reality. Imagine a politician discussing the need to regulate and expel Catholics. Especially those Italian ones. And I, a Jew, told you to settle down. It’s not like he means it. It’s not like it can actually happen. I’m sure you and your babies are just fine. You would rightly give me all the side-eye you could muster on behalf of your children. You would want and expect your non-Catholic friends to rally around you and protect you and shut down that politician. You would worry about your kids going to the mall or, hell, just walking down the street. You would have no guarantee that some awful follower of that politician wouldn’t decide your kid is not American enough. And no amount of me telling you you are crazy would erase that fear. But if these things aren’t usually said about you it is hard if not impossible to put yourself in that place of fear and concern and worry. But we need to, on behalf of our fellow citizens who need us.

Seven.

The only way out of our long, fraught race issues is through. There is no way to surmount it without tearing that scab off, feeling the pain, and working to heal it. What it requires is you believing a fellow human when they say the cut hurts even if you don’t understand why. When they say we bear collective responsibility for the injury and the scab in the first place. When they say that if you don’t have the cut you don’t get to tell them it doesn’t hurt. When they scream in pain you don’t get to demand they pipe down in the interests of politeness.

The only way out is through. And the only way through is with humility, decency and ruthless honesty.

 

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