Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Can we talk?

Just in case you don't know me already: I'm a privileged white woman. And I want to write about the process of recognizing privilege, racism, sexism, etc. I don't think we talk about it as much as we should. There's one bunch of us who think that the way to avoid being racist is to be unaware of racism (called being "color blind") and there are others of us who are committed to social justice who don't really want to talk about the experience of coming aware.

Or maybe I should just speak for myself.

I read, in the New York Times I believe, about a man with a sort of amnesia. He had a surgery in his twenties which destroyed his ability to make new memories. Never being able to remember more than a minute or so of the past meant that he lived always in the present. His journal showed the pain of that experience. It was filled with assertions that NOW he was awake, and denials of having been awake when he wrote the previous entries. You know that moment when you "come back" after getting lost in a day dream? When you find yourself suddenly aware of your surroundings and you have to say, " I'm sorry, can you repeat what you said?" Yeah, that was his life.

And I think about him and his journals when I have another moment of "awakening" to privilege and injustice.

'Cause I think I'm pretty cool. I don't say that I'm not a racist, I say that I am anti-racist. I officially get that being anti-racist/sexist/heterosexist/etc means being aware of my own attitudes, being ready to listen when it is pointed out to me that what I did or said was something that I shouldn't have done or said.

I don't like that though. Each time I become aware of another layer I want to say, "Okay, I wasn't awake before, but I am now. Now I am really and truly awake." I feel embarrassed that I didn't see it before, that it had to be pointed out to me, that for years I have said or done something I now regard as IDIOTIC. I don't like feeling ashamed, and I want to get back to feeling like a good person, committed to social justice, helping others to see their errors of their ways, making the world a better place. (Do you hear the superhero music?)

So it is difficult to talk about these experiences because I don't want to admit I still have them.

It is also difficult to talk about it because how I feel I should talk about it varies depending on whom I am talking to. For instance let's say I am talking to one of my sons who happens to be gay shortly after having said something stupidly heterosexist. The act of telling him that I feel ashamed and that I hate feeling ashamed and that the whole experience is just ICKY, would be itself an act for which I should be ashamed. Just the thought of doing that embarrasses me. I should ask him to make me feel better about feeling bad about still being hetersexist?

But maybe I should be talking to other people who share my privilege. I would like other privileged white folks to talk to me. I want to every now and then to go a support group for recovering bigots. I want to confess that I read a blog post about why some image was racist and when I first looked at it I thought "what's wrong with that?" I want to tell someone that I picked up a novel that used to be one of my favorites and this time when I got to the part where she says that the people who work for them (people who were not white) were "like members of the family and so loyal to us because we treated them so well" I wanted to vomit. I want to confess that I spent half an hour feeling irritated that I couldn't enjoy the novel, wondering if there were any blasted novels that I could read and just enjoy without having to think about the pervasiveness of bigotry, before I realized that maybe the biggest problem here wasn't that I didn't have guilt-free escapist literature ready-to-hand.

I want to confess these things for the same reason I want to confess that I ate half a pan of brownies at Weight Watchers. I want someone to know of the mistake, still acknowledge me as a decent human being, and encourage me to keep trying. I want to do it at a WW meeting because I do have the sense to know that complaining about overeating to someone who has trouble getting enough to eat would be narcissistic (actually worse, but I don't use those words on the blog).

I also want to confess it because I have this crazy hope that it will be helpful to the white folks who find themselves saying, "I'm not a racist!" Maybe it would help them to know that people like me, people who take pride in fighting against injustice find that digging out the racism in ourselves is a job of a lifetime, that we all have to work through those moments of shame.

I want to say "Listen, the other day I got mad at the dog and I said, 'you cottonpickin' animal' and then I realized what I had said and I was embarrassed. I don't think I had used that word since I was a kid, but I'm not sure. I never thought about what it meant, it was just one of the fake swear words we were allowed to say as children, right up there with 'fiddle sticks!' This racism stuff is deep in our culture and in our psyche and fighting it is on-going. It is hard. The next time someone tells you that what you said or did was racist just say, 'I'm sorry.' Okay? If you don't understand why it was racist then just remember to bring it up at the next meeting of 'Recovering Bigots Anonymous' and we will work it out together."

I don't want it to be this way. I don't want it to be a process. I want to say, "I was still asleep then, but NOW I am really awake."

But it doesn't work that way.


  1. I never thought of the cotton pickin' thing before. Interesting.

    I truly love people. I am a people loving person, but it's hard for me to come face to face with what I truly believe about race or ethnicity or social class. I just didn't come face to face with it very often I suppose....but now that I am working in a very public arena with families from all kinds of backgrounds and I find myself challenging my thought process more often...and I do challenge myself, which I suppose is a good thing. For example, when I encounter families requiring financial assistance from the state, it's hard for me not to jump to preconceived ideas about their life style. My husband and I are considering adopting a sibling group right now, and it's hard for me not to dwell on the fact that we live in an area of the country where you can go a week or more without seeing someone of a different skin color, and would children of a different skin color feel comfortable here? Would we feel comfortable with children of a different color? Lots of questions and thinking, but like you said, it's important to be awake.

    Thanks for your openness.

  2. Oh great, now I want to burn my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and eat half a pan of brownies.

    Our whole lives are about learning that our childhood worlds were limited and finding our new norms. Race and gender and sexuality and - here it comes - class, and the list goes on, are just broad stroke categories to define the differences between our small world norms and the big world variations. And no matter how much we'd like to think that we can get past the idea of viewing any other person as the "other", that's the curse of sentience. Cogito ergo secreta est and that goes for everybody else on the planet, too and that's the hell of it.

    So you're ok. We understand. You see the world through your eyes. You have transcended your childhood norms, and the limits of your new norms aren't a sign that you're a bad person, it's simply that limits are intrinsic to norms. And don't think that you can ever wake up and have a truly unlimited idea of the way the world works, because you can't, not in this life. You aren't omniscient. You aren't God. Keep learning and don't beat yourself up about it.

  3. I love this post! Do you read the blog racialicious?? If not, you should!

  4. Yeah. Me Too. Great post.

  5. It tears me up inside when I hear racist remarks come out of my mouth. "White trash" is one that took me by surprise.

    I want to be color blind, but that's even worse, because skin color should be seen, not ignored.

    It isn't easy, but talking about it helps to bring it to the forefront. Thanks for the post.

  6. I attend a liberal law school in a very liberal town in the Pacific Northwest. Today in a search & seizure criminal law class class of mostly white, privileged law students we discussed whether or not it was valid to allow police to profile.

    Several students shared their anecdotes about being pulled over because they had a scruffy car or some other reason and talked about the indignities of being detained for half an hour while their cars were searched. I imagine a lot of us were thinking about how different this conversation would be if the room was full of different looking people. I guarantee the conversation would not have been anecdotal.

  7. Self actualization is such a journey and I join you in wishing I could just arrive and being embarrassed at my past mistakes. I have a great book called "The Heart of Whiteness".

  8. Ummm...not to throw a wrench in the works, but my family still uses "cotton pickin" and with good reason- my Dad's family consists of Irish American immigrants (with a smattering of Native American genes thrown in periodically) who were sharecroppers, indentured servants, and yes, field hands/slaves. White ones. Considering the fair white skin, blue eyes and red hair that dominate the gene pool, very pale white ones. And yes, even my dad and his siblings have clear memories of picking cotton down South.

    And, as the product of the South, I can say that there are many issues that are not as clearly defined as they appear to those outside the culture. I'll post more later- but keep in mind- sometimes it furthers racism more if people are continually focused on it, rather than learning to focus on the individual.

  9. Thank you Yondalla!

    That was a great post, and I really appreciate the concept of anti-racism. I know I'm not perfect, but the concept is important to me, and this is a good way to express it.

    My daughter, at about age 8, was devastated to find out that there were places that people were discriminated against because of the color of their skin. She knew that happened in olden times, but not NOW. I didn't know whether to point out that racism was even closer than she realized, or let her go on in peace.

    It is always going to be a journey for me. But I hope she doesn't have as far to go.

  10. Anonymous10:09 AM

    As a foster parent myself, I was surprised to discover racism within myself. I found my first placement was a newborn black baby. I immediately recognized that I had some "issues" because I surprised that he was just like a white baby. That being said, I wanted to adopt him. I now realize this would not have been best for him though. My brother's made it clear that they didn't believe that black people were equal. He deserved to have a family who adored him!

    I did find myself daydreaming after that the world could be colorblind...wishing...

    I guess I have a different perspective though. I do not feel like my color defines me. I do not understand the perspective that "black" is who "they" are. Obviously, not all African Americans feel like this but many...perhaps even most do. Why? Why is their color, their definition? I personally think character and personality should define a person. Of course this is heavily influenced by one's culture, but I'm speaking of family culture not of a racial culture. I really do not think that one's color has a culture.

    Okay...sorry for the rambling but you struck my philosophical chord, lol


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