Calling all white people, part 9: Seeing and respecting race

Calling All White People, Part 9

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Don’t be the “color-blind” numbskull nor the “race fetishist” weirdo
[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

Speaking on behalf of my fellow white people, I’m going to say that (on the whole) we are pretty awkward about how we deal with racial, ethnic and cultural difference. We tend to fade into the woodwork and not address such things when we should, or we go overboard. It’s not dramatic in either direction all the time (or maybe even most of the time) but it does tend toward the useless and/or counterproductive more than it does true inclusiveness and acceptance of non-whiteness as a perfectly normal thing.

More to the point: We need people to stop saying stupid crap like “I’m color-blind when it comes to race” and we need people to also stop treating people of color (especially folks like Black people and Native American/American Indian people) like zoo exhibits or merely as educational opportunities.

Now, those are pretty much opposite ends of the spectrum. On one end, trying to pretend like race and ethnicity don’t matter and on the other end sort of fetishizing it. But what they share in common is that they often lead to white people committing microaggressions against non-white folks (or other people of difference or marginalization). And as most of us realize when we really think about it, it’s the multitude of “little shit” like mircoaggressions that really wear people down day to day, hour after hour, and often more so than the big crap like being called the N-word. Big stuff can be startling and scary, but it’s probably not what’s gonna contribute to anxiety, high blood pressure and the other things that have often shortened the live of people of color or at least led to them having overall unhealthier lives compared to white people of similar socioeconomic status. Microaggressions matter on a social and societal basis

So, let’s take a few examples of these extremes of white people dealing with (or not dealing with) racial stuff and thinking (wrongly) that they’re doing good.

I don’t see color! – This is perhaps one of the most annoying statements people of color hear from white people who think they’re being all open-minded and progressive. To say that you don’t see color when you deal with people is ignorant unless you actually have a visual or neurological impairment that literally makes you see in black and white or to not be able to somehow differentiate pale skin from darker skin. To be honest, this is a form of erasure. It’s like saying a person’s very identity and background doesn’t matter. But it does. We are many of us defined by our cultural, racial and/or ethnic backgrounds. That doesn’t mean people of color are stereotypes, but it does mean they tend to have various (and varied from person to person) distinct character traits (good, bad or neutral) that come from their racial background and racial experience. Black people, overall, often have different cultural behaviors and language compared to white people, for example. It’s a fact. Someone who is part of an immigrant family or only a generation or two removed from immigration probably has all kinds of cultural differences compared to the average white person. Ignoring that is being purposefully ignorant. When a white person from the North meets a white person from the Deep South, you can best believe that Northern white person is gonna notice differences in the way the other person speaks, reacts to situations, eats, etc. (and vice-versa). So don’t act like you didn’t notice the person in front of you was Black, brown or whatever. Acknowledge and respect differences; don’t pretend they don’t exist or don’t matter. Acceptance is better than mere inclusion.

Oh my gosh, can I touch your hair? – This is a statement that is so often followed by the white person who said it putting their hand into the hair of a Black person without actually waiting for permission. It’s a very specific example, but probably one of the big ones that Black people complain about because it happens to them or to their children, and there are all kinds of variations on this theme. But regardless of whether it’s hair or something else, it’s invasive and creepy. It turns non-white people into something like the human equivalent of zoo animals. It is, in a sense, as fetishistic as the white person who “only dates Black (or Latinx, or whatever) people” (often because they are seen as exotic). People of color and other forms of difference are not interactive exhibits to be handled or ogled at the whim of people in the more mainstream/privileged groups (white, cis-male, hetero, Christian). This is the kind of thing that happens when people think they’re being open-minded and/or progressive, but instead they are making the person’s difference(s) the only interesting or important thing. Turning a person into an object.

You speak so well – This is the example I will finish with. I mean, I could go on and on and on but I just want to give you some starting points to open your own eyes. The previous two examples were on the two ends of the spectrum: “color-blind” vs. “fetishist.” This you speak so well example is often committed by white people not only at both ends of the spectrum but most of them in between. It often comes out in other variations: You write so clearly, you speak so eloquently, you’re a credit to your race, etc. It’s insulting because chances are in the 95% or more range that you would never say the same thing to a white person if you read something they wrote or listened to them speak publicly or argue a point in a discussion. It is insulting because underlying it is the suggestion: “Most of the people who look like you are lesser in skill than us white people but you’re different.” Under the guise (and often the honest intention) of sincere flattery, you’ve just not only insulted most of the person’s fellow race/ethnicity but also “othered” them…set them apart from everyone else and made them out to be something rare and not belonging to any “normal” group. It’s one thing to tell a person of color, for example, after a talk they’ve given, “That really moved me” or “I learned a lot from hearing you speak”…that’s often fine. But that’s because it’s the same kind of thing you would say to a white person who spoke. Don’t give the backhanded compliments, though, spiced up with racism or bigotry, however unintentioned it might be.
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When the work of change becomes a tiresome burden, or Racial justice reality

I have a confession. I am tired. After years of writing about racism in both Maine and America, combined with several years of running an anti-racism organization, I am tired. There is also the pesky fact that racism affects me personally as a Black woman. As a white colleague, author Debby Irving, once pointed out: It’s rare that I get a break from my work.

This work is the work but it is also my life. Which means that I spend a great deal of time pondering how we can move the needle on race in this country and beyond in a positive direction. It means that even when I am “off work,” racism has a habit of rearing its head at the most inopportune time, whether that is when trying to enjoy a meal, take a walk, check out a dating site or just exist. In a country built on white supremacy and the dehumanization of Black people, there is always a situation or person nipping at my existence to remind me that I am a Black woman in a world where whiteness as the ultimate thing is now gasping for air but not fully on life support.

While the narrative is shifting and greater numbers of white people are starting to delve into examining white privilege and tackling what it means in the larger picture, what’s become clear to me is that we need more work. In the past several years as we have seen the mainstream media pay greater attention to Black death at the hands of law enforcement, we have seen organizations like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and others spring up in an attempt to educate and activate white folks to fight against racism.

In theory, these organizations are very much needed, but at the human level it gets messy because despite “good” intentions and desires, we are dealing with real humans and, well, as I am fond of saying: Humans are messy. As we all grapple with the reality of a Trump administration and the turning back of the clock on issues related to immigrants and civil rights, now more than ever, white people do need to activate and organize. But the challenge as I see it from my perch is how to do it in a way that is responsible and accountable and doesn’t cause harm.

Despite greater numbers of white folks understanding what is going on, in too many instances whiteness perpetuates itself and causes harm. In too many instances, People of Color are erased and what really happens is a circle jerk of white folks who get to claim the moral high ground compared to, say, a white nationalist. Which in the larger picture isn’t saying much. Being better than a metaphorical Uncle Rusty the Racist or real-world Richard Spencer is not how we are going to dismantle white supremacy and create a racially just and equitable world.

We have multiple uncomfortable realities happening simultaneously, and the very real reality is that many white people who are starting to get it are doing it on the backs on people of color. People of color are too often asked to provide free labor to be a part of white people’s learning which, despite the learning that occurs, creates the very real continued inequities that seem inherent in racial justice spaces. There is also the request by people of color to have white people be accountable to POC [people of color] in their organizing spaces, but no one quite being sure of what that means. Does that mean to follow the orders of POC in the work? Does it mean working in concert? Everyone has a vision of what the work looks like but at this moment, that vision is not shared, in part because despite the language and goals we do share there is too much about the work that is not shared. However, if we are to affect real change, we need a shared language along with a shared vision and mission. We also need to understand that today’s racial justice work stands on the shoulders of those who have been working already and to create inclusive and intergenerational spaces that ultimately will serve us all.

One of the barriers that prevents racial justice work from being as effective as we would like it to be is that too much of our existence is siloed. How can we create a unified mission and vision when rarely do we have true trust amongst ourselves nor are we truly part of the same community? We can’t; instead, we pay lip service and dilute our own work with the type of busy work that keeps us running from protest to meeting where we work in reaction to the moment rather than creating a proactive vision.

As I struggle with doing the work in a climate that is filled with tension, what’s clear is that so much of the progress we think we have been making is performative and not nearly as progressive as would like to believe. And at this moment in time, we need more than the performative. Otherwise, we burn out rather than burning down the walls of white supremacy. Our collective survival in this moment will involve acknowledgement of our collective humanity and in a nation built on divisions, that is easier said than done. Change requires not only a head shift but a heart shift, and that is a harder place to reach. 
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On mindfulness and change, or BGIM musing

In 2008, I stepped into my first yoga class, a yoga nidra class to be exact. I wish that I could say that I was seeking spiritual enlightenment, but the truth is that after fifteen-plus years of suffering from panic attacks that had a habit of sneaking up on me at the most inopportune time (giving a lecture to a class  while working as an adjunct instructor and having to be taken out by paramedics, to name just one of those exact moments).

It had become clear that anxiety and panic were starting to take a toll on my life and that I needed to face the issue head-on. While medication was most certainly an option, I was uncomfortable with the idea of using medication before exhausting all other options, and my research revealed that yoga was possibly one way to manage the panic attacks that had plagued me for years.

I wish that I could say that I went to that first class and left feeling like a brand new person; actually, I left the class thinking: “What kind of woo-woo-ass bullshit did I just participate in?” However, I am stubborn and figured I would give it an honest chance before committing to medication. After weeks of classes, I did experience a shift. I learned to feel my body and that in truly feeling my body, I could feel the signs of tension building that would lead to a full-on attack. I also found that combined with mindfulness around my breath, I could lessen the strength and duration of the panic attacks.

Over time, I would add on full-length ashtanga yoga classes and over the years, the frequency and duration of the attacks dropped sharply. A life without fear of what had been the omnipresent panic attacks became a reality and my love of yoga grew. I started putting the cost of yoga classes into the budget like a regular bill because $100 a month seemed a small price to pay for reclaiming my life. Despite my professional life as a non-profit executive director, I decided to study to become a yoga teacher because my one issue with yoga had always been how overwhelmingly white the discipline is, especially in Maine.

In 2013,I started the process to become a yoga teacher and I also applied for a new job out of state as the executive director of a small anti-racism organization. I was hired in the fall of 2013 with a start date of January 2014. Life felt good. I was a totally immersed yogi, practicing every day, developing strength that I had never known, looking at major life changes and most importantly keeping the anxiety at bay that had almost destroyed my life.

I started my position at Community Change Inc. in January 2014 and despite the plan to move to Boston, life happened. My marriage was in a state of emergency and I knew that if we were to break up, there was no way I could support myself in Boston on my lone income. So I made the painful decision, much to the consternation of my board of directors, to commute from Maine. Initially I was taking the train to Boston three to four times a week. With a 4 a.m. wake-up for the 5:20 train and a return home at 7:00 on a good night, my daily yoga practice fell by the wayside. During that time, I remembered a lesson that my yoga teacher said often: “What happens on the mat mirrors what happens off the mat and in many ways, your time on the mat is about preparing for life often the mat.” At times those words rang hollow yet they sat with me and over time, they would become my lifeline.

In August of 2014, I was eight months into a position that at the time wasn’t going well as financially stabilizing the organization was my key priority. Yet the 125-mile distance between my office and home meant I couldn’t put in the 10- to 12-hour days needed to connect with our organizational base to build my support. My marriage was growing even more strained, it seemed like every other week I was battling a bug as my resistance was down, and frankly I felt like I had made a horrible mistake in taking the job. Then Michael Brown was killed and the Ferguson uprising happened, people were starting to pay attention to the gross racial inequities that were still very real and I found myself thrust into a position of needing to truly guide my organization that has the distinct honor of being the oldest, continuously running anti-racism organization in the country. As the head of the organization, people wanted community and they wanted answers. I was 41 at the time, which is still pretty young by the standards of non-profit directors, and…well…it was a time period where I learned a lot about myself and my limits and pushing through them. I also learned that I desperately needed yoga to stay above the fray but the limitations of 24 hours in a day meant that the almost daily time I needed on the mat to keep my anxiety at bay simply was not possible. Instead, I went to class as I could and went further into breathwork and meditation even on a moving train to keep my equilibrium.

I juggled all the balls until Dec of 2014 when, at a much needed massage, my massage therapist discovered an unusual lump on my back. A few weeks later after developing strange sensations on the right side of  my back and shoulder, I went to my general practitioner who assured me that the lump was a benign lipoma and that while surgery was an option, doing nothing was also an option. Given the realities of my personal life and work at that time, I opted to do nothing which in hindsight was a horrible decision, as I would spend the next year living with discomfort. Discomfort that started to affect my yoga practice. When I did make time to get on the mat, I couldn’t do a full primary series practice without feeling like I was about to die. In early 2015, the decision was made to separate after 18 years of marriage and 20 years of being a couple. It was also the year that I had to shit or get off the pot with regard to my day job and either get the organization stabilized or watch a 40-something-year-old organization die on my watch, which would be tantamount to career suicide.

My life was messy and complex, as was my yoga practice; then to add fuel to the fire, given the nature of my work, increasingly I was being called on to show up both locally and regionally to talk about race. However, as messy as it all was, I learned a lot about life that can only come from lived experience. I learned that the time on the mat does indeed imitate life off the mat. I learned that in my work, the key to change was compassion and creating space for people to not be perfect.

Anti-racism work is ultimately about people; yes, we are fighting a system called white supremacy, a hideous system, yet systems involve people and that’s where the compassion comes in and the space to fuck it up. We can know the lingo, we can understand how oppression works in our heads and how utterly wrong it is but change happens when our hearts and heads connect and form a union.

2015 would eventually end but not before I saw myself leave our family home and start over in a apartment that pretty much could fit inside 2.5 rooms of the house that had long been my home. By the end of 2015, I could barely do a single sun salutation without wincing and my organization ended both our fiscal and calendar year with a deficit which, when you are still a relatively new executive director, isn’t ideal. Yet I persisted.

In early 2016, I would finally have surgery to remove the fast growing lipoma which was taking over my life, and the recovery period provided a much-needed break to clear my head. I would return back to the office with more compassion for myself and my limitations and others. Learning compassion was a hard lesson coming but one I needed and one that continues to resonate deeply with me and which now spills over in my work.  I also learned compassion on the mat, for when I was finally cleared to return to yoga, the strength I had built up over the years had atrophied and poses I once could master in my sleep were hard to hold. Yet I would end 2016 on a high professional note as I saw our new programming structure come together, a successful partnership with The Privilege Institute form and the first ever White Privilege Symposium in our region, and lastly an erasure of the financial deficit. Organizational stability was no longer a dream but a real reality. 

2016 became the year that America lost her compass and the compassion that I had developed in myself allowed me to extend grace to people whose views I did not share and yet develop a common bridge to connect. I would later see seeds of change developing in people who once doubted the existence of white supremacy.  I would over time see my very own home yoga community start openly discussing white supremacy and how it harms. Yet it was the result of years of putting in the time with people.

Right now, I am standing at a crossroads as I see the anger that is driving so much of the dialogue on both sides and knowing so many other change makers who are exhausted at what at times feels like deliberate obtuseness on the side of others. Yet it took America hundreds of years to get here and while it may not take hundreds of years to right the ship, it is going to take real time to dismantle the systems of oppression that unfairly burden all without white skin; thus, we must work harder than ever especially in the era of Trump.

Education, activism and organizing are all key to creating systemic change but increasingly I believe that we need to create space for beloved community and mindfulness in our toolboxes of social change. Beloved community combined with collective and individual mindfulness need to undergird our education, activism and organizing efforts. We can’t let others off the hook but when we touch and feed our own bodies and souls with these tools, it strengthens us to create space that allows for the mistakes that will happen along the way. As for me, I am slowly rebuilding my yoga practice and I am up to a few minutes a day on the mat most days and allowing the space that I create on the mat to guide me off the mat during these unprecedented times.
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If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.