After the turning point, Part 1

Losing a friend because I was steeped in white supremacy (and didn’t even see it) was the beginning of my turning point in racial justice work; she showed me that my “writing for white people” in a newspaper, however good my intentions were, had the impact of harming people of color. Without realizing it, I erased them entirely from my consideration, as if they didn’t matter. It was this new perspective, that I was much more racist than I realized, that was transformative.

So, what did I do next?

Before I answer that question, I need to be clear: I do not think I have somehow passed into “the good ones” group in terms of racial justice. I want it understood that I’m talking about my own personal journey. I also do my best to share in community with others who recognize the value of inner racial justice work for us white people. The fear of seeming like a “know-it-all” has kept me quiet in many ways. So, I’m going to share with you what I did after that pivotal moment with the caveat that I think what I’m doing is the bare minimum of what it means to be a decent human being. I’ll write here about the time immediately following our conversation, and I’ll write later about the more recent past, present, and future actions.

One reason I spoke with my former friend is because I was expanding my spiritual life. In my spiritual practice, built in great part on a twelve-step program of recovery from substance use disorders, I examine my past and identify where I have harmed other people. I approach those people, asking if they would be willing to talk with me about my making amends. The conversation I referred to in my last post was related to the growth of my spiritual life. At that time, I was doing my best to flow in life, rather than trying to force change; doing those things I knew were under my control, and accepting those things (most things) that weren’t.

Something happened in that conversation. It felt like blinders had been ripped away from my eyes. For decades, I had been involved in some way or another in social justice work, including anti-racism work. In that conversation it hit me that I lived inside whiteness (see “Key Features of Whiteness here: http://www.aclrc.com/whiteness). I began some very uncomfortable self-searching. I’m not exaggerating when I say I wasn’t sure who I was. If I could be this wrong about myself, where else was I also unaware or wrong?

I’ve mentioned Rev. angel Kyodo williams here before, and I will be forever grateful to the synchronicity that introduced me to her work at just this time. Because of her words I could take what I had learned from spiritual leaders like Thích Nhất Hạnh and practice examining my whiteness with those tools. I was able to hold concepts I felt were deeply in conflict—that I believed with all my heart in racial justice, and that I was also moving in the world causing harm to people of color—in my awareness at the same time. I connected spiritually in a way that freed me from the fear that had been blocking me.

For all of the research I had done about the life experiences of Black and brown bodied people, for all of my understandings of how systems in our country were set up to keep them down, it was terrifying to see that I wasn’t really comfortable with what might be required of me. If I really want to dismantle white supremacy, what might I have to do? How might I have to change? What might I have to give up?

In the last three years, I have incorporated my inner learnings and some answers to these questions into an ongoing spiritual practice that involves actions in the private and public spheres. I find the more I practice, the more effective I am. However, one of the biggest lessons in this is that I must shed the idea of getting “good” and “not racist” anytime soon. I can’t. It’s been a lifetime and generations of living in whiteness. I can’t unlearn it quickly. In my next post, I will write about the day-to-day and longer term actions I take to unlearn whiteness and work toward racial justice.


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My racism turning point

It required a lot of emotional pain for me to begin understand how, as Rev. angel Kyodo williams says, “love and justice are not two. without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.”

For a few decades, I haven’t been entirely clueless about racism. From the 1990s to the 2010s, I began to understand that I couldn’t help but be racist because of our country’s historical foundation of patriarchal unchecked capitalism built on a system of discrimination based on a social construction of race, e.g. white supremacy. I think I was a little proud of the fact that I’d figured out that that I wasn’t a bad person; that as a white person I couldn’t help being racist. I liked my willingness to be bold, to say things we “weren’t supposed to say,” as white people. Of course, admitting my racism as a white person in a white supremacist society didn’t really carry many risks. Some white people closed their emotional/social doors, but for the most part, people thought I was “brave” for speaking out. There were more benefits than costs for me and I went along like that for many years.

In my whole 49-year-old life, I’ve had two close friends who are people of color. I don’t write about this much because intimate cross-racial friendships are not simple, and I feel deeply protective of these bonds. However, sharing about my process of trying to face my addiction to white supremacy is part of what I do in this space, so, with the permission of the person involved, I’m going to tell you just a bit.

About 10 years ago, my racism—my whiteness, the way I moved in the world—cost me one of the best friendships I’d ever had. As I said, I had been speaking out about racism for years and, as far as I knew, that boldness was mostly doing more good than harm. I had been writing an opinion column in the Bangor Daily News since 2012. In July of 2013, when I decided to use Trayvon Martin’s murder to point out to white people like me that we need to face our own racism, my column was harsh.

In the column, I start out by revealing some overtly racist thoughts I had worked to admit to myself I’d had in passing in my lifetime. I had recently recognized that trying to quiet racist thoughts (that I didn’t even know I was having!) was blocking me from being relaxed or normal around Black people; an idea I’ve shared in this space. I was referencing what Shankar Vedantam’s calls the “‘hidden brain’…shorthand for a host of brain functions, emotional responses, and cognitive processes that happen outside our conscious awareness but have a decisive effect on how we behave.” I knew the first lines of my column would be shocking, and I used those words intentionally. I wanted to draw in readers in the same way people “rubberneck” as they pass a car wreck on the highway. This was a mistake.

Before the column was published, I thought about letting my one friend who was Black (I hadn’t yet met my other friend who is a person of color) know about it. It was going to be startling, I knew. But, I reasoned with myself, with the exception of the first extreme couple lines, she and I had discussed and mostly agreed about the rest of the content. It wouldn’t be too big of a deal, I thought.

It was a big deal.

I broke our friendship. I hurt my friend deeply. It was one of the most painful losses I’ve ever endured, and there was nothing I could do about the hurt I had caused. I thought I understood why she was so upset. I thought it was because what I said was disgusting and racist and that she’d been blindsided that I could have such ugly thoughts. And, to be sure, that was part of it. But I didn’t come close to a full understanding of the harm I had done until that ex-friend was gracious enough to talk with me about it a few years later.

What I missed after making that terrible mistake in 2013 was how much my view of the world centered on whiteness. I reasoned that most of the readers of the paper as white—“Maine is a white state” was a phrase I still said in those days—dismissing the possibility that any readers would be Black or brown. The truth is, beyond a twinge wondering if my friend might be “startled,” I never seriously considered what impact my words might have on Black readers. I thought of myself as writing “to white people.” But I only thought about how white people might respond to my column; how Black or brown people might feel didn’t cross my radar in any significant way. What a selfish and self-centered asshole I was.

The loss of this friendship, and her generosity in taking the time to share with me just how I had harmed her, helped me start moving forward again in my path toward liberation. Over decades, I had tried to be a better white person and tried to work toward racial justice, but I hadn’t recognized the spiritual sickness my addiction to white supremacy was causing in my heart. The cognitive load required to stay in denial about racism, both systemic and personal, kept me from being fully human. I hurt someone I loved, and quite possibly I hurt other people, too. I was doing harm where I wanted to help because I was so deeply in the world of whiteness, I couldn’t see any other way.

Every single day, I address my addiction to white supremacy just as faithfully as I address my substance use disorders. The spiritual solutions I use for my alcoholism help in my addiction to white supremacy and both paths of recovery require regular actions to stay spiritually fit. I know that complacency will lead to relapse which will lead to pain for myself and people I love. My recovery depends on my connection with powers greater than myself, including connections with other people. Recovery is a path of progress, not perfection, and I hope my experience might benefit others.


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Calling All White People, Part 29: Connection is the way, not collection

Calling All White People, Part 29

(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: Are you connecting with Black people or collecting them?  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

Fellow white people, we are really showing our asses lately, with everything from Michelle Williams’ fiancé Chad Johnson getting mad (and petty) when she brought up race in a discussion/argument to acting like intersectionality is some plot to screw over white women to calling police on a student (Paige Burgess) for putting her feet up in class to yet another fatal police shooting of a Black man (this time Jemel Roberson) that ought not have happened, especially since that man was one of those “good guys with a gun” that the NRA keeps saying we need more of.

And really, that’s probably less than half the white supremacy/racial ignorance nonsense I saw pass through my Twitter timeline over the course of a less than a week I think—and I really only skim my timeline.

I know to some degree it’s “just” a continuation of everything that’s bubbled to the surface of America once Trump gained the White House and many more white people than ever before decided to boldly and evilly declare that they run things and they get to dictate and if you’re a person of color, particularly a Black one, get the hell out of any spaces we occupy. But whether “only” a continuation or actually an escalation, this doesn’t make us look good. It’s going to be really hard to make any Black friends as a white person if more of us don’t rein our people in and put a stop to this white-induced racial chaos.

Of course, that brings me to another point, the real one I wanted to make in this post, which is to ask the (probably) mostly progressive readers of this piece—and maybe the non-progressive ones too—are you really ready to make any Black friends even if they’re willing to give you a chance? And yes, I mean Black, not just people of color, because the divide between white people and Black people thanks to racism is really the biggest, most gaping chasm of abysmal horror and despair I can think of right now.

And I’m serious about this “are you ready for Black friendship” thing: Even if you seek racial equity and social justice with a full and honest heart, you need to ask yourself if your connections with Black people should be anything more than as an ally or accomplice who is completely respectful but not necessarily emotionally close.

Because you see, there’s this problem a lot of us “well meaning” progressives have—and one that oddly enough even some racists like to pursue—and that is “collecting” Black friends.

Often, it’s that stereotypical “I have a Black friend” thing when anything racial comes up, which often really means “I sometimes say ‘hi’ to this Black person at work” or “Almost every morning, I smile at the Black barista who fills my coffee order.” Which is, of course, to say that many people who say they have Black friends really don’t. It’s not a point I need to belabor, because it really is such a tired, worn-out trope that won’t go away because so many damn white people actually do it.

But there is something more insidious and, while it may seem innocuous at first glance, kind of creepy: The urge that some white people have to actively and purposefully seek a Black friend. When, sadly, what they often really want is a human accessory. They want to have proximity to blackness but don’t really necessarily want to connect with Black people on an actual deep emotional level.

In other words, they want to “collect” Black people rather than really connect with them, which is pretty fetishistic and dehumanizing and already happens too much in romantic and sexual situations, which I’ve talked about before in various ways, like here and here.

For some, it’s a desire to feel accepted by the Black community through a single Black friend or small number of them, as if those people represent some kind of “all access” backstage pass to the Black world. For some, it’s a desire to be part of the group and, as too many white people want to do, use that as a justification for suddenly speaking Black vernacular English or appropriating Black cultural things or occasionally using the N-word. For others, it’s like attaining some kind of achievement badge. And there are a host of other reasons, but often (I’m not gonna say “most of the time” because I have no research on this…but still, “way too often”) those reasons for wanting Black friends aren’t pure ones.

That is to say, they aren’t truly organic reasons for seeking friendship. Y’know, like having mutual interests or making a natural connection.

Too often, the efforts of white people to befriend Black people feel almost desperate and needy, which isn’t good for either person in the equation.

So, first off, let me give you some advice, and the first thing would be to tell you to approach Black people the same way you do most white people. Unless you have a pathological need to be loved by everyone or have some other social awkwardness disorder, you probably don’t try to make friends with every white person you see, nor do you seek out a certain “type” of white person to befriend instantly. You most likely interact with most people on a generally polite level and if things click, you gradually test the boundaries of expanding the relationship to see if friendship is a viable or desirable goal.

I have myself made a few Black friends in my life (mostly workplace-based friendships but, honestly, almost all my post-college friendships have grown out of the workplace). And none of them started with me trying to “make a bestie.” They all started with light chit-chat, being respectful and all the usual jazz of basic human interactions. Black people are humans. It’s trite and dismissive to counter a racial argument with “but we’re all just humans” and pretend that the social construct that is race doesn’t have real impacts, but at the same time we really are all human and to treat Black people as exotic or otherworldly isn’t helpful.

But beyond all that, which shouldn’t need saying but based on my experiences and observations apparently does need saying, you need to ask yourself if you are really prepared to be friends with any Black people. For example:

  • Are you willing to not bring up that Black friend in interactions with other people as “proof” you aren’t racist or racially insensitive?
  • Are you willing to not  try to instantly gain credibility with other Black people by mentioning this Black friend completely out of context?
  • If this Black friend is confronted with racism in your presence, will you step up to protect or support them in that moment?
  • Are you willing to probably end up at some point having very real and possibly uncomfortable discussions about racism and white supremacy, including possibly that you yourself have just done something racist?
  • At the same time, are you willing not to automatically try to initiate racial discussions just because you want free education from a Black person or to appear “woke” to them (a term we progressive white people killed for Black people, by the way)
  • Are you willing to have your feelings hurt, such as when at some point your Black friend may very well point out that sometimes being around you is uncomfortable or triggering because you look like people who oppress them regularly in society ?

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but I hope it gives you some context. There is inherent tension between  Black people and white people overall because of white supremacy in this country (and frankly much of the world). Making a true friendship across this particular color line requires some commitment that goes a bit beyond the basics. It requires some fortitude and openness and humility. It’s not to be taken lightly.

And, also, it doesn’t mean you will be invited to the cookouts. But if you are, please refrain from bringing potato salad with raisins in it or anything like that.


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.

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