As my personal and professional lives start to meld together, it’s definitely starting to make for some interesting and even challenging moments in my social interactions. Just a few short years ago, I restricted all talk of race to personal friends and family of color or to white folks like my husband who have a vested interest in understanding racial matters. For years, I rarely even mentioned this blog to offline connections for fear of creating uncomfortable moments.
Somewhere along the way though, especially as this space grew, I realized that limiting all talk of race for the sake of keeping the peace was to intentionally live an unauthentic life on my end. The cost of living an unauthentic life started to take a toll and the rest is history especially with my taking a position as the head of an anti-racism organization. Even a simple “What do you do” now means bringing up race and while I still have moments where the uncomfortable pause visits, it’s a small price to pay for actively working on societal change and breaking down the racial walls that are still cemented in place.
In the past year, many well meaning white people have reached out, wanting to know me or my work and while I have welcomed those attempts after being burned more than a few times, I am no longer sure how I feel about them.
I often talk about the impact of racism on people of color especially Black Americans but frankly racism impacts white people as well. Too many good white people live in silos of privilege that keep them blind to how damaging white supremacy is to all of us.
As an outsider looking in, I am struck by the fact that as a Black woman living in America, I must be competent in my own culture as well as that of the majority. It means understanding white social nuance and ways of being. Yet that is not reciprocated by the majority of white Americans, instead from my view, whites see their ways of being as correct and typically expect that everyone else will fall in line. The problem is that assimilation based off the dominant culture is not acceptance of difference, at best it is tolerance and having lived a life where my presence was tolerated, I think I will pass. Tolerance feels like shit.
Living in a silo of whiteness and privilege means a life of tense interactions with people who are different than you. It often means never really having true connections with people of color because when you don’t understand the other person’s way of being, it sets up an adversarial relationship.
In two separate incidents that involve people I know offline, I was struck by how the veil of whiteness keeps people from hearing and learning from others. In one instance I shared an article on my personal Facebook page about the cultural appropriation of belly dancing. While the author may have had a tone that could be perceived as negative, she brought up valid points about how cultural appropriation feels when it is your culture that is being diluted and stolen. The article sparked one hell of a discussion that was dominated by several local acquaintances downplaying the cultural aspect and making connections that were borderline offensive. What was fascinating was that other people I know were trying to explain why culture cannot be separated from something as seemingly as innocuous as dance. In the end a local person declared the author of the article racist as well as many of the people who had taken the time to try and explain why a dance can be appropriated. What was fascinating to me was the declaration that if we all just got over ourselves, racism would end. Personal racism is to some degree on the decline, it’s becoming increasingly hard to find even a white bigot who probably doesn’t have at least one non white family member. Word on the street was that my former father in law really didn’t care for non white folks but he treated me with nothing but love and kindness and loved the hell out of his grandson, my son.
What has not changed is systemic racism that favors whiteness, get breast cancer? The mortality rates for Black women are nowhere near what they are for white women. Criminal justice system? Doesn’t favor Black folks at all and trust me we aren’t more criminal than white folks, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow goes into great detail explaining how the system is rigged and it’s not in favor of people of color. Racism is real and it’s not about white people who want to call me and mine “nigger” it’s about a system that makes living while not white harder than it has to be even when I strive for respectability as determined by whites.
My other recent interaction was more personal, a local woman who was a reader of this space and who had reached out to befriend me misunderstood my words. She went on my personal twitter feed and took what was a manner of speech that I use as a Black woman and assumed it to be something that it was not. People who know me well ,know that my manner of speaking and even writing changes based off my audience. When I am talking with other people of color, my cadence is not one that is familiar to white people who have not spent time around Black folks. It’s called code switching and it is something that many people of color do, in a world that rewards all things white, we do what we must to survive in that world and I make no apologies for it.
Yet as both these incidents reminded me, people need more than a desire to be a good and inclusive person to fight racism, it means having background knowledge of other people. It means understanding that most of what is taught in US schools about people of color has been diluted so much that our pain, humanity and reality remains invisible to you. It means not asking us to be just like you so that we can be palatable to you. However life in the silo keeps many from ever understanding this and as such we remain separate.