I’m writing this because many people who know me have bid for me to read and educate myself about why anti-racism is dangerous and wrong. Here is why I’m not spending my energy on listening to the contrarian voices coming out of White academia and cultural thought.
I’m saving my energy to read, understand and listen to voices on race that don’t promise to affirm ideas I grew up with. I am suspending exploration of texts that assert that racism is overblown, that America is better (since?) or that the current scholarship and rhetoric about being antiracist is harmful. I’m spending more of my energy on books, podcasts, movies, shows, and music that help me get to know my friends, students, and neighbors who are also People of Color.
Why? A little Context
To a small degree, I’ve been at this, off and on, since I married my husband twenty five years ago. In 1995, he found it supremely uncool that I thought rap and hip hop were tasteless and had little idea about Black history aside from Harriet Tubman, Dr. King and “that lady who refused to sit on the back of the bus.” So he steeped me in Public Enemy. He pressed me to read Malcolm X and Dr. King. He challenged me to watch Boyz N the Hood and Spike Lee movies. He made it clear that admiring Dr King and liking one song by In Living Color did not count.
We took it slow, but intentional. In the grunge era, he took African-American studies classes after which we made a pact to buy our kids toys that represented all skin tones and to teach them to use crayons creatively to represent all skin tones. We chose art from all manner of artists, so our house looks like a hodgepodge of what’s beautiful in many cultures. We talked about race (and gender) with our kids. By ten, they’d both seen Spike Lee’s version of Malcolm X and knew Lauren Hill by heart.
I prided myself on this intentionality. But I kept my kids in communities where it was hard to befriend Black people. I tried to make up for it by setting an example as a teacher. I interrogated the literature I taught and ensured that more that half of it be written by and about other ethnicities and races. “There is no frigate like a book,” wrote Emily Dickinson, and since I couldn’t sail out of my small Hoosier town with its majority White schools, White neighborhoods and White churches, I was going to have to make up for my life with books. I used them to take up the spaces for the friendships I should have been nurturing.
In the Space Where It Started
All the while, I turned over a memory from my school days when I thought I had been pretty good friends with the one Black girl in our church. We’d been friends since elementary school. Between our childhood games and high school, I increasingly fixated on the fact that she was the only one of the girls in our church school who was different. I’d wanted to understand if and how that mattered but she generally seemed to like most of what I liked. I figured I was making up stuff that wasn’t there. She copied all her New Kids on the Block tapes for me, since I wasn’t allowed “secular” music. When I went to her house, we ogled Donny and Jordan and debated which one of those NKOTB poster boys was hottest. I paid little attention to all the other posters and magazines she had. Our friendship proceeded apace through early high school. In our junior year, it broke. My boyfriend used the N-word in front of her one night. At that moment,I cut my breath sharply. Seconds later, she slammed out of the car. I chastised him, but he shrugged it off saying, he’d forgotten she was Black, that he didn’t think of her that way, and that she’d forgive him because he’d known her all his life. I abandoned him at the entrance to the pizza joint where we were meeting up with other friends. I chased her into the bathroom and apologized for him. Another of our friends, a white girl, shooed me out. I didn’t understand why one White girl could stay to comfort her and I couldn’t. What I didn’t see is that I had made a choice. I prioritized my relationship with my boyfriend. I nurtured that. I wasn’t able to hear or understand why his N-word usage had reduced her to tears.
I’ve turned this event over in my mind for thirty years. I’ve always wanted to understand why that happened. In some ways, it echoes with my friendships. Not the N-word part, but sense that I can never be close with my Black friends. Also, I can’t build the same rapport and trust that with my Black students that I can to help my White students.
I suspect I need to listen to a plural of accounts over a long, long time to understand the accumulation of experiences that have ground down my Black friends and students.
Yup, Proof that I’m Still Not There
The events around George Floyd are a prime example of why I still have work to do.
Last Saturday I listened to all eight minutes and forty-six seconds of the recording of George Floyd’s death. I’d seen parts of the recording, like when he calls for his mother, but I’m not interested in traumatizing myself with violence to prove that these deaths are bad enough. I’d seen enough to find it undignifying to watch George Floyd suffer and die. I didn’t look at the officers but I’ve heard reports describing how casual he seems as he suffocates to another human being.
I keep hearing Black men and their mothers say something like: “When he called out for his momma that broke me. That’s when he knew he was going to die.” I’ve listened to march organizers shudder as they describe it and talk of their own bi-racial children. I’ve heard Black mommas talk about it on podcasts. I heard it again this morning on a weeks’ old Code Switch episode that I’ve been storing in my queue while I tear through all the books on race.
Until this morning, I didn’t hear, really hear, what was going on in my head compared to what those mothers were saying. This time, I interrogated myself. Why hadn’t I assumed that he’d known he was going to die? Because of my other assumptions.
I assumed that Floyd had called out for his momma because he wanted to humanize himself to those officers. He was calculating that they’d let up if he could seem like them, a person with a mother, a mother who might not see him again. Even though I’d heard his mother was dead, I still interpreted that moment as a moment of calculation, instead of fear and dying hope. Literally dying hope. I also realized that I would have made that calculation and called out for my mother or father in the belief that no person could be so unfeeling that they’d actually kill me. I would say, I thought, so that at least they’d stop torturing me.
It hit me that I was projecting my experience on George Floyd. I projected that he was calculating instead of reacting instinctively as a man dying. I started thinking through interactions I’ve had with students and parents. How many times had I contacted parents or a student outside of class to discuss plummeting grades and asked questions like, “What is happening at home or in your life that is affecting how much time and energy you are spending on school?” I’d be met with silence. I felt stone-walled. Or excuses. I felt lied to. A student might give a litany of health issues, deaths in the family, past bullying, parental job losses, always different excuses over different conversations. I’d call a mother and meet a momma bear who defended and excused her student. I’d always figured these were calculations.
All the while I ignored what I’ve learned about race, poverty, trauma and stress. I’ve read enough to know that stressors are multiplied in Black and low-income households. Still I projected that these people intended to manipulate me, to shut me, out or take advantage of my discretionary privilege as the teacher. It’s weird to realize how little I assumed I might do the same thing if roles were reversed. I assume my intentions are moral and good, but theirs? Why don’t I assume that they are doing the best they can in the circumstances? Or that their pain is just pain, not manipulation?
Sitting with this, after having spent years trying to read, to teach, to pay attention, taught me that I still have not spent enough time seeking to understand. I have Black friends, but not close ones, even though I really admire those friends. I wonder if we can get close if I don’t seem to understand their full selves. I don’t understand them because I’m not spending the time listening instead of projecting. Also, I still nurture my native, comfortable culture more. How on earth is someone supposed to trust me with their authentic self if I am steeped in the ideas and aesthetic that has always made me comfortable? That old saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes? I’m not sure a mile is enough if I had to hear the same observation five times in three weeks to realize I was thinking very differently about George Floyd.
Why Be Partisan?
I hear often that we live in one of the most polarized periods since the Civil War. While that’s hard to prove, I will say that recently I’ve damaged a lot of relationships because I’m doing this. I don’t like to be unliked or to enrage others. If I didn’t see how other families are also cracking, but new friendships and new possibilities are forming, I would not be telling myself, “You gotta keep at it, probaby for years, and their issues with race affect you, but they are not your fault.”
The cost of change is real, but I have to pursue change. For too long, I’ve suffocated the voices of those who’ve begged to be heard. I need to understand them because I operate in some institutions that still wound children and souls. I’m a teacher puzzling how to educate those kids who previously were not admitted into high ability classes. Some of my students struggle throughout the year because the stressors overwhelm them. In the past, I would have said they are not fit for this course. But they are. They have the ability, just not the support system (from me at least). I teach alt ed courses as well. In the past, I’d have said that such-and-such student needed suspension or expulsion, which spirals into greater stressors and barriers for that student. Now I’m trying to figure out how to educate each of the kids. Each can achieve more, if I’m patient, and I don’t project failure onto them.
I’m also a priest’s wife in the Orthodox Church. While my neighborhood has finally begun to feel more diverse- I have lots of LatinX and some Black neighbors mixed in with working class White folks- my church has almost none of those people visit, let alone return. Our congregation is mostly well-educated and White. What would happen if we started inviting my neighbors to church? I don’t know because it would make our parish a very different culture. When “different” people have come in the past, they’ve been held to standards that often result in them leaving after a few months. It’s easy to say they are just too different and self-selected out of our culture. We haven’t asked if our culture is healthy and welcoming to all God’s people.
Standards I’m Measuring Myself For
I represent two institutions that have work to do. It’s not just about people dying or the police. It’s about institutions that need the people who operate in them to shift their entire perspective. I will know if I’m “being the change” if I fulfill or help bring about the following standards: (I set these goals for myself after much reading).
- I have many relationships in my neighborhood.
- I remain a resident in a diverse neighborhood.
- I nurture lots of friendships to deeper levels among people who didn’t grow up like I did (low income, working class White) or who are not like me now (White, cause that isn’t changeable and my middle class, educatedness).
- More POC and low-income people will feel welcome to visit and return to my church. I will befriend these people.
- My parish family will also befriend and welcome these people.
- More of my school’s students of color will be placed in high ability courses.
- We will reduce our suspensions and expulsions across the board but pay close attention to how many of those are students of color and examine ourselves in regular, sustained discussions about why that’s happening.
- I will stop projecting on families and students what I think their motivation or situation is.
- I will listen carefully and ask lots of questions, even of my White peers, to understand why White peers resist or fear. (Yes, fear. In recent weeks, Orthodox friends expressed negative reactions to our presence at demonstrations because they believed that Black people want to force White people to bow to them or that Black people mean to oppress White people. Just saying what happened.)
- This is only the beginning of the list. I will need to add more. Proficiency is one thing. Excellence is another.