The minefield of talking about race in the US
It's good work, but it's not easy. The last couple of weeks have sharpened my understanding of how talking about oppression and prejudice (racism, homophobia, etc.) is like walking through a minefield. I know this is not a new analogy. But this post is here in part to record my own process.]
The Minefield of Even Talking About Prejudice (Especially Racism)
Most of us have some training in how to recognize the bombs in this field and avoid the most obvious/largest/closest-to-the-surface ones. (Like well-known offensive words and stereotypes.)
Some of us have some additional training. (Like, "even if we are part of some oppressed group(s), we still have prejudices against other groups, maybe even others in our own group" or "don’t deny other people’s experience.")
Sometimes despite our best efforts, we still step on a mine and feel both hurt and stupid when it blows up in our face.
Sometimes we’re so busy looking down at the ground to avoid landmines that we walk smack into a tree branch at eye level.
Some of the bombs are small and we don’t even know we stepped on them until we look back and see this little wisp of smoke rising from the ground. Sometimes we realize our shoes are charred and we didn’t even notice who else might have been affected.
It’s tiring to walk through a minefield, whether we are walking boldly through familiar territory or tiptoeing around a new one, just being hyper-aware of our surroundings and our words and actions.
For people of color, transgender folks, etc., they are always walking through this minefield. It must be exhausting. I can understand it a little bit like this: While I was pregnant, when my husband left the house, he could go all day without thinking about the coming baby; at least until he got home and had to talk to me. Me – I couldn’t stand up, sit down, turn around, roll over or breathe without being reminded of the coming baby. It just went with me every moment of every day and every night whether I liked it or not.
As a white person in a heterosexual marriage, I’m like the husband in this story. Some days I have conversations about race or I think about it a lot and most days I don’t. Usually, I get to choose. Frankly, I usually choose not.
Honestly, racism makes me nauseous. Can I just admit that? I don’t even mean it in an “I’m so enlightened that…” kind of way. I mean, I don’t like to talk about it, hear about it, witness it. It’s like dealing with war or child abuse. I physically feel sick to my stomach and I’d rather not, thank you anyway.
It’s not like I have never dealt with it. I have worked in organizations primarily staffed by and serving Latin Americans or African Americans. I have taken diversity training workshops. I read Vanessa Julye’s pamphlet, “The Seed Crack’d Open” last summer. I have argued with my father about his attitudes.
But still. The other day I realized that I was really nervous about calling the mother of one of my son’s new friends to arrange a playdate. Yeah, it’s always hard to call someone I don’t know. But I finally realized it was harder this time because my son’s friend and his family are African-American. Sigh. It’s just ugly even to admit it. I did call her, but I'm sorry it took me so long.
I started thinking about this. I realized that at my son’s age, I didn’t know anyone who was African-American. I may not have known anyone of any racial or ethnic minority well enough to invite them to my house. I did know one Jewish family. I remember going to their house occasionally and to some kind of recycling drive at their synagogue.
At least I had Sesame Street. When I was trying to dredge up my earliest memories of anyone African American, my first thought was of Muhammad Ali. And then I remembered Susan and Gordon. Now, I still have the first two Sesame Street record albums and they are not, by today’s standards, paragons of diversity and racial or gender sensitivity. But for the times, they were really trying.
Thank you, Children’s Television Network, for providing me with early examples of inter-racial friendships. And thank you God, America, San Francisco, for the fact that for my children inter-racial friendships aren’t just in fiction or on tv.
In the end, I’ve probably stepped on more racist landmines in this essay than in the whole last year of avoiding the topic. But sometimes you have to take this risk. By putting this out there, I can stop being afraid that someday I’m going to say all this when I don’t mean to. I can brace myself to hear what’s coming back to me without flinching or running away. I can show myself willing to be teachable.
Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.
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