The minefield of talking about race in the US

[Over the last month or so, many people in my meeting have been preparing for a visit from Vanessa Julye, the coordinator of the FGC Committee for Ministry on Racism, to help us begin a broader conversation about how racism affects the diversity of our meeting.

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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Blogger cubbie said...

someone who did an anti-oppression training i went to, announced at the beginning, "the only thing i can promise you is that i will make mistakes." and i think wearing that and acknowledging that and owning it, and even sort of taking delight in the whole "i'm human, we're all human, we are all going to screw up and that's how we learn" is really important. it's all scary stuff.

at bruce's suggestion, i'm reading the daily study bible (he didn't just tell me to read it, i asked for a nice companion to reading the bible), and i randomishly started with matthew, and, oh golly, i don't remember the exact verse or anything, but the commentary was about... scribal law? and god's law. and about all those laws that went down to the letter about how to live right and do right... but they were ridiculous in that way because they became about themselves and not about how to actually live right or do right. (does that make sense, or have i already lost you?) and it reminded me of these "lists of tips for allies" that i've seen and written and admired, in zines and blogs and pamphlets. things like, for trans people, "don't ask for their given name and definitely don't call it their 'real' name," "don't ask if they've had 'the surgery'"... etc. all important. BUT i take people who genuinely like me and respect me as a human asking me those really stupid questions bravely with the understanding that i can tell them "that's not a question i feel comfortable with, and i think that's true for most trans people," than people who are afraid of me and/or all the mistakes they could possibly be making. DUH! i know that these people are not trans, i know that they probably don't know the language, it's okay. even i wasn't born with an instruction book on how to deal with trans people.

but that's trans stuff, and it's not race stuff... but maaaaybe it's just human stuff? i don't know. i've only been me.

2/21/2008 2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is a great post, Robin. It's totally honest. It has integrity.

It is kind of funny sometimes to think how bewildering it must be for someone to talk to self-identified transracial and transgender people about their perceptions on race and gender. But educational sometimes, I hope?

One talk I participated in for white adoptive parents of children of color, they said what cubbie said - it's okay to know that mistakes will be made. It's better to admit to that than be like my parents, who would swear on a cross that they're not racist.

One mother who adopted a baby from Ethiopia said after her first talk by this organization, she realized she had no African-American friends. So she put her adoption process on hold, was at a cafe one day and literally asked the African-American woman in line next to her to be her friend. She told her her situation, and her desire to give her future child a healthy racial identity. She said that that woman agreed to help her and is now her best friend.

I think that is an example of what cubbie said. That in regards to race, most of us know that there is no way a white person could actually know what it's like to be a person of color. And we don't expect you to have our experiences. That's all I wished my parents did growing up, to say yes, we don't know, what is it like for you, how can we make it better? I think political correctness managed to mangle any honest conversation that could happen between two people with different experiences and allow them to work together.

That's why I want to talk about it. I'll make mistakes too, because it's the first time I've ever been given a real chance. Because I also think, if we Quakers can't do this, then how can we expect the rest of society?

2/21/2008 4:07 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks, both of you.

You know, I've only been me too.

2/22/2008 2:02 AM  

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