One White lady's opinion

Thoughts on Race and Racism


One White Lady's Opinion

An ongoing series for those interested in thinking through some hard stuff and then doing something about it

#1 Why I'm Thinking and Writing About Race and Racism

The more I hear about people of color, black, brown, yellow, etc, being disrespected, threatened, and harmed because of their skin or their country of origin, the more I literally have to do something. I’ve needed to do something since I was in college where I started to learn that racism was alive and well and determining the lives of so many wonderful young people.


When I did my student teaching, the racism was not subtle. In 1991, the teacher I was paired with told me on day one that she was determined to be sure “every nigger and spic in the place never does anything but pack groceries and pump gas.” I thought she was unique. The rest of the faculty could not possibly feel that way. I tried to do something and ended up being physically threatened, in the parking lot, by a member of the administration, telling me in no uncertain terms that I would not be well if I kept meddling.


I was 21 and had no idea how to handle that situation. To this day, I am heartsick that I ended my student teaching that day. I was afraid for my life, but I abandoned my students, young black and brown people who were just starting to believe that I cared about them. They never saw or heard from me again. I didn’t want to be, but I was part of the problem now too.


I still don’t know what I could have done, but I wish I had stayed around and figured it out. My advisor at college was horrified but also too afraid to do anything. I was given permission by the school to finish my student teaching by studying and writing about educational theory. What I learned during that time has been invaluable, and I’m grateful for the experience, even with my regrets.


It didn’t take very long for me to realize that teaching in a standard school was very unlikely going to be my vehicle for helping young people think for themselves and succeed. There was too much bureaucracy and too little room to do anything even a little bit off the government’s script. So I gave up teaching in schools and spent several years trying to bring help and healing to people via my faith practices. That eventually was not enough as well, and over time, voluminous reading, classes, and more I found Emotional Intelligence, Positive Psychology, and Nonviolent Communication all of which I employ, to the best of my ability, to help and heal wherever I can.


This blog series is an attempt to offer individuals an opportunity to think through some of these issues via my personal experiences and my learning journey. Comments will be moderated. Please do your best to express your thoughts in ways that encourage engagement and mutual respect and understanding without blame or accusation. That's really hard sometimes, I know. Just do your best, and hopefully we will develop a community willing and able to encourage our best selves in how we express our feelings and needs as related to race. 

#2 OMG, I'm a racist!

I was 19 years old, standing on a corner, waiting to cross the street, when a truly beautiful black man, dressed in a tailored suit and driving a high-powered sports car, pulled up to the red light at the corner where I waited to cross the street. My first impression was all of that, pure appreciation for everything, and then a most terrible thought. “I wonder how, as a black person, he can afford all of that.” As soon as the thought was in my head, I was horrified and so full of shame. I wept for hours wishing I could hug that man and apologize. That was the first time that I realized I was racist.


I’m a really good person, as best as I can tell. I try very hard to be one, anyway. But, yup, more than two decades later, and I still can’t shake some of the racism that is baked into my brain. Like, I really, really want to be seen as a “good white person.” I want to be seen as sympathetic to the plight of all non-white people. I want to be seen as supportive, as woke. As much as I have truly good motives for participating in the conversation, and hopefully some solutions, about race, I want my whiteness to stand out as “good” whiteness. I’m not one of those bad, hateful people. I’m one of the good ones. I’m working on behalf of others while hoping that it all still benefits me. Ugh!


Staying focused on work for others without my own ego or defensiveness for being white kicking in is proving challenging, but I’m trying to give myself a break. I grew up in a home with a dad who’s best friend was a black man. We visited and stayed with him in New York City, and he came and stayed with us in Cleveland, NY (literally the middle of nowhere). This was my Uncle Hayward. I loved him as much as all of my blood related uncles. He always treated me as though I was intelligent and worth listening and talking to. He would tell me about his childhood, hold my hand when we walked the City streets, and make sure my car door was locked whenever our visit was over. To me, he was the definition of family, and so I grew up feeling a connection to all black people that I did not have.


I also grew up in a home with two parents who devoted their lives to the prison ministry and offered our home as a halfway house to people trying to make a fresh start after serving their time. By far, most of the people that came to live with us were black. It was drilled into me that every person we helped deserved our care, compassion, and respect. I was to see them as having overcome hardship, as very good people, and as deserving of any and all help we could offer. These are all really good things. They also made me racist. Because most of the black people I got to know personally came from the prison system, and incidentally also had very hard lives before being incarcerated, I accidentally learned that black people were poor, with only low levels of education, and constantly surrounded by violence. I accidentally learned that all black people would likely not succeed financially and would always live in segregated, underserved communities. And worst of all, I accidentally learned to accept this as just the way things were.


I’m a really good person, AND I’m a racist. I work really hard self-educating, having the hard conversations, watching my thoughts and behaviors for any hint of bias, and still, it’s there. It’s not as bad as it used to be, not even a little bit, but the systems that built my little white self still subtly impacts my thoughts and actions. Oh, I’m also sexist (women are superior), classist, and a bunch of other not very nice things. I’m working on it. That’s the best I can do. Own it and work on it.

#3 Racism against Native Peoples

I often wonder what it’s like to be a Native American watching everything that is going on so loudly about the black community and the police right now. It is right to be outraged that black people keep dying at the hands of police, but what is it like to be a Native American, to see all the same abuses in your own community, and yet not be able to get anyone to lift a voice, let alone a finger to help.


In 2018, TeenVogue gave their readers an opportunity to consider some facts of Native life and racism in the US.

A new study published in July found two-thirds of Americans don’t believe Native people experience significant racial discrimination. Yet rather than living in a country where discrimination has lessened and or access to resources and rights has been improved, Native Americans live in a country that consistently pretends like they do not exist.

Today, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than people of any other race. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than any other ethnic group, and 97% have experienced violence perpetrated by at least one non-Native person. Native youth not only have the lowest graduation rates of any racial group, but they are also dying by suicide at the highest rate of any demographic in the United States. These same teens are twice as likely to be disciplined than their white peers in school and are twice as likely to be incarcerated for minor crimes than teens of any other race. - https://www.teenvogue.com/story/racism-against-native-americans


There is so much racially motivated discrimination and violence in our country, it may feel impossible to change any of it or to at least figure out what group of people to be helping first. Black Lives Matters and similar organizations should get all of the attention they need and deserve. It is important to not water down their message by declaring “all lives matter” or something similar. But what about the horrible racism that Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, or any other non-white groups receive every day? Is there a way to give each group its rightful individuality, attention, and empathy while working for a set of unified solutions? I believe there is, and it starts with listening. 


We need to start reaching out to groups within each ethnic and racial community, start inviting people to say what they feel, what they want, what they need, AND how they would like all of that responded to. People almost never need someone else to solve their problems for them. They need someone willing to take the time to understand and then be willing to participate in their desired action.


I offer classes in effective listening and responding techniques. Please be in touch if you are interested in learning how to invite opportunities for conversation, listening, and healing.

#4 I need more words

I want to be able to have conversations about the subtle but deeply harmful racism of really good, loving, caring, non-hateful, white people. But that word, racism, is so loaded right now and seems to have come to only mean ideas and actions that are purposefully, consciously, hateful and evil toward people of color. This is racism but in its extremes. Most of the racism in our country is so much more subtle and part of the structures and institutions that have grown up through our shared history. If we don't start facing that good people have allowed these systems and institutions to keep in place cultural "norms" of discrimination, exclusion, and imprisonment, and why they(I/we) have allowed them, I'm not sure we can find solutions.

Please share your suggestions for words we can use in addition to racism. It is very important to not try to soften the reality of what’s going on. We don’t need to “white-wash” racism so that we feel more comfortable in it. Exactly the opposite is needed. Yet, we do still need ways to talk to folks who get instantly defensive at the idea that they are racist.

What do you think?

#5 What I don’t know Can hurt me -- and you

My children and I moved to Framingham, MA, to a section of town we were warned against because many residents were from Brazil. I was really horrified that my friends would be so antagonistic to a section of town because of its residents, no matter where they originally came from. So I moved my children telling them that racism would be an issue for our neighbors and many of the children they would go to school with, and we needed to be aware, sensitive, and willing to stand up for others.


My children knew that they could bring anyone home from school that they wanted. I loved having the house filled with their friends. My front door and my refrigerator were always open. One beautiful spring afternoon, my middle child brought home two brothers that were their friends at the time. To me, they looked African American. They had beautiful chocolate skin and, what I saw as, stereotypically “back” hair. My child informed me that their friends were originally from Brazil. I said something like, “Wow, I wouldn’t have guessed. With nappy hair like that, I would think they must be mixed.” My child looked at me with horror and shame. I replayed in my head what I had said and was shocked to realize how ignorant I was about what Brazilian people look like, beyond the European types I was used to, and that I did not have respectful language to use in describing them.


I knew that Spain and Portugal had taken over South America and that the Catholic church in Rome, Italy had divided the continent between the two invading countries. What I had not realized was how I had accidentally erased my consciousness of the people that were there before the Europeans. The Spanish and Portuguese had taken over, and so, in my head, everyone there now looked like them. My ignorance, and my habitual need to put everyone into their appropriate race and country of origin was stealing from me the privilege of getting to know people. I realized, during this time, that I believed if I could categorize people, I was done. I knew everything I needed to, and I was a smart, compassionate, non-racist person. Ugh!


Living with Brazilian neighbors taught me more about my ignorance of anything and anyone south of Texas. I realized that I had been made to memorize the map of Europe in school, and to be able to identify the continents, but I was not required to know the countries that made up any other continent than North America and Europe. The subtle education was that nothing else was important. The two main high school history courses were US and World history, but “World history” was almost exclusively about Europe. We only learned about other places based on where England had invaded and taken over.


I can’t know everything. For the rest of my life, I will keep bumping into what I don’t know. I’m learning all I can, but I have to choose my topics because I simply don’t have the ability to study everything. I still say stuff that I realize after was based in ignorance and stereotypes, but sometimes I don’t realize what’s still floating around my brain until it’s out of my mouth where I can see it or where someone else can respond to it. But… finally realizing that I don’t know everything in a deep and open minded way means I say fewer ignorant things. I’m more apt to ask questions instead of make statements, and I’m significantly more interested in listening to people in an effort to really understand instead of trying to placate my need to feel like a “good” white person. 

#6 I've been angry since I was 19

I think I knew things were different for many black people than for me as a white person, but I thought there were easy explanations and maybe easy fixes. Then I realized that I was a kind, loving, inclusive person that held racist ideas. I didn't mean to, but there they were, and I got horrified and deeply angry with the cultural system that put those thoughts in my head.

I went on a personal crusade. I was going to rid myself of all my racist thoughts. I was going to talk to as many of my fellow college students, black people and other BIPOC, as possible so I could learn about their lives. I was going to teach in inner-city schools and be part of the solution. And, I did some of that, but when I was 21, I started my student teaching and was faced with an entire education system designed to keep black and brown people in poverty, and I got even more angry because I mistakenly thought there was nothing I could do.

That’s what everyone told me. When I discovered that the school I taught in was actively working against their predominantly black and brown population by using a “track” system that locked students into minimal education, had no extracurricular activities, and turned to the police for discipline with no thought for helping the students, I tried to help. I went to the principal and others, assuming they did not realize what the teachers were perpetrating. Instead of helping, I got physically threatened by my car one day after school. I never went back, and to this day, I’m sick over that. I abandoned those students. They were just starting to believe that maybe one little white lady might care about them for real, but I disappeared.

I realize that I was very young and totally unequipped, but I allowed that experience to turn me into, in many ways, a person who felt deeply sad about the wrongs of the world but convinced there was little to nothing that I, or anyone else, could do about it. It was just the way things were.

My efforts turned to being as supportive as possible of those in my direct sphere. I became needy of being “the good white lady.” Over time, that need overshadowed my desire to help. Eventually, I wanted to be seen as one of the good ones more than I wanted to find solutions. I didn’t know this was happening. I was still standing up for people, being present, offering help where I thought I could, but my motives were off. Because of that, I got exhausted with the cause, burned out, feeling my efforts were futile.

Did you know that white burnout is one of the biggest impediments for activists of color? When we jump in with our broken hearts and extra energy only to leave because we are emotionally overrun with the enormity of the problem, we demoralize those who had come to believe we would actually help. As a white person, I get to go back to my life. Black, brown, and others live in a system that people that look like me created, and I benefit from, but they do not. If I believe they have to fix it because it negatively impacts them, I’m missing a huge part of the equation.

However, what went wrong for me, and for so many other white people who really do want to overhaul the system, is that we try to do too much. None of us can fix things alone, and no white person should be jumping in and trying to lead unless asked. We need to listen, hard, and with open hearts and minds. Ask leaders of color what is needed and find your place in it. At the very least, you can vote for people who will also listen and help. You can write and call congress people. You can volunteer your time. There are things you can do, if you are committed.

These are devastating issues. The more you learn, the more sad and angry you may feel. Know your limits, and help in ways that you can sustain. If you are unwilling to do at least a little bit for the rest of your life, you may serve the efforts better by not participating. You do not have to make anti-racism your cause, but you can do a little something. Every little bit does help. Find what you can do, and do it.

#7 Am I Woke Yet

Why didn’t I know this stuff?!

What do you mean that after slavery was abolished, states made laws that said convicted criminals could be forced to do labor without pay, ie be slaves in jail? You see, I kind of knew this because I was aware that, in the 1970s and 1980s people were fighting to have these laws changed. I heard the arguments from both sides. “They committed crimes but have their housing and meals and even education paid for. Criminals should have to work to support the system that’s supporting them.” Or “Our constitution does not allow for forced, unpaid labor. That’s slavery. We got rid of slavery. Plus, inmates have things they have to pay for while inside. Where are they supposed to get the money, especially if they have no family support? Just because they screwed up doesn’t mean they are no longer human.”


I knew the argument was going on. I remember the next argument, that pennies an hour was not a real wage and was still quite close to slavery, especially when the inmates had to purchase shampoo, etc and could not make enough to cover the costs. So how did I miss what was really happening? How did I not understand the larger picture where laws were being written that impacted the minority populations much more significantly, and then they were once again being forced to work making stuff for or cleaning up after everyone else?


It’s because no one ever said that. Not to me. I learned almost nothing about slavery except what it was and how long it lasted. I learned that President Lincoln ended it, but later was told that slavery was not his main goal. Keeping the union together was. That was not true, not the way it was presented to me. His own words show the passion he had for ending slavery. But I would not find those words in my history textbooks. Even today, you can find little information about the reality of slavery, what happened to black people after, the amazing communities they built, the wealth they built, and how it was stolen, burned, and even bombed by police in textbooks. You have to find those on the sidelines in the big book stores or online, and even then, they can be challenging to find.


How was I supposed to know? I read what they told me, believed what they told me, repeated what they told me. Parents, teachers, relatives, friends all may have been doing exactly the same thing. They taught what the government told them to. They repeated what they knew, and not only did all my fellow white kids learn what we were told, but so did the black kids we sat next to.


No one told them about their history, how their relatives gave heart, soul, blood, tears, and their lives to build a country, to build wealth, they were never going to take part in. No one told my fellow classmates that much of what they had to get “right” on a test was a misrepresentation at best, if not outright lies. No one told them that they had a vital role to play in how our country would grow and evolve, and that they needed to speak up. Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcom X were tiny mentions in our history books. We were not living in the civil rights movement. That too was history.


We were told racism was over. It had been fixed. Yet, my mixed friends were called “Oreo” and worse nearly every day of their lives in school. I didn’t know what it meant. Because my mixed friends never acted like it bothered them, I didn’t know. I didn’t know that the main thing my friends learned was to smile, play along, never speak up, and only do stuff that black people are allowed to do - play sports and drop out. They were never in the plays, never in the chorus, never on the debate team, and no matter how good their grades, somehow they were never valedictorian. They stayed in the space that was made for them, and I never questioned any of it.


Here’s my deal, though. I know now. Or at least I know enough to realize that racism is far from over. I know I have a lot more to learn, AND I know I need to be part of the solution in public and profound ways. I have no idea exactly how “woke” I am. I just know that I am no longer asleep.

#8 Guilt doesn't help. Action does.

I’ve never used to understand why people say that individuals of color can’t be racist. Well, thanks to a really excellent explanation in the book, White Fragility, by Robin J. DiAngelo, now I do. Basically, there is prejudice, or judging a person or a group of people based on stereotypes. Then there is discrimination, where pregudice is turned into actions avoiding, resisting, and removing individuals or types of individuals from one’s experience passively or aggressively. Then there is racism where prejudice and discrimination are made part of the greater social and legal construct. Racism in the US is uniquely white because whites have historically had the social, economic, and political power to make and enforce the rules.


If one agrees with, argues to keep, or passively benefits from a system that is designed to promote white interests above those of peoples of color, that individual is supporting a racist system. If one is championing these systems and working to create more of the same, that individual is, by definition, racist.


So… not all white people are racist, but many are at least passively participating in a racist system with no action to demand change. We are trained from childhood, at the very least, to be sad for those who are oppressed, but that training makes us feel powerless to do anything about it. We are taught to be bystanders to lesser education, lesser job opportunity, lesser housing access, lesser generational wealth, lesser water quality, lesser access to groceries, etc. We are taught that it is the fault of those who are oppressed. If only they worked harder at school, had fewer children, were willing to work instead of live off the dole. If only they would stop killing each other. Any of these sound familiar? Did you ever try to find out if this information we were given was true? For too long, I didn’t. I also didn’t believe a lot of it, but a subtle indifference-based sympathy took the place of what should have been holy hell righteous indignation.


Well, now I know. It took until I was 51, but now I know. I can’t do everything, but I can speak, write, vote, use social media, and any other tool I find to help make needed changes. I’ve never been racist, but I have passively participated in a system that is. That’s not much different, and some might say that those who stand by and passively watch something wrong happening are just as guilty. I’m not interested in feeling guilt. I am interested in being part of the change.

#9 Staying Energized in the Work

The more I learn about racism and its existence in my thought and my society, the more tempted I am to feel overwhelmed, defeated, guilty, shameful, and depressed. Here’s the thing. I see all those reactions as understandable, but if I let them take over, they are debilitating, and, in a very real way, extensions of my white privilege. If nothing changes in society, I may not be that impacted personally. My life will go on, as it has, for the foreseeable future. I’ll be continuing to play into the script written for white women for centuries that our emotionalism makes us victims of the problem. We are hurt by racism because it makes us too sad. So we must be cautious of our involvement, or even just stay out of it, for our own health and wellbeing. Bull!!


I need to understand my own vulnerabilities so that I stay strong in the conversation and the work to create change. Getting overwhelmed with all the bad news doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are working for race equality and equity or climate change or more books in the school library. Whatever your cause, focusing only on the bad news will undermine your efforts. So, I’m finding ways to stay informed and energized while I look for opportunities for solutions and change.


Whether you get sad, angry, or wish you could deny what’s going on, emotional intelligence skills are imperative to being able to face the reality of the situation and to find the desire and the strength to do something about it. The top level skill needed is to notice what emotional responses you are having and to figure out why, basically becoming self-aware.


For me, because I thought of myself as already awake to the problems and working to combat them, I was not aware of how much I took for granted, how much I didn’t know, and how little I was doing that was impactful. So, I got sad and filled with regret and shame. Why? I realized that my ego felt hurt. I couldn’t really claim to be quite the advocate I thought I was. My ego was hurt more than anything else. As a middle class white lady, I have the privilege of wallowing in ego based emotions because my life is not in danger as a result of my skin color. (Look for a broader conversation on the feminine in the blog series Gender, Sex, and Identity) I have far fewer impediments to my living successfully as a white woman than does a woman of color. I have the luxury of these emotions. My female BIPOC counterparts do not.


So, though I may struggle with my sadness and shame, I need to not let it drain me of my energy to work on behalf of others. The skills we all need are, in part, 

* the ability to be truthfully self-awareness 

* the ability to know what is a useful emotion and what is not

* the ability to be able to set aside unproductive emotions while doing the work to change the situations and thoughts causing them

* the ability to understand and accept my needs and the needs of others in any given situation


Every relationship we have improves when we develop these skills, especially our relationship with ourselves. The more we understand what motivates our emotions, the more productively we can respond to them. We become more capable of personal strength and confidence, and we become more available to understand and help others.


You can hone these skills in yourself, and maybe even help others. If you are interested in more information, send me an email, and we'll talk. Building these parts of you is vitally important to every aspect of your life. Act now while you are thinking about it.