I didn’t realize I was racist until I moved to NYC in 2011.
I was cool with my classmates of color in high school and us rural/suburban Catholic school “rich kids” who commuted into the city never shied away from crashing a good Flint house party. We bragged about going to high school on the north end of Flint, and hung out at Angelo’s Coney Island on Friday nights like it gave us some sort of street cred, then we drove 20 miles south in cars paid for by our parents to waterfront homes where we spent our summers cruising the lake in high end ski boats that never seemed to run out of gas and whispering about the creepy KKK leader who used to live “just down that dirt road over there” as we drove in search of the site of our next field party.
From there I attended college at Miami University in Ohio, a gem of a campus dropped in the middle of cornfields in southwestern Ohio. Given one of my roommates was a cheerleader and two were dating football players, I spent a fair amount of time partying with the few students of color on my college campus.
Later, when I worked in the family construction business, I always got along with the lone Black foreman who would swing by the office to drop off bills and pick up checks. I never understood why his crew was the lazy, shoddy one when the other crews were teeming with guys who didn’t show up on time or at all, and who treated pretty much everything like their own personal garbage can. I never questioned it either.
But I was definitely NOT racist.
Then, for the first time in my life, I lived someplace where I wasn’t surrounded by white people, with a few people of color sprinkled in, on our terms, for good measure. In the early days of living in NYC, each morning I would jump on the uptown 2 train to take my youngest to preschool and virtually no one looked like me, or like they were trying to look like me. It made me deeply afraid and anxious.
Not much of a religious person, despite 13 years of Catholic school, but always a believer in something bigger than me, I turned to the Bible, scared and searching for protection. As I began reading, a few verses of Psalm 31 landed on my heart immediately.
Praise be to the Lord,
for he showed me the wonders of his love
when I was in a city under siege.
In my alarm I said,
“I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.
Living in a city under siege is what I felt. All the overt and covert messaging about who was in and who was out, who was good and who was bad, who was worthy and who was not, who was safe and who was dangerous that I absorbed over the course of my first thirty-four years were laid bare. Everything I believed about myself, and others, exposed.
I carried that verse with me in the notes on my phone and turned to it often. It gave me hope and comfort that I was not alone and that God would protect me from all the dangers surrounding me, from all the people who looked and acted differently than me.
Most days it helped to assuage my panic and steady my breath so I could get to where I needed to go. But one morning, I pushed my son’s stroller into the subway car barely holding it together. I couldn’t access that feeling of protection that had carried me through the past few months. I felt abandoned and alone and terrified. I was lightheaded and fearful of collapsing, so I put my head down and gripped the stroller handles tightly, willing the train to move quickly as the doors closed behind me. In desperation, seeking something to focus on and center my thoughts, I started repeating the Our Father, the prayer this once upon a time little Catholic girl used to pray in bed in the middle of the night when the monsters threatened.
And then, I heard it so clearly on my heart, I wasn’t sure it hadn’t been spoken aloud.
Lift up your head. Look up. Look at the faces around you. These are all my children.
As I lifted my head and looked, really looked, at the faces surrounding me, the faces of mothers and daughters and fathers and sons and sisters and brothers, the faces of people who love and smile and rejoice and hurt and bleed and grow weary, just like me, I understood what the spirit was telling me,
You don’t need my protection dear child. You need to change your heart.
That day began the work of dismantling beliefs I didn’t even realize I held and excavating to the source of my fears. It’s been almost 9 years, years of having my blinders pulled off over and over, years of listening and learning, years of reading both fiction and non-fiction works of authors of color, years of intentionally choosing to build relationships with people of color for both myself and my children, years of seeking out organizations and faith communities who not only raise the voices of people of color, but ask them to lead. The work is never done, because the roots of racist beliefs and ideas run deep. They are tightly woven into the fabric of our nation, tightly woven into the fabric of our being.
If you are sitting where I was and want to join me in this work, here are a few simple ways to start:
- Own your racist thoughts and beliefs – Can you share a belief you hold you suspect or know is racist, or share a time you recognized yourself thinking or acting based on a racist belief in the comments? If publicly stating it feels too big a step, get a journal and write it down. Write them all down. Add to it in the days and weeks and years ahead. Reflect on it. White people need to stop pretending we aren’t racist because we aren’t members of the KKK. We need to stop pretending racism doesn’t exist anymore because we can drink out of the same drinking fountains and eat in the same restaurants or because we work alongside people of color or smile and act politely toward the cashier at the grocery store or the teller at the bank. We need to get over the shame of our racism that drives us to pretend it doesn’t exist. We can’t change if we deny where we are and where we’ve been.
- Read fiction and non-fiction by writers of color; fill your bookshelves with anti-racist thought leaders – Austin Channing Brown, Michele Alexander, Jesmyn Ward, Bryan Stevenson, Ta-Nehisi Coats and Ibram X. Kendi are good places to start. It will be hard. They will write things you don’t agree with, things you can’t quite understand, things that ruffle your feathers and make you puff up your chest and think “that’s not fair”. Pay attention to those words and go back to them. Ask yourself “why?”. Dig deeper. Don’t walk away when their words make you feel uncomfortable or don’t make sense, that’s where the work begins. P.S. I’m starting an anti-racist book club and you are welcome to join me. We will start with “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In A World Made For Whiteness” by Austin Channing Brown, described as “an eye-opening account of growing up Black, Christian, and female in middle-class America.” If you want in, leave your name in the comments below or send me a DM.
- Broaden your social media feed – follow artists and writers and thought leaders and activists of color, but also follow everyday people of color who share your interests; mom-bloggers or foodies or fitness professionals or fashion bloggers or travel enthusiasts or…you get the point. If you do this well, the algorithm will start putting ads targeted to people of color in your feed. You will learn from those ads too. Effective ads speak directly to the consumer and what they care about. Paying attention to how brands, particularly brands owned by people of color, market to audiences of color can help us recognize our similarities, but also provide insight into their unique values, needs, and pain points.
- Join me at this virtual workshop: The Call of this Moment: An Anti-Racism Workshop with Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis. “Because so many of our societal ills stem from unexamined racism, Jacqui will lead participants through an exploration of the intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics of race, racism, privilege and implicit/explicit bias in culture, in our lives and in the organizations to which we belong.”
- Read this piece by Corinne Shutack, 75 Things White People Can Do For Racial Justice – if you join me in item #2 on my list, we’ll knock a few items off her list of 75, but there’s still a lot more you can do on your own. Even more anti-racism resources can be found here.
- Listen. – let go of the urge to respond, to argue, to justify. Just listen to voices of color. Let them sink in. There will eventually be a time on your journey when speaking and engaging in conversation will be the next right thing. It’s not now. It’s not even close.