Tag Archives: white fragility

What I Didn’t Want To Share, Or: If This White (Jewish) Woman Went To Confession, This Is What She’d Say

7 Nov

I actually did go to confession when I was in the fifth grade. I grew up as a Reform Jew, and wanted to know what all my Catholic classmates did in confession so I had a few of my friends take me to the grand, Immaculate Conception Church in our downtown. They prepped me on what to do and say when I got in the confession booth, and told me how to go to the altar and kneel and count to sixty instead of saying the Hail Mary. I felt certain the priest would know through the screened booth that I was Jewish. I felt guilty because I lied to him about the sins I made up about fighting with my sisters and lying to my parents, and that it was five weeks since my last confession. I felt guilty for kneeling at the altar because Jews aren’t supposed to kneel. But it made me feel like I knew something more about my friends, and what they experienced as Catholics. Left in our school’s classroom every Monday with the two other Jewish students, and the one Muslim student, while the rest of the class went to Catechism class, I had crossed a bridge into their world, and felt better off for doing so.

Speaking of guilt, I know my writing has been more sporadic as of late, but do you remember that bit of advice I gave at the end of Some Of Us White People ? Yes, the one about not letting our white people guilt, or shame, keep us focusing on ourselves, keep us stuck and inert and unable to act. You may not remember, because I wrote that piece in June–over four months ago!

Well, I didn’t listen to my own advice. I let myself get sucked into, let myself wallow in feelings of unworthiness, guilt, and wondered with self-importance if I, as a white woman, had the “right” to write about race–that maybe I could, maybe I should, just be quiet for a while.

I started a draft of this post back then, but kept putting off finishing  and publishing it because it didn’t say all that I thought I needed to say, and because I worried about sharing my vulnerability, and being called out for my own self-centering, self-absorbed “white freakin’ fragility” nonsense. As I sit to finally come back to this writing, it is November 5th, two days post-election, and we all sit waiting for all the ballots to be counted, and for the news of who will be our next President.

To be honest, this conflict about writing is something I’ve grappled with at times during the ten years I’ve been blogging about race, racism, and cross-racial connection. The sentences run through my brain…should I write about Black popular culture? about anti-Black racism?…Am I going to offend Black people with what I write? …Are white people going to think I am an extremist and make everything about race?I have no place wanting to write up the stories of the Queen of the Maroon peoples of Jamaica, Ga’ama “Mama G”, or more formally, Ga’ama Gloria Simms. Ga’ama Mama G is a great woman leader, who I was honored to meet in Jamaica, and be able to befriend through my friend, Professor Diana Fox, Chair of the Anthropology Department at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. I tell myself, shouldn’t it be a Jamaican woman who is representative of, and knows, the Jamaican culture? And, when I hear Black people say we should center and amplify the voices of Black people, of Black woman, I of course, fully agree.

As a white woman, I am grateful for the diversity of this blog’s followers and with every one’s engagement and feedback. As a writer, I also often hear the phrase, we should know who our audience is. I have to admit, I think I am someone who has lived her life in many areas in an unintentional, but perhaps, intuitive way, and I know I definitely wasn’t fully conscious of, or strategic, about who I was writing for when I started blogging. As time has gone on, I realize it is my intention, and my hope that sharing what I’ve experienced and learned through reading the works of Black scholars and writers, and while in conversation with Black people, and other white people, and through this reflective writing,  that white readers here will absorb at least some of it, and begin to question and change the way they see matters of race and racism, and us white people’s complicity in it. It is my hope that we all, no longer being able to unsee the racist foundation upon which this country was built and maintained, that we white people will want to change our ways of moving and behaving in this world, and more strongly, will do the work to break down racism in every facet of our lives. I know that it is also my hope that I continue to engage more deeply in conversations about race with Black people, and to learn more about their lived experiences, and to be open to receiving their feedback and questions, and to grow with that, and to not become defensive, or to let my guilt take over, like the very guilt and shame that had me hedging about writing and sharing this piece in the first place.

When I do express this inner conflict about writing to friends, Black, and white, I challenge myself to listen to their feedback with an open mind and heart. I was recently reminded of something I know, but also, at times, forget. Professor Julia Jordan Zachery, Chair of the Africana Studies Department at University of North Carolina, said, “you have a race..white people forget or don’t think they have a race. You have a race, and you’re writing about race through your white lens.” Diana, who I mentioned above, and who introduced me to Ga’ama Mama G., has shared her perspective of noting the many identities we hold, acknowledging intersectionality and the power and privilege that comes with those identities, and on broadening our views to one of a global interconnectedness. While acknowledging the need for affinity spaces, she also believes in the need for people of all backgrounds to come together for bridge-building work, and to bring about change in this world.

I have also recently gotten feedback from some Black people, suggesting, especially at this point in time, that instead of my writing on matters pertaining to the Black community, that I should center the voices of Black people in the telling of their own communities. What’s probably missing for me, is more feedback and interaction from other white people, especially the feedback I don’t get from white people who don’t like, or don’t believe in what I have to say. They seem to stay silent, and I’m left to ponder their missing feedback.

In the more distant past, I know I have looked for the feedback that told me I was still a “good white person,” and wanted to avoid hearing words that challenged my people-pleasing, good white person self. I got defensive and did that white person thing, of saying to myself and to friends, that whoever questioned what I wrote, didn’t know me, or my true intentions.

After ten years of writing, I definitely still can feel wounded at times when I take in commentary about white people and whiteness. I can personalize a “not all white people” statement, and then immediately afterward know I shouldn’t. And then take it to the place of knowing, but it is all white people, and embrace it. The constructs of race does not allow us to escape our whiteness. There is a dichotomy that sits inside of me that I continue to work on. The voice that says, I feel bad about myself, and the one that says, I am here to hear everything that needs to be heard about racism, whiteness, and white supremacy and white people’s complicity in it because it’s far more important to break down white supremacist systems than it is to worry about my good white person status. The latter is stupid and useless and dangerous.

As I get mad at myself for still, after all this time, having these feelings of guilt pop up, and work to overcome them, I wonder if these feelings of guilt and shame are more recently heightened because of this moment in time, and are a necessary thing for me, and other white people to not overcome, but to work through, in the process of undoing our whiteness, and of decolonizing our racialized minds and ways of moving in the world. It has to get uncomfortable, at least I know that is true especially for someone like me, to truly get myself further along on the journey of changing myself, and growing my ability to be a part of the change of the systems of white supremacy I find myself surrounded by. I know it is far more important to be able to hear the statements of truth about where we are at, at this very moment in this country. White people have the dire need to reckon with the white supremacist notions and racial violence that this country was founded on, and has maintained over the past 400 years, and as this election reflects, shows that half the country is desperately trying to hold on to. I will never “arrive” at being done with the work of dismantling the whiteness that resides within me and the world around me. None of us will. It is a lifelong journey, and will continue to be for those that come after us. I will work on seeing this moment as necessary for me to grow, instead of one that gets me stuck.

Something that is helping me tremendously to reckon with my current white woman junkpile of whiteness, is the podcast, Eyes on Whiteness. The podcast is co-hosted by Maureen Benson, who identifies as a white woman and whose work focuses on racial justice and intersectional leadership in the areas of education and social impact organizations, and Diedre Barber, who identifies as a Black, Puerto Rican gay women, and is the founder and CEO of Filament Consulting Group, where she coaches others—youth, educators, and corporations–to bring about systemic change through the use of authenticity, compassion, transparency and high expectations.

In the words of the founders, “Eyes On Whiteness is a podcast that illuminates the insidious and ignorant ways of whiteness, regardless of intent. Our guests are invited to talk about the ways white supremacy and patriarchy are pervasive and ever-present.  Our conversations are rooted in a commitment to normalizing the “how, not if” lens for looking at the ways it’s present for all of us.”

Eyes On Whiteness and the conversations that Maureen, and Diedre, who Maureen notes in her introduction, shows up when she feels like it, as is her right as a Black woman taking care of herself and setting boundaries for her own emotional labor, are deep, and eye, and heart opening. These two women truly reflect their values of authenticity, transparency, compassion and accountability, whether it is the two of them reflecting on how they feel on this Election Day, or in conversation with their guests who have included, poet/educator, Roger Bonair-Agard, educator, facilitator and healer, Leidene King, E3: Education, Excellence & Equity founder, Dr. JuanCarlos Arauz, and the episode I listened to twice for all of its gems: the conversation with poet, activist, leader and author of The Body Is Not An Apology, Sonya Renee Taylor.

Eyes On Whiteness is making me, instead of always looking outward to analyze anti-Black racism, look inward in a way that helps bring awareness to the ways whiteness shows up in me, and how it permeates all of us, and all the spaces we move in. It is challenging me to work through this current bout of white guilt I have been letting overtake me. It is helping me to sustain my will to always show up and be present in this lifelong work of what, I believe Diedre has named, as transmuting white supremacy. They say transmuting instead of dismantling because it is their belief that we will never break down white supremacy completely, but we can transform it, and change our ways of being together and living and working together—replace the ways of white supremacy with a new, non-hierarchal, equitable way of relating to, and caring for one another—to make a new way, and a new world together.

I thank you for sharing in my confession. Maybe mine will help you share yours. Because it’s okay to not be perfect, to slip up, to be self-aware, so we can know what we need to work on on ourselves. I give thanks to Maureen and Diedre, for all they have given to me over these past few weeks. I will now go count for 60 seconds, and clear out those guilt cobwebs, and begin again, looking for the next bridge to cross.

Some Of Us White People

30 Jun

Protest following death of George Floyd, Providence, RI, June 5, 2020

It’s been a little over three weeks since the local protests took place here in Providence, and all over the world, in the wake of George Floyd’s death. And it feels like it’s been three weeks of vast numbers of white people in a tizzy over how we could not have known how bad things were for Black people in America, and how blind we all were to systemic racism.

Some of us woke up, and rose up, and said we want to help. We pored over the Google Doc of resources shared widely on social media by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein–books, articles, organizations and funds to donate to, and legislators to call. Some of us also learned of the Justice in June Google Document turned website with expanded anti-racism resources and teachings by Autum Gupta and Bryanna Wallace.

Some of us bought all the books recommended on social media to educate ourselves on the history of racism in this country. Books like, Stamped From The Beginning, and How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, The Me And White Supremacy Workbook by Layla Saad, Waking Up White by Debby Irving, and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Currently, The New York Times Bestseller List for Paperback Non-Fiction, shows all top ten books are on race, with the aforementioned books on the list.

Some of us have confessed on Facebook how ignorant or blind we were to our own white privilege. How blind we were to the continued systems of racial inequity that came about post-slavery through policies and laws that created redlining, Jim Crow laws, loan discrimination, education disparities, job discrimination, mass incarceration, and the one we, if we have any humanity, can no longer deny: the more than “a few bad apples,”systemic racism inherent in law enforcement, and the never-ending police brutality against Black people.

Shortly after some of us spoke about being overwhelmed and not knowing where to begin to educate ourselves, and take action, we learned about the police killing of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta on June 12th. The 27 year-old Brooks, married and the father of three children, had fallen asleep in the Wendy’s drive-thru and the police were called. After a half-hour of conversation where Rayshard politely told officers he had a few drinks, and offered to leave his car in the parking lot to walk to his sister’s house which was just a few blocks away, the officers decided to arrest Rayshard after a failed sobriety test. Rayshard, who was on parole, and working hard to stay on track with his family and work life despite the many restrictions and burdens the judicial system placed on him, most likely feared what an arrest would mean for him and his future. He resisted by trying to free himself from the officers trying to cuff him, Brosnand and Rolfe, and a scuffle ensued. Rayshard did grab one of the officer’s tasers and ran away, pointing it over his shoulder, and shooting the taser once at Rolfe, a taser which cannot cause deadly harm. Officer Rolfe shot at the back of Rayshard Brooks with his gun, hitting him twice. Rayshard fell to the ground. Officer Brosnan stood on Rayshard’s shoulders while he was on the ground, and Rolfe kicked his body. They stood over his body for two minutes before administering any medical attention. Rayshard Brooks died later that night at the hospital after coming out of surgery.

Some of us returned to our urgent call to ourselves to “do something!” Some of us worried still about offending Black people by either saying or doing the wrong thing, so some of us did nothing. Some of us thought and hoped we were doing the right thing by reaching out to our Black friends and asking them how they were doing. Some of us felt guilty when we read articles written by Black people who were taken aback, or baffled, by the awkward ways white people were reaching out to them– about friends who before now, rarely, if ever, had conversations about race with them, or ever noticed the micro-aggressions their friends endured, or the way their own white privilege allowed them to move through the world never having to think about their race, because their white skin was the default.

Some of us Venmo’d our Black friends, either at their request, or after seeing articles that said sending money to your Black friends is what you should do, because we sure owe them, or as a gesture to promote self-care for the recipient, then felt guilty again when we read some posts on social media about how sending money to Black people was insulting. I received a link to a podcast through Facebook Messenger from my friend, Darrell, who is Black, which he thought was hilarious, and which I had to admit I could see my own shortcomings in. The podcast, /reply-all/, episode #162 The Least You Could Do, produced by Emmanuel Dzotsi, was about this very subject of Black people receiving texts with offers of money from white people, like some kind of offering to absolve ourselves from the sin of being white, and benefiting from white supremacy. In fact, toward the end of the podcast, Black Latinx comedian, Milly Tamarez, did just that. After the 2016 Presidential election, she did a stand-up act asking white people to pay her, and if they did, she would absolve them of the sins of their people. It took off, and lots of white people sent her money, confessed of their sins, and received absolution. While some of the sins confessed started out light, like performing in a West Side Story play in school where all the parts were played by white people, some got darker as time went on, like the confession by a young white guy who was dating a Black woman but was afraid to get intimate with her because he feared he wouldn’t be as good a lover as a Black man. I hope all of us reading here will want to listen to this podcast to hear Milly’s response, and her thoughts about the whole experience of her White Forgiveness Project, as well as the thoughts and feelings that some Black people are having about how white people are reaching out to them at this time.

Some of us may have found ourselves saying, “damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” yet, hopefully we learned instead, that Black people are not a monolith, and do not think alike, and that most Black people would probably say they’ve lived “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” to the point of life vs. death, every single day. We hopefully learned that while one friend or acquaintance might welcome your reaching out to ask them what they need from you, and one person might say, Venmo me, and another friend might tell you they are too exhausted from experiencing racism to do the emotional labor to respond to you. They might nudge you to initiate your own self-education, and tell you to talk to other white people who may be further along on their journey in anti-racist work and action. They might tell us to figure out amongst ourselves what we should do next. After all, it is all of us white people who created and continue to uphold racism and racist systems in the first place. But, we’ll never know what to do if we don’t put ourselves out there and ask.

And as some of us are spending way too much time dealing with our own white fragility, rather than being of benefit to the movement to support Black lives, we learned of the death of Elijah McClain. Elijah was a 23 year-old massage therapist from Aurora, Colorado who was walking home from a convenience store when he was stopped by officers after a call was made to police about a suspicious person walking down the street wearing a mask. Elijah, who played violin on his lunch break to cats at animal shelters, because he believed it calmed them, was a slight, young man, with anemia, who wore the mask to keep warm. He did absolutely nothing wrong, and was wrestled to the ground by several officers, held in a carotid hold, and injected with the tranquilizer, ketamine, before being taken by ambulance to the hospital. Elijah suffered a heart attack on the way there, and was brain dead and on life support, when several days later, his family had to make the decision to take him off life support, at which time, Elijah passed away. The heartbreaking words of Elijah McClain while he was being arrested and his tiny frame being pressed on, to the point he vomited and could not breathe, have been shared widely:

“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity. I’ll do it. You all are so phenomenal. You are beautiful. And I love you. Try to forgive me. I am a mood gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You all are very strong. Team work makes the dream work…(crying)..oh I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly (proceeds to vomit from the pressure to his chest and neck).”

– Elijah McClain

And as we ask again, what should we do, some of us are pulling out our pocketbooks and making donations to local and national Black-led organizations that promote justice, and build resources for Black communities. Some of us are educating ourselves through reading, conversation, and attending virtual panels led by Black scholars and activists. In Providence, the calls to Defund The Police rang loud and clear this week on a 9-hour Zoom call for the City’s Finance Committee meeting, where residents, Black, white and Brown, got to use their voices to speak about far better ways to address community wellness and public safety.

Yet some of us learned of another Providence meeting of the City Council members, where Black councilwoman, Nirva LaFortune, was talked over and muted during the Zoom meeting, by fellow councilman, John Igliozzi. Igliozzi announced a petition he said he created to bring to the RI General Assembly to appeal the state’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights. Councilwoman LaFortune stated on the call, that she had been working on a resolution to repeal the bill and it was on the agenda to present to the council. She continued to say that Igliozzi was aware of and co-signed on it, and that this petition was appropriated from LaFortune by him without speaking with her, or giving her credit for the research, and work that she had done. Igliozzi continued to erase the work and voice of the Black woman councilwoman, as he muted LaFortune several times more as she tried in vain to make her point heard and acknowledged–the final time right after the councilwoman told Igliozzi that “this is oppressive behavior.”

And in all of this, still we wait for the arrest of the two officers who killed Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Breonna, 25, a beloved EMT, and her boyfriend, were asleep when the police broke into their home unannounced. Thinking it was an intruder, Breonna’s boyfriend walked toward the living room, licensed gun in his hand to defend himself and Breonna. The police upon sighting him started shooting. They fired eight shots that killed Breonna. Why did they break into her home? They were looking for someone who had a warrant out for his arrest for drug dealing. They were in the wrong home. The person they were looking for: He was already in custody.

Some of us are performing activism with expressions of outrage, and sadness, followed up with lackluster, or absent action. Many corporations have made statements in support of Black Lives Mattering, along with proclamations of intention to make their workplace “inclusive” and “equitable.” Some have even already instituted a policy to now make Juneteenth an official holiday. Some of us are seeing media outlets scramble to feature stories on race, and even hire Black writers and photographers and journalists to tell them. We are seeing art museums and arts organizations all of a sudden featuring the works of Black artists on their sites, like the Poem-a-day series I subscribe to that for the last month has featured daily poems by contemporary, as well as, 19th and 20th century Black poets.

Some of us are so worried about how dangerous the world feels “because of all the rioting and looting and Chicago and Black on Black crime, and nobody wanting to be a police officer anymore because of how dangerous it is for them, with everyone being against them now…” Many of our inner Karens have been exposed.

Some of us, a lot of us, say we really care, and we really do, and all of us, have to really do. I heard a Black woman artist at the George Floyd protest, who said in conversation with a friend of hers, another Black woman, that at this point, the only way white people can show they are supporting Black people, is to do one or more of these three things:

Give money

Share resources

Put your body on the line

Some of us see ourselves in some of this here, or all of this here, or none of this here. Trust me, my own white fragility guilt and shame level has been on ultra-high, too. Now is the time to rid ourselves of the guilt and shame that does nothing but absolve us in our own minds from doing anything, keeps us uncomfortable about ourselves only. Keeps us stuck and inert. With this focusing on ourselves and how bad we feel, we cannot see beyond ourselves, or be strong enough to do anything to break down racism. All of us have to be willing to be in discomfort outside of ourselves, whether it is in conversation with other white people about race, whether it is asking a question to a Black person that we are worried is going to make us seem racist, or whether it is digging into figuring out what actions we can take in our communities to break down systemic racism.All of us need to decide which ones of us we see here, and which one of us we are going to become.

Tell Me The Truth: Exploring The Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations with Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving

17 Feb

Presenters: Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving

Last Sunday, I attended Tell Me the Truth: Exploring The Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations at the Glastonbury MLK Community Initiative Center in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

I had been wanting to attend one of these talks for some time now, every time I see Shay Stewart-Bouley or Debby Irving post about them, and was so glad that I could finally make it to this one in Connecticut, while I was there visiting family. Shay Stewart-Bouley is Executive Director of the civil rights organization, Community Change, Inc. in Boston, and a writer, and author of the blog, Black Girl in Maine. Debby Irving, is a racial justice educator and author of the book, Waking Up White.

The talk was held at MLK Community Initiative Center in Glastonbury, a town just outside of Hartford, which I always saw–as a person who grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, a diverse, industrial town– as one of the state’s wealthier, white suburbs. I looked around in the spacious, light and airy room during the pre-talk reception, while I snacked on delicious food–babaganoush, fatayer, sesame cookies–which Debby said was catered by a local refugee family from Syria.The expectation almost didn’t register on a conscious level, at first, and then did–that the room of what seemed like a few hundred people, was majority white, with probably just under a dozen, Black people, and people of color, in attendance.

But, I was glad that all these white people were willing to come to hear Shay and Debby speak, as I was glad that I was there, too. I had first heard the two women speak about five years ago, when Debby’s book, Waking Up White, her journey of waking up to realizing how the construct of race, racialized systems of oppression, and white privilege, informed her life, and the world around her, and how her journey led her to do racial justice work. When I mentioned my attendance to their past event to Debby and Shay before the talk began, Shay said that that was the very first talk they ever did, and that I would now have the chance to see how the conversation between she and Debby has evolved. I hadn’t thought of that fact, and with Shay’s insight, was even more inspired for what was to come that afternoon.

I was inspired, even though right before I left my sister’s house to go to the talk, I told her I felt a bit nervous about going. She asked me why, and I answered that I supposed it was because I always feel so awkward in social, face-to-face interactions, regardless of the topic, and put pressure on myself at public events to think I have to come up with something deep to say or ask the presenters, which then fills me with anxiety and self-doubt, and so I just stay silent. I added that I want to be doing more in terms of racial justice work and breaking down racism, and feel like I’m not doing enough.

All that ridiculous, loaded, negative self-talk had taken over my brain, which is probably born out of fear of being honest and deep, in the moment when it comes to doing the work of racial justice, and having cross-racial conversations, which was the whole purpose of the afternoon’s talk, and why I wanted to go to it in the first place. My sister, who wanted to go to the talk too, but couldn’t, told me, in so many words, to not be silly–that I’m doing the work, and it will be a good thing to go. I knew that, and so packed myself and my fear into my car, as I always do, and went.

Not having any “good” questions to ask Shay or Debby after our brief chat, I blankly stared and smiled, in all my don’t know what to say next awkwardness, and soon after, both women moved on to get ready for their talk.

I let what Shay said to me simmer as I settled into my seat in the back of the very full, white-walled, mostly white-peopled, space. I took note of how it was indeed pretty cool that I got to see their very first conversation. I made a mental note to pay attention to noticing how the conversation might differ from their first meeting.

What I remember from that first talk, that even though Shay shared about herself, growing up in Chicago in a working-class family, and her work in the non-profit world, this first talk seemed to be more centered and structured like an interview, or review, of Debby and her book, Waking Up White. …” I remember Shay, saying what she thought about the book–that it had the voice of a privileged, white woman, and that it was basic in its framing of understanding the racist systems of oppression, like, the GI Bill, redlining, and inequities in public education, and Debby’s own noticing of her “good white person, white saviorism” traits when working in the arts in what was called, under-served communities of color.

Shay opened up the MLK Center’s conversation, referring back to her first connection with Debby, recalling how, “when I first got a phone message from her, I thought, who is this white woman who had the audacity to reach out to me to read and review her book, and have a conversation with her about it?” Five years later, Shay repeated how she thought Waking Up White is a basic book, but that it is an important, good beginning book for white people to understand, and perhaps begin their journey in understanding the roots of systems of oppression and white privilege in this country.

The two women let us know, their talk is always unscripted–they simply talk about what is on their mind at the moment, and take it from there. Snippets of the conversation that stood out in my memory were Shay’s statement of how when she visits a local bar on the island off of Maine where she currently lives, she listens to people’s conversations, and it strikes her how superficial white people’s conversations can be, especially with all that is going on in the world right now—people talking about the weather, instead of immigration, climate change, or the administration’s racist policies.

This comment made me think of one of the blog posts I wrote several years ago when I noticed all the white people on my Facebook timeline talking about the amount of snow we got instead of the not-guilty verdict in the first trial of the Jordan Davis killing. This was the case where a white man shot into a car of young Black teenage boys at a gas station, killing Jordan, simply because Jordan would not turn down the music blasting from their car stereo when the man yelled at them to turn it down.

Shay also talked about white people having to do their own healing, find their humanity, and of the inhumanity we possess, because, well, how can we not hold inhumane qualities for all the harm and suffering we have inflicted over the centuries on Black and brown people? When I hear these words, I know I experience feelings of shame and guilt, that my white fragility peeks out, but also know the truth of these words, and accept them. That these words are necessary for us to hear, to wrestle with, to believe, so that we can work to recover our humanity. And to think white people came up with the term and its implication, “three-fifths of a man.”

As Shay and Debby talked about their experiences having these conversations, and their individual work and life experiences, Debby noted how she was raised in this Anglo, wasp, tradition to always be nice, to avoid conflict, which made it difficult for her in the beginning of her journey to have conversations about the tensions she was feeling around the construct of race. She and Shay had an honest back and forth about what that meant, and Debby continues to work on this, but knows there will still be missteps. She encouraged white people to not be afraid to have missteps when talking about race. And, jumping ahead here to note a related comment at the Q & A at the end of the conversation, Debby said, “ we don’t enter into relationships with our parents, siblings, aunts, cousins or partners saying, we are going to have this relationship and there will never be any kind of misstep. We wouldn’t do that, right? Well, in having cross racial conversations, we have to remember that, and allow for that. Like any relationship, there is going to be missteps, and having these honest conversations helps to develop trust, and deepens the relationship.”

Shay also talked about the challenges she faced with being a Black woman whose experience includes Executive Director leadership of several non-profit organizations, one in Maine, and as mentioned, presently, at Community Change in Boston. Shay spoke of how at meetings in Portland, Maine, when various non-profit leaders met together to discuss initiatives in the city, that, “whenever I brought up ideas, I was met with lukewarm nods, or ignored, but when a particular white male in the group mentioned the same idea, the group would enthusiastically support him.” Shay said, “But the good thing is, this man noticed this, and became a mentor, and a true ally, in that he worked with me on how to have my ideas heard and put into action with the group.”

After about an hour of dialogue between Shay and Debby, they asked the audience to break out into circles of about six people each and to introduce ourselves and talk about what stood out to us so far about the talk, and anything we wanted to share about our experiences with race. In our circle, which contained a majority of white woman of varying ages, I couldn’t help but notice that several of the women, to me, discounted Shay’s experience of being a Black women not having her voice heard or trusted as a leader in the non-profit management world. The discounting came in the form of sharing that the women thought this wasn’t about race, and was more about being a woman, and shared examples of sexism in the workplace they experienced themselves.

I saw this as dissonance, or a very typical thing that us white people do regarding conversations about race, which is to say something is not necessarily about race, and then give some example of something related to them. In these cases, I always think of someone saying in response to Black Lives Matter, that All Lives Matter. I thought to myself, I have to say something to speak to that, but how do I do it in a way that the women don’t feel called out?

When it was my turn to talk, I shared that I knew of Debby and Shay’s work, had read Debby’s book, and follow Shay’s blog, and am on a journey myself in regards to race, racism and cross-racial connection, which I blog about. I said, “… and in this journey one thing that I have learned is that when a Black person shares something about racism that they experienced, to believe them, and, simply listen, and to not try and think of a similar thing that I may have experienced, but to leave it at that, and so we validate, and don’t invalidate that experience, and/or try and make it about us.” I am not sure it came out exactly like that, and because, like Debby who talks about her wasp upbringing, as a Jewish girl growing up at the same time as Debby, I was taught to be nice, and not to say anything mean, and while my parents taught us that racism was wrong, and that we should “treat everyone equally,” my family did not have difficult, deep conversations about things going on in the world. I worried that I had said something in our circle, in a way that both was a “call-out” and perhaps even showed this air of superiority—that I, this white woman knew more than these two women, and was a better white person because of it, even though I know that I am not. But I knew I had to at least try, to challenge what was being said, even though I want to learn how to say things with grace, as I was also thinking about meeting people where they are at, and saying things in a way that can be heard, and where people will not be hurt. I wondered how Shay and Debby would have handled this.

In the Question and Answer that followed our circle talks, a few questions in, a white woman took the mic, and asked Shay, “Can we get to hear your Black voice?” I did a double-take, and looked at Shay, who seemed to take one, too, and quickly answered back. “Let me think about that,” and then moved on to the next question.

Shay had earlier in the conversation talked about how Black people often have to code switch, and assimilate into white culture and present themselves in such a way that is palatable to white people, especially in the work place, and then when in the presence of only other Black people can relax and truly be themselves. I knew I felt disturbed by this woman’s question, as it seemed like she was asking Shay to put on a show for us. I thought in that moment, that Shay or Debby might respond more fully to that woman’s question, but I, myself, did nothing outwardly to question the question.

A few questions later, though, a Black woman in the audience addressed it. She asked, with patience and grace, “I would like to know if the woman could elaborate on what she meant by that question of Shay sharing her Black voice, because I want to understand what this woman means, where she is coming from.”

The microphone was given back to the woman who asked the question. She seemed a bit nervous as she spoke, but answered, “what I meant was, you talked about always having to think about the way you have to say things at work and other places so that you will be heard, and not seen as the angry Black woman, or something else, and in a similar conversation circle I did recently, a friend of mine, a Black woman told these stories of how she has to worry about her Black son being pulled over by the police and all these things that I never knew about that she was experiencing and went through, and so I wondered about those things for you, what are the thoughts you are having that you don’t say in the company of white people?”

I cannot remember if this happened before the woman answered the other audience member, or after, but Shay said, when she first heard the question “I was taken aback, and wasn’t exactly sure what the woman meant, and wasn’t sure I wanted to answer in that moment, so I moved on.”

At this point, Debby asked to comment, and said that this was a learning moment. To the white woman in the audience, she said, “When we do this work, and we are having these conversations, we say there is this thing called ‘Intention vs. Impact.’ You may have intended to mean one thing, but regardless, the impact it has on the person who it is said to, is what matters, and asking this question may have been taken by Shay, as if she was being asked, as Black people often are, to perform, as in this kind of minstrely way…” I looked over in the direction of the woman who asked the question about intent, and she and several of the people sitting close to her, also people of color, were nodding their heads, and I could hear one of the young people say, “yes, that’s what it sounded like to us..”

Debby went on to say how when this happens we need to validate the experience of the person receiving the statement, and accept their feedback. She added, “ I want to point out that, see, you did a good job just now. You were able to receive my feedback, and not get defensive, and that is a good thing.” She said that she realized, too, that she should have spoken up when the question was asked, and pointing to the Black woman in the audience who asked the question, said, “see, it is always Black women who speak up at these times,” and said that “I have to realize that that’s one of my limitations when this happens.”

I was appreciative of the playing out live of how a situation where intention vs. impact can cause harm, and the responsibility of speaking up and addressing it when it happens in a way that it is honest, and constructive, and as Debby and Shay beckon us, with the very root of their Exploring The Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations–remembering the importance of creating spaces to have these authentic conversations.

In closing, Shay said, “Let’s be bold, let’s be brave. Let’s go deeper. When you’re at the bar, don’t ask about the weather. Let’s talk about racism, climate change…about what’s going on in your community..”
Debby added, “..sometimes people say, well, we need to work on the systems and policies, and, yes we need legislation, but we need this, too.”

They were right. We need this, too. I know I did, and do. It made me realize, too, that afternoon–because there is always so much we take for granted in our daily lives–I realized how Shay and Debby have been a constant in my journey of becoming a more conscious white person who strives to break down racism, most often on a personal level through my writing and conversations with other white people, and with Black people and people of color, too. I realize that while in my writing I can “speak” more fluidly about my feelings and thoughts about matters of race, that I need to practice and put myself out there more in my face-to-face conversations.

In following Shay’s blog, Black Girl In Maine, I get to learn about Shay’s lived experiences, about the perspectives and experiences of the writers featured on her blog, and current issues on matters of race in our country through shared articles from outside the blog. Shay also makes herself vulnerable in her writing, at times sharing about what is going on in her personal life with herself, and family members. She shares slices of life about what she described when once asked why she chose to be a Black woman living on an island off Maine, one of the whitest states of the union, as, “..I’m doing my version of Eat, Pray, Love, Black Woman Style.” While it is not Shay’s job to teach me about race, I am inspired by all that she does, and have deep gratitude for the learning and growth I experience as a result of all the work she does, and gives to me and the many others she reaches and teaches, through her blog, public speaking, and non-profit work to bring about racial justice.

I first met Debby when we were in a writing workshop session together in Boston, probably over ten years ago. There, we discovered that we were both passionate about working on understanding our place in the construct of race, and breaking down racism. Debby was just working on the outline of Waking Up White, and, I am inspired by all that she has done and continues to do with her work since then, as a racial justice educator, and public speaker. At last week’s talk with Shay, I noticed, perhaps a softer Debby. I remember Debby in her first talk, shared openly and confidently about how she initially, as white people tend to do, took up space in a group setting, took the lead, problem-solved, tried to fix things, even in Black spaces, and how during this most recent conversation with Shay, she, and I am not sure how to phrase this, but Debby read as someone who recognizes her privilege as a white woman, and all the other privileges she called out that day, like, cis-gendered, class, able-bodied, etc—and who listens, responds without taking over the conversation, owns her privileges and their historical and current impact, and does not give off the air that she knows everything, or claims status of “good white person,” which she would probably like to hear since one of Debby’s public talks centers on how white people can go from “well-meaning” to well-doing.”

I give major thanks to Shay and Debby for their tireless work in the world, to break down racism, and to build a just world, free of racial inequity. Shay, who noted her relief that she has raised her son to be a “free, Black man,” and Debby, are putting out the call for all of us white people to do the work to heal our inhumanity, to understand our place in the construct of race, for people of different races to come together to have honest cross-racial conversations, and to do the work for all Black people to be free, because in this 21st century, there is still much work to be done.

When White Fragility Comes Knocking

1 Oct

daughter, Leni, and me

My daughter Leni is in her second year in college. Snce she’s been ten years old, she’s wanted to become a dentist, and that is the path she is on with her studies. But even before age ten, Leni, like me, paid attention to race. She has been the muse for a number of my blog posts, like my favorite, Is Poppy A Black American?, inspired by Leni, when she was five, asking if my father was Black. She also wrote two posts of her own here: We White People Think White Culture is Cultureless and Proud Mama: My Daughter Leni Writes Her First Post for Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake.

Leni is currently taking a class in college, called Race and Power. Of course I was glad about that, even though a week before she started back to school, she made some comments to me during a discussion about race, something to the effect of, “you’re an older generation..us younger people, we all get along. You think differently because you’re thinking of the civil rights era, and it’s not like that anymore,…we all are more accepting of one another, it’s just normal for us to get along..”

I countered, “Well, I wonder if your friends, and peers of color, would feel the same way because while I understand what you’re saying about ease of getting along and acceptance for everyone across race, ethnicity, and gender identity, what about the microaggressions and racism that young Black people and people of color still experience on a daily basis, that you don’t?”

“Yes, I know that happens..but I don’t want to be the white person who thinks they know everything about race, and I won’t speak on that because that is not my experience,…and I’ll listen when a Black person or person of color explains something to me, but I’m not going to listen to a white person, explaining to me about race and racism.”

I know my Leni, so while there was much more we could enter into conversation about, I knew she wouldn’t hear it right then, so I let it go.

Fast forward to the second week of Leni’s Race and Power class. I get a phone call from her. Most of the time she calls me while walking from one class to another, or when she’s washing her face, or some other task or downtime thing. That Mom call to fill the void. But Leni also calls when she needs her mama for support. In this call, she shared how one of the Black students, a young woman in the class, mentioned she noticed the white students in the class were not commenting. Leni explained she felt bad about that, but that in that session there wasn’t anything she wanted to say, or if she had, it was already said by another student, and she didn’t want to repeat it.

I could relate. Whenever I go to a public event where there is a dialogue or Q & A involved, my fear of public speaking kicks in and these sentences loop through my brain, over and over:

“Wendy, you’re shy, so you should practice getting out of your comfort zone and say something, ask a question,” then, “I can’t think of anything to say or ask,” or, “I can’t think of how to phrase it so it doesn’t come out awkward,” or “you’re not that important, so don’t put all that pressure on yourself thinking it matters if you ask a question..”

Still, I encouraged Leni to contribute to the conversation in her class, and to not be afraid to share her opinion.

The following week I got another call from Leni. She told me she felt uncomfortable at times in the Race and Power class that day. She said that when a white person was sharing their opinion on the day’s topic, a Black student, kept shutting her down, saying, “no, no, you’re wrong. That’s not how it is..” I said, “okay, she is speaking her mind,” and then I asked her if the professor is intervening at all, directing the conversation happening in class. She said, “No, she doesn’t say anything. She lets the class talk.”

Leni continued to say that she was worried about saying “the wrong thing,” or students of color shutting her down, or thinking she doesn’t understand, or that she’s racist. I brought up the matter of white fragility and how those thoughts and worries are a part of white fragility, and talking about race for white people> I added that being uncomfortable is a part of it, too, because we worry about being seen as racist, or worry if a Black person becomes angry. But I always remember the question I heard about having conversations on race for white people that asks, “are you more worried about being called racist than you are about breaking down racism and structures of white supremacy?”

Again, I encouraged her to get uncomfortable. That it was okay to be uncomfortable. That it should be something white people allow themselves to be. That it’s necessary if we want to be able to have honest conversations, and take any steps in breaking down racism, and the structures of racism.

“Yeah, there’s like only four white people in the class…,” Leni continued.

“Well, now you know what it feels like for Black people to be, and speak, in majority white spaces they most always find themselves in. It’s good for you to experience that situation,” I said.

“I know what it’s like,” I could feel her eye roll over the phone, “…I was a minority in my high school, and well I wish it was like that. “..In my Multicultural Studies class, I was in the minority, but we all got along, and we could talk about things…I just wish we could talk about things in this class without getting angry.”

I brought up the need to be careful about tone policing, or the telling of Black and Brown people to not get angry when talking about race. She knew what I meant, but I suppose was having a hard time feeling it in practice.

I understood Leni, because I have felt all of the feelings she is now experiencing, on my journey to educate myself, and learn from others, about the construct of race, the history of racism, and most important, to make cross-racial connections to discuss race, without the fear of being thought of as racist, or just another white person who doesn’t get it.

I am still not good at making my voice heard about anything within a group setting, and it’s been years since I’ve been in a classroom setting, so I asked my friend Diana, an Anthropology Professor, with a focus on Carribbean culture, for her advice on how Leni might be able to share her perspective in class. Diana’s advice was for Leni to preface what she says with something like, “…what I share is from my perspective, which is shaped by my lived experience and who I am, being a white, Eastern European Jewish woman, with a small percentage of Native American heritage…I know it is different from other people’s experiences, and I appreciate being able to listen to, and learn from other people’s perspectives…”

I offered that to Leni, which she seemed to think could help, but she still worried about things “coming out wrong,” and being thought of as ignorant and racist. “Well, you just have to say what you mean to say. You may stumble. You are human, and what you say may not come out perfect, and you may say something that someone in the class finds offensive, and you will have to hear from them, how what you said made them feel..It’s all a part of learning and growing and understanding one another. I think people will see that you care enough to be a part of the dialogue. It’s important to not withhold. It’s important to be a part of the conversation.”

If only I always practiced what I just preached to my daughter.

Last week I had an awesome day in Boston. I really did. I went up to attend the National Organization For Arts and Health (NOAH) Conference, saw Leni afterward and had pizza with her, and then went solo to the Lizzo concert!

Throughout the conference, I noticed something I’ve not unseen since childhood, though admittedly it’s on a much more consistent, conscious basis now. That thing is noticing how white a setting is. From the thousands of attendees of this merged conference of Arts and Health and Healthcare Facilities personnel–to the introduction of a Board of Directors introduced by the lead Conference organizer, a sea of maybe thirty, mostly white men and a smattering of white women, to the break-out session presenters–people of color were a true minority.

I remember the words of Nina Sanchez, Director of Enrich Chicago a collaborative of 30 Chicagoland arts and philanthropic organizations committed to ending racism and systemic oppression in the arts sector, who said at a lecture here in Providence, “once you see it, you can’t unsee it”–the pervasiveness of whiteness, and how it shows up in spaces, not just in skin color itself, but in how the centering of whiteness shows itself in whose perspective gets shared, whose voices are included in decision-making in institutions, and who is left out, who feels safe, and comfortable, and who doesn’t.

It’s the latter I need to focus on and share right now. Of course I thought about how the make-up of the Board of NOAH is homogeneous and white, and as I knew already, the field of Art Therapy, and what is considered the main stream art world, is overwhelmingly filled with white people, because, like many fields, it links back generations to inequities in education, and who is supported to pursue what education and career goals, and who is not, which links back to redlining, bigotry and discrimination, which links back to Jim Crow laws, which links further back to slavery.

At the Conference breakfast keynote, I sat down at one of those big round tables with a few other strangers, and shortly afterward, a woman, who was Black, sat down next to me. I introduced myself to her, and somehow we got on the subject of how I had recently attended the University of Florida Arts and Medicine Summer Intensive, a two-week professional development program focusing on Artistic Practice and Arts Administration for utilizing the arts in health and community settings. I shared with the woman, who was there representing a youth arts organization based in Chicago, that I found the Intensive both inspiring and useful, and she gave me her card, as she was interested in hearing more about the work I do in a psychiatric hospital setting. I was also interested in hearing more about her work, and shared that I thought I had even heard of her organization somehow. We went our separate ways after the breakfast, but I found myself sitting next to her in an afternoon break-out session which focused on case studies where arts engagement practices either went right, or went wrong.

After hearing a touching anecdote about a pianist in a hospital playing a song for a man grieving his wife, which happened to be the last song they sang together right before she passed, to the counter, wrong case scenario of a contracted musician who got into a spat with a patient in the common area of a hospital, this next case study was shared.

The scenario, shared by an Art Therapist at a children’s hospital, was that an outside yoga practitioner was hired to facilitate some yoga groups on the children’s behavioral inpatient unit. The Art Therapist did not know of the work of the facilitator, as she was an outside person contracted by the Director of the program. On the day of the yoga group, the Art Therapist was called by a concerned nurse manager on the children’s unit. She said the young patients were becoming “disregulated,” or not in control of their behavior, and that the Art Therapist should come to the unit and observe what was going on. When the Art Therapist arrived, she said that “loud, rap music was playing,” and she emphasized the word “rap,” and continued “that the kids were using the yoga mats as light-sabers,” and that basically, the unit was out of control. There were some chuckles in the audience of about fifty attendees.

She went on to say how the music was inappropriate for this group of young patients, because of its language and subject matter. There was also some discussion about the yoga instructor not having experience working in this kind of setting. When I looked at the presentation slide that shared the names of the various scenarios presented, this one was called Yoga Rap.

Now, you might read this and not see anything out of the ordinary about it. And, part of that might be I’m feeling challenged to describe the tone of delivery of this scenario. But, what I do know, is I became really uncomfortable as this scenario was shared. As soon as the presenter mentioned rap music was playing during the yoga group, the tone was perhaps not incredulous, but close to it. I’ve heard this tone before, though. I’ve heard the implication that comes when rap music is mentioned in anecdotes like this one. It usually goes something to the effect of this genre of music being deemed negative, problematic, a promoter of violence, or is something to be made fun of, like, “yeah, imagine leading a meditative painting group, and playing some crazy, rap music for it..” or in this presentation, the inferred, “can you believe it, they played rap music in a yoga class?”

I wondered if the woman who sat beside me, or the one other person of color I spotted in the room, felt uncomfortable. I know I’m projecting here, because I cannot claim to know whether they were offended or felt unsafe in this room full of white people laughing about a yoga group paired with a music genre that, while appropriated by white Americans, and cultures all over the globe, originated, and is rooted in Black American culture. While I understood that this group example given did not work out well for the unit and population being served that day, I worried about the implication of this anecdote.

I thought, I needed to say something about this. All those voices that I mentioned earlier about what to say, how to say it, should I say it, kicked in. White fragility came knocking, and I worried about sucking the energy out of the room, and being met with silence. I worried about it coming off as attacking the presenters, and in essence, the NOAH organization.

During the Q & A session that followed the presentation, there were questions brewing about what kind of music is appropriate to use in what settings, and I imagined myself going up to the mic, and using humor as an icebreaker to talk about what was on my mind. To start off with something like, “well, before I make my statement, I just want to be sure we don’t give rap a bad rap…I mean, I know it was not the intention of this presentation to do so, and that clearly things did not go right that afternoon on the children’s unit during the yoga group, but I feel we have to be careful about how we talk about the different genres of music we use, so that all of the people we work with feel their culture matters and is respected. I for one, use hip hop and rap music often in the groups I facilitate on the psychiatric Adult Inpatient Intensive Treatment Unit where I work. And, yes, we do have some ground rules about music played. We say we must avoid music that has overtly violent or sexual lyrics, has profanity in it, or glorifies drug use because we do not want to trigger anyone, knowing those we work with have experienced a good deal of trauma, and are in a state of crisis, and in a fragile emotional state.

I was going to share, again with the thought to interject some humor, but also some insight into how music preference and impact is so personal and subjective, and would have apologized in advance for anyone who was a fan of Screamo music, about a recent group experience of mine. Just the other day when I facilitated a gentle stretch group on the unit, I asked a female patient what kind of music she wanted me to play. We had only two people in the group at that point. She said she liked rock. “What kind of rock, I asked?” “Heavy metal,” she said. Internally, I was thinking, oh, great. I do not like heavy metal, and. from my perspective, it doesn’t really go with doing the stretch group, just like it seemed the presenter didn’t think rap music paired well with yoga. I usually choose softer folk or r & b, or some relaxing instrumental music for stretching. But, I asked the question, so heavy metal it was. I asked what band, or if there was a particular song she wanted me to play. She said, “Lambs of God,” and named the song. I found it on Youtube, and pressed Play.

To me the music was hardcore yelling. Much like the yoga group example given, I felt like I was going to “disregulate” my own behavior, and found the music highly irritating. The patient who chose it seemed happy to be hearing her tune. When I looked at the other patient in the room, and a third that had since entered, they both seemed not to be bothered, but when the song finally ended, I was relieved to say to another patient, “would you like to choose the next song, so we all get a turn to hear something we’ve chosen?”

And, I don’t know. Maybe this anecdote would be offensive to someone that really likes heavy metal. But what matters even more is that I let my white fragility take over, and I never made it up to the mic to say what I ruminated about in my mind, and before I knew it the presentation session was over, and I had wimped out, and became, what I felt, was complicit in perpetuating the rhetoric of putting down a genre of music associated with Black culture in a predominately white space.

Ironic, given each week my daughter Leni is calling me about her Race and Power class, and I’m telling her to overcome her own white fragility and speak up, and say the things she wants to, and feels she needs to say. That afternoon, I did not practice what I’ve been preaching.

Yet, it is a goal of mine to do so. And I do sometimes. Most of the time. I call it my “wondering aloud.” Like when I was at the Arts In Medicine Summer Intensive and we were talking about Art and Aesthetics and presentation slides slipped by with words like Inclusion and Equity on them as bullet points, but weren’t discussed, I wondered aloud in our group of eighteen cohorts and program staff, “when we define what art is and what aesthetics is, the talk and education is typically centered mostly on white, European art history and aesthetics, and so I wonder things like who gets to define what art is, and who is included in that, and while I appreciated all the online modules we were asked to complete on Cultural Competence, I wondered how this program and how the field addresses this”…and I remember I didn’t want to go there and bring up this example because I didn’t want to sound like I was calling the host’s program out, but it just came out, and I continued…”earlier two of the truly wonderful musicians that the hospital employs to do bedside visits, spoke of their difficulty connecting with a Spanish speaking patient, and so we know that representation matters, and so how does the field, and how do we think about and put into practice these culturally competent practices so that we see from a variety of perspectives, and everyone is included?”

Well, it wasn’t quite that eloquent when it came out that day. But I said pretty much the gist of all that. Right afterward, as is typical with me, I worried that I had said something that sounded like a put-down, a call out, an attack. I was raised to be a nice girl, to be respectful, to not hurt other people’s feelings. Saying anything that I feel is negative or criticism is really hard for me.

I had to ask my peers during break if what I said was okay. Several I had become closer to, including one man, who is Native American, said they felt it was not offensive, that it was good to make the statement, even though they felt it wasn’t directly answered.

I try my best to make statements like that more and more where I feel there is a lack of inclusion, when white-centering has taken over, and there is an obliviousness as to its impact. I know I have my own blind spots, and I know in this white-dominated culture in our country, white-centering is happening all the time. It is my mission to be a part of actively breaking that down, and that means speaking up is really important, so, I can’t help to be highly disappointed in myself still, for not speaking up that day in Boston.

But, I carry on, and will do better next time, and the time after that. I don’t share this to have anyone read this, and then tell me, “but Wendy, you do so much good, or you do speak up, or take action a lot of the time, so don’t beat yourself up about this.” I am not writing this for that response. I am writing to lay bare my imperfections, my moments of failure, to ask all of us white people to do better, to do your own “wondering aloud” when you know it is necessary. We white people can feel very comfortable when denouncing white supremacy, and highly overt racist acts, but we need to get better when it comes to the every day exclusions, the every day white-centering, the every day microaggressions, the every day inferences that makes someone from another culture or race feel theirs is inferior.

I asked Leni if I could write a post about both of our struggles to speak up and not give in to our own white fragility, and I was glad, and proud of her when she said, yes. It made me feel like we are in this fight together. And, if we are to be accountable to one another in this fight, I, as her mother, want to set a good example.

And…that’s a rap.

If It’s Not What We Say About Race, It Must Be What We Do

22 Jul

I haven’t written here in a few months. It’s not that there isn’t anything to write about. Believe me, thoughts about race, racism, whiteness, and what is going on in this country, and what I can do about it, are spinning around in my head, and in my heart, 24/7. No excuses, but I was recovering from a botched cataract surgery, and the old eye is just about 100%. This week, though, I was asked by an acquaintance, if I was going to “blog about our President and his comments, and saying he’s not racist. So crazy,” he said. Crazy racist, I would say.

But, we know that. We shout out “racist!” “racism!” over and over again. We shout it out about our “Occupant in the White House,” as Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley calls him. Yes, the Congresswoman, who was one of four Congresswomen of color, who were told to go back to their own countries.

Oh, you want to hear more about the racism? About the Occupant’s rally, who a friend likened to a KKK rally? Where the crowd chanted “Send her back!” when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s name was mentioned? And how a day later, he doubled down on his damaging comments about Omar being linked to terrorism, by perpetuating the rumor that she got her brother a green card and United States citizenship by fraudently marrying him?

Or, do I keep writing about the viral videos that seem to pop up every other day of a white person telling someone just trying to buy their groceries, or work their job, to “speak English here in America”, or “go back to Mexico” or “I’ll have you deported?” And do I share how I agreed with social media friend, Michael Eaglin’s comments about how he’s lowered his expectations about people’s humanity, how he wondered aloud about our “basic respect and integrity,” and the fact that this “behavior isn’t admonished, isn’t found reprehensible by their communities and institutions, like family, church, schools, civic clubs, etc.’

Or, do I continue to write about the viral videos of white people still calling the police on black people, most recently, it was two black men, a real estate agent and a potential home buyer, who were thought to be breaking-and-entering a home the agent wished to show? Or, insert any normal life activity that black people are trying to do, just like white people, but are deemed criminal by white eyes that can’t comprehend the optics of black people living ordinary lives just like theirs.

Or, do I write about how some people keep saying these immigrants have to come in legally like their families did however many decades ago? The people who are able to separate themselves from any feelings of compassion or empathy toward children being taken away from their families, adults and children being kept in detention centers that mirror concentration camps, being treated with intentional cruelty, and not given their due process, as refugees fleeing unsafe countries are supposed to receive when seeking political asylum here?

And I wasn’t going to write about this, especially after my teenage daughters surprised me with their reaction to my action, thinking it privileged and performative. I questioned the purpose of sharing about the night of July 2nd, when I got arrested protesting at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island. But now I am sharing it, perhaps as a way to process that night’s events. I’m sharing how as a Jewish woman, I felt I needed to use my voice, and my body, to say #NeverAgainIsNow, and joined the Jewish activist group taking national action to block the entrances of I.C.E. contracted detention centers around the country, thereby disrupting their ability to do their harmful business-as-usual. I’m sharing about the pleading sound of men, women–and, were there children?–pounding on frosted windows to let us know they saw us, as we waved to who we could not see, to in effect, say, we see you.

I’m sharing that when myself and five women of the eighteen men and women who were arrested were put into a windowless van, with a metal wall separating us from the other side of the van, and we all sat there with our handcuffed or ziptied hands behind our back, and nervously chuckled on our ride to the precinct, how I looked down the narrow metal bench to the faces beside mine, and said to myself, I know these women, these are my people, even though, except for one, I didn’t know them personally. And at risk at sounding over-dramatic, and right after one of the young woman shared that she had just returned two weeks ago from visiting the Anne Frank house, I could not help but imagine us as the Jewish women who might have ridden together on cramped trains to concentration camps, and how maybe they nervously laughed, too, knowing their fate was not a good one, but worked to comfort one another, in the face of the grave inhumanity that would befall them. And in that moment, I knew, too, we were not them, but were here honoring them, and saying, Never Again, because it is now, we must not sit idly by. And, I thought, too, as we entered the van, of Freddy Gray, and how hard, and cold, the white, metal seat and walls and floor of the van were, and how his body was broken into pieces by police officers that night in Baltimore. But we were not Jews on our way to a concentration camp. We were not Freddie Gray. We were not Black Lives Matter protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore.

Us eighteen, that night, were white-skinned, and treated with calm, and kindness. We did not have to use milk to wash tear gas out of our eyes. We were not hit with batons. We were treated as human beings, and within three hours at the police station, we were all released with a summons. A week later in court, with an agreement to either make a donation to a non-profit organization serving the immigrant community in Central Falls, or do ten hours of community service, we had our cases dismissed. Amazing what whiteness and privilege, an accessory automatically included, can do.

Yesterday, I paused my own writing, in anticipation of attending the annual reading by the 2019 writers-in-residence at the Rhode Island Writers Colony in Warren, Rhode Island. The organization was founded by writer, and literary mentor, Brook Stephenson and his brother, John Stephenson. Brook, unfortunately passed away in 2015, at the young age of forty-one, and John has carried on his brother’s legacy with the continuation of the summer Writers’ Colony. The two-week residency creates a space for writers of color, not only to write, but to commune with one another, share ideas, work, and nurture one another’s creativity, which is rare in a literary and publishing world, that as they noted, does not make great space for them.

I was moved and inspired by all of the voices, and the work of the 2019 writers-in-residence: Alisha Acquaye, Sasha Banks, Jill Louise Busby, Fajr Muhammad, and Jive Poetic. Writers of short stories, novels, essays, and poetry– we listened to a coming of age short story, stories recording the history of, and the undoing of the America that brutalized black people for over four centuries, a novel about the disappearance and murder of black women in Philadelphia with a narrator who wondered if anyone noticed or cared, an essay from an author learning to love her body as a black woman, and poems about connection to one’s heritage, one about the futuristic genetic engineering of our souls that brilliantly begins with the whispered warning about seedless green grapes, and a poem about a white woman placing her hand on the poet’s chest, because she sees his “I’m Out – signed Harriet Tubman” tee-shirt, and feels she needs to share that in her past life she was a slave, too!

I got to consider my own white fragility too, when writer, Jill Louise Busby, read her piece, Oreo, a powerful, honest writing, and, trust me, those two adjectives don’t even begin to do justice to her words, or the soul-searching investigation of self, how whiteness always others, how not to use whiteness as a measurement of self, and much more, written with such directness and complexity, that I can never fully know or understand because at the end of the day, when I write about race, racism, and cross-racial connection, I’ll still be a white woman writing about it.

And, when the reading’s host, author, and the Colony’s Artistic Director, Jason Reynolds, said right after her reading, “it’s good to be unapologetic..and to feel the discomfort..well…for some of us,” the audience laughed, the white folks, probably more nervously so. And I nodded, the white person nod, to say, yes, we do, I do, need to feel the discomfort, to feel the sting, and yet, don’t make it about me, make it about us, about whiteness, and yet, at the same time, don’t push it away, and know, and take responsibility, and continue to do my own self-investigation, knowing how whiteness informs my perspective, my way of moving in the world, my relationships with everyone I come into contact with, and to know what whiteness has done, and what it continues to do, if I am ever to liberate myself from it, and try to effect any real change around me.

And on those days when I wonder what purpose my writing serves, if I am saying anything new, anything that matters, or when I promise I will reformat my blog, and work with other people to include new voices here, I also wonder: Does not everyone get it yet about racism? Or do we, myself, guiltily included, have to keep social media posting and sharing every race-related article–whether an example of a personal attack, or recognition of an institutional system–when we know racism exists? Do we call it out to prove it, or to show we are still outraged, or to escape looking into the mirror, so we feign disbelief that this is our country, that this is what we did, what we have always done, and this is what we are doing right now?

White people, I don’t mean in any of this, that we need to stop talking about racism, stop calling out racism, and white supremacist structures, institutions, and systems that created and perpetuate racism and inequity. Call it out. Call it out every day, every moment. Do not sit silent with what you see, what you know. Don’t ever be tired of talking about it, and calling it out, of people telling you you make everything about race. Because until there is equality and freedom for all, none of us are free. And, if you are tired of hearing about it, think of how tired black people, and people of color are of living it.

What I do mean, is I want us to ask ourselves, but what can we do? We feel overwhelmed, ineffectual. We don’t know how we can ever change the big, overarching systems that control what is playing out in our country when it comes to racism and white supremacist structures..

It is during those times of feeling overwhelmed, and ineffective, and yes, sometimes, helpless, I remember the words of friend, artist, curator, poet, humanist, Zaiche Johnson, who recently shared, “debating and dissecting political theory, can be compartmentalized gaslighting, when there is so much work to do in real time within our own community. The destitute and oppressed can’t eat CNN transcripts, meme wars, or cyclic policy dissertations. Altruism is the only cool.”

When I let Zaiche know his words here, and our past conversations about the same, help re-center and ground me to the work that I can do–about how we all need to focus on what we can do on a micro-level in our immediate communities where ever and every where we live–he reminds me how “we can only do our best commensurate with what we have accessible, which varies for each person.” I thank him for this detail which speaks to the very core of the necessary shift of sharing resources and access when, as white people, we are part of the privileged group that has made sure it got and keeps the majority of both.

On days like this when I wonder if I should be writing about race, and asked by friends if I’m going to write about all that is going on in the country right now, like “the President’s comments,” I know that the true answer is I cannot stop myself from writing about it. And, perhaps, I finally wrote about the detention center protest, because that was something I could do. That is what matters a lot more to me. That I never stop doing something about it.


Becoming “Woke” Is A Life-long Journey and Why I’m Taking The Racial Crossfit Challenge

8 Aug

I read, I educate myself, I talk with people of color, not only because I believe it makes life richer to connect with and learn about people whose life experiences and culture is different from mine, but also in an effort to learn and understand how the history, and lived experiences of Black Americans in this country, and how the structures of racism and white supremacy, have afforded me, a woman with white skin privilege, to move through the world with an ease and truckload of access and opportunity not granted to them. But still, just because in June 2017, the word woke was entered in the Oxford English Dictionary, it doesn’t mean […]