To not be a racist you have to know you are a racist.
There’s so much I wish would change.
I am sure you feel the same way, too.
Problem is sometimes what I want to change are those that would, if they could, transform me into a variation of them. And, yeh, that’s about the same thing I want to do to them.
What is it about us that insists others should live as we want them to? Could it simply be arrogance or pride or that old self-aggrandizing, snide sense of entitlement? Why is it so many of us think the disenfranchisement of others is caused by some thing or somebody over there.?
I believe that who we are is a complex web of yin-yang attributes. Good and evil are coupled together. The same with love and hate. You get the picture. Who we are is about which we way we are pulled or influenced to lean. Sometimes we actually do not realize which way we turned or why.
Raise your hand if you are against racism.
Imagine asking that in a coliseum of 100,000 people. You would see 200,000 arms waving in the air.
It feels good. People are united in such moments but moments lead to others and hours later all of us have returned to the small circles of our lives. It is there in our small worlds where we are who we are – good, bad, ugly, or even worse. It’s there in our small circles where our fears and worries and lack of understanding weave within us a tightly wound ball of fear. We hate what others love and see light where others see darkness. We need our circles. Life there can be very good. Life there can be fucked up, too.
I live in a small circle, too. It is rich with people I value and trust, connected by a collective desire to make a difference in the lives of others (and of course our own). I want to think there is nothing about me that even hints of racism. I am sure others in my circle have a similar sentiment.
I won’t speak for them, but truth be told I have quickly judged another because of her accent or got hyper-focused when I noticed three Indigenous men walking toward me on a city sidewalk.
I have been confused by another’s culture or just been completely unaware of an unintentional clash of values or ritual. Haven’t you? How much of what we are afraid of is rooted in the dark, muddy pit of ignorance? And when that’s true, how possible is it to recognize it for what it is when we are in that state of mind?
When I was young lad in Chicago I was walking in River Park one late afternoon and noticed around the curve ahead there were three Hispanic men sitting on a picnic table drinking beer and laughing together as one of them rattled off a story. They paid me no mind; they were in their own space, having fun, being friends. Even so, I thought of turning around and heading back to safer ground. (I chuckled when I wrote “safer ground” because as you well know there is no ground that is safe.)
I carried on. This fear I had was unfounded. As I walked one them caught my eye and nodded. I nodded back and smiled. An hour later I was playing poker with four university friends. Yeh, all white guys from middle class America (well, one of them had a rich Daddy) and what are we talking about?
We are talking about changing the world. We are talking about love and peace. And yep, we talked about women but as we talked about what we would “do” to Sally, or how hot the Jamaican girl in the back row in Ethics class would look in a maid’s outfit, it never crossed our minds that we were playing with evil. How easy it is to speak truth and live lies.
This will sound cliché but for many years my best friend in Chicago was black man. Not only that, he was taller than my six-foot-seven frame and both of us were buff and had personality that got noticed in the bars or at the diner and on the street. Taxi drivers would step on the gas when we were trying to wave them done.
Jim was a good man, a laid back, here I am, soft spoken gentle soul. I was a better man when I was with him. I am pretty sure if he were here he would lean back in his leather chair and rub his grizzly beard, and with a small smile, say, “Back at you. Back at you.”
But we were big and strong and we had this serious look about us – think of the expression of a face so focused it spawns a scowl –that most others perceived as mean. We got wary looks at white bars and exactly the same when we drove south to hit a blues club.
One night a short, slender Vietnamese man came up to us at the bar. He was drunk. I am sure we were, too. He had this whimsical mien about him. He swallowed down some of his draft and leaned into us and said, “You two scare the shit out of me.”
Jim and I looked at each other. It was unexpected. He stood there watching us. I swear he was holding down a smile.
Jim and I turned to him. Jim said, “Let’s share a drink together.”
And so we did. The story would be perfect if we all went on to become bosom buddies, but frankly, we were just three drunk men talking about whatever, drinking drafts and shots at the Wise Fool’s Pub on Lincoln Avenue.
Jim and I never talked about race. We talked about who we were, our histories, our ambitions, our experiences. We laughed, acted silly, enjoyed quiet times listening to John Coltrane or Fleetwood Mac back when they were a blues band. It was good. Our friendship was easy.
We shared our goodness. We heard each other’s biases and each us made remarks about other groups of people that, let’s just say, would not be used as best practice in a Diversity Training Manual.
Jim and I were racist, a black man and a white man with a bond between them – that racial contrast was our shared gift – but nevertheless we were racists.
And since then, if I am honest, I have feelings about others who seem so markedly different from me – feelings that carry worry about what I do not understand. Feelings that cast shade across the stereotypes I have created and nuture. Can I really say seeing the name of a Muslim man on a resume I am reviewing does not immediately frame how I approach what’s coming next?
Racism is quiet as often as it is loud. It can cause a hurricane of evil or permeate our senses like like the scent of a flower. It exists in the spaces between the words we use. It causes the heart to race and an eyebrow to raise. You can taste it when you assure yourself you are not racist.
Today at the post office I stood behind a Somalian family. I smiled and said hello to their children, who turned out to be 8 years old and one. I talk to people in public places. The one-year-old was smiling at me. He looked at his father and then pointed at me. The father seemed nervous. How many times does a hulk of a white man talk to his children with care and respect?
“Your children are beautiful,” I said.
He smiled and for the next few minutes we talked about family and children, and how much we were enjoying the spring weather.
So, what do you think?
I am not saying my story is your story. I actually hope you are a better person than I am and please trust I think am doing okay as a human being.
Ask yourself some uncomfortable questions. Or don’t. No one will know either way – of course excluding you.
I will leave you with this:
We create differences. We experience people and want relationships that matter with other human beings. But often we don’t know how to reach out to those so near who live so far away in a culture and a language we cannot fathom and yet we want to engage. I believe this is true for most of us.We want to engage.
When we talk of differences we are really talking about what fuels humanity. What we call differences are actually synergies there for us to embrace together. Governments can’t legislate them into action. Human service programs won’t cure the distances we feel we must sustain because we can’t envision an alternative we can trust. Urban planners create an Area Redevelopment Plan that fosters good will and peace.
What needs doing can only be done by communities and is why governments and funders should invest resources in building community capacity and help foster community engagement that is not about a project but about connecting synergies that can be channeled into a collective voice that will not be denied a place at the table.
Try thinking about diversity and refraining from any mention of “differences.” Think about how we might talk about inclusion with little if any time spent talking about what separates us. Shouldn’t we dare to truly ask ourselves to what extent our impassioned work to honour diversity has actually widened the distance between us.
Asking upside down questions, even those – perhaps especially those – that are heretical and disruptive, questions that you wish would go away, is one way to kick start change. We have to shake ourselves sometimes. We need to shiver in the wet, cold air of struggle. We need to keep on walking when the rains fall and the wind rises and spins and turns us round and round.
We need to think differently. We need to invent new language. Changing our language helps new perceptions and ideas to emerge. If we want to change things, we need language that drives us forward, not settles us into that old comfy sofa of convention.
There’s so much I wish would change. I am sure you feel the same way, too. Problem is sometimes what I want to change are those that would, if they could, transform me into a variation of them. And, yeh, that’s about the same thing I want to do to them.
What is it about us that insists others should live as we want them to? Could it simply be arrogance or pride or that old self-aggrandizing and often snide sense of entitlement.
To not be a racist you have to know you are a racist.
Just imagine what could be possible if that was our starting point.