I had the luxury of learning about racism from a book, The Watsons Go To Birmingham, in fourth grade or maybe third. After a day at school discussing the book in Mrs. H's (mostly white) class, I sat in my mother's lap and cried, appalled that the book was based on true things. Having grown up in the south, my mother had seen some of the true things described in the book. She hugged me as we cried together over these historical tragedies.
And this week these tragedies are not historical, they are present tense. More black people have been killed in a church by a racially-motivated white person who hated them. Our president's face was altered by grief and disgust as he spoke to me from YouTube, another press conference about people violently killed by bullets.
What moment is this we're living in?
Sometimes reading the news I say to my mother, my communities in New York and California are such a bubble, it feels like reading about the Watsons' experience, do these ignorant people exist in reality? But what sort of bubble is it, really? I remember Dominican kids at the school where I worked mercilessly and maliciously making fun of a kid whose family was from Somalia because she was darker than them. Hello, African diaspora calling the kettle black (and those sentiments are reflected in the actions of the Dominican government). Riding my bicycle through New York City, I pass through neighborhoods clearly delineated by race and ethnicity. When I recently brought my boyfriend to my hometown in California, he loved my neighborhood but lamented the possibility of bringing up a child in a place where the only black face he saw was in the mirror.
And what is my role in this? These things are not about me, although they are about all of us. How do I think without co-opting, how do I shut up without being complicit in my silence? How do I act and speak correctly without being one of those irritating white people who claims allyship with a loud yelp which gratingly interrupts those supposed allies? When I find myself crying, so heartbroken and disappointed in us and mournful for those families who now have been assaulted by violent, senseless death, are they #whitetears? I am not absolved of my own racism because of my non-white friends and domestic partner, or because I am Facebook friends with police abolitionists, or because I read Ta-Nehisi Coates articles. And what about one of my best friends in the universe, who is a connosieur of Malcolm X speeches, who listens to them to fall asleep at night, who is also a black, who is also a cop, whose intellectualism and opinions don't line up neatly with what my liberal sensibilities and blogs tell me are correct? Containing multitudes, I guess.
Back when I was a personal trainer, one of the sales guys, a former pro basketball player, tall, dark-skinned, always smiling and joking and kind, found a client for me to work with. I asked him what she looked like so I could find her in the gym. I forget exactly how he described her besides that she was a black woman, and I followed up by asking what her hair looked like. He said she was bald. I said okay. In disbelief that I gullibly believed him when he was just joking, he told me he was kidding about the bald head. I said, okay, some women keep their hair really short, I thought that's what you meant. He said, Oh, you saw that movie Good Hair? You know about all that? Clearly he was (gently) calling me out for trying to be "down" or something, and I was so embarrassed. I never felt comfortable around him again, even though he had been one of my favorite coworkers to talk to with his big-brother energy and super straight-toothed smile.
My white fragility.
Hopefully I'm a bit more thick-skinned nowadays, having been called out several times since then.
Jay Smooth taught me that though we may say racist things that doesn't mean we are fundamentally racist, that we are fundamentally bad people. As a white person, as a human in the United States of America, by definition I have said and thought racist things. That is reality. It's like in meditation practice where we learn that we aren't our thoughts; we have thoughts. We learn to notice our thoughts going by like a stream of water; we observe them. We notice patterns, we work to deconstruct our own flawed thinking.
I'm sick to my stomach, my chest in knots, as flashes of killed people stick in my mind. The thoughts of crying faces, of children, of entire networks affected. In the articles I read, they say the theme of the week at Emmanuel AME is "The Power of Love." I want to sit in my mother's lap again. So much has changed, nothing has changed. How come my whole subway car isn't crying?