half palm

I Won’t Ask You To Admit You’re A Racist Like Me

One night back when I was about 14, my father sat on our sofa, the yellow pages on the coffee table open to the letter A. He told us that he was an alcoholic and that he would be attending AA meetings.

My memory of that night, the first night of my father’s sobriety, is that even my mother questioned his decision. I haven’t checked in with her lately to see if her memory matches mine, but I know I was doubtful.

I knew what an alcoholic was. An alcoholic was someone passed out on the sofa with empty vodka bottles on the carpet. My father didn’t drink vodka. He drank beer. Not even at home, not usually. An alcoholic was someone who missed work because of hangovers. My father never missed work. An alcoholic was someone who showed up late to school functions stinking of booze and yelling sloppily at the principal. My father showed up on time everywhere he went. Well, except for that one Halloween. And those dinners when we’d start without him so the mashed potatoes wouldn’t get cold.

“You’re not an alcoholic, Dad.” I remember saying.

But he insisted he was. And he quit drinking, and our lives improved substantially. Clearly, I didn’t understand the breadth of what being an alcoholic means.

***

This past week, I realized that I neither trust myself, nor any white people, to understand the breadth of what being a racist means.

Now, if you just read that sentence and feel defensive about it, I ask you to hear me again. I’m telling you something about myself. I will repeat it: I do not trust myself to know what “racism” means. Nor do I trust you, if you are white, to know what “racism” means. If you are white, you might be able to convince me you know; perhaps if your name is Tim Wise, and you wrote an essay like this, or if your  name is Kristen Howerton, and you wrote an essay like this. Or if you are Peggy McIntosh, and you gave a lecture like this. But I won’t start out trusting you. Just like I don’t trust myself.

Early last week, an argument erupted between my Facebook friends in the form of comments to this:

People wrote judging the looters and judging Michael Brown. I was confounded. I don’t see any looters in this photo. I don’t see Michael Brown in this photo. I don’t mean to be obtuse, but I wondered: what about my support of a political statement made by black men incited my Facebook community to want to speak out against looters and Michael Brown? Why did those few friends at Facebook feel compelled to defend the St. Louis County grand jury when they could have simply ignored me?

Why was there a magnifying glass up close and limited to the 2014 events of Ferguson instead of a compassionate acknowledgment of the history of racial injustice in the U.S.?

Busy with the workweek, I attempted (unsuccessfully) to observe rather than participate. My intention had already been posted: solidarity with the Rams who had made a statement I found inspiring. Eventually, I took the thread down because people were using it to toss hateful memes at each other. One in particular pushed me over the edge. It used images of Michael Brown’s family. I hid it as soon as I saw it. I hid it because it was dominated by code phrases like: “never married” and “never had…two real parents” and “need to rebuild real, solid family units and values.” The level of contempt it portrayed enraged me.

After I calmed down, I felt critical of myself for the rage because its existence–my anger over a meme–shows how very sheltered and protected I am. I decided then that I needed to write about this.

But more importantly, I realized that I need to read about this. My unearned advantage of everything I have by living in white skin blinds me to what I need to know about this.

I need to be quiet and listen to black scholars and black writers and black activists.

 

I started by watching this talk by Vernā Meyers.

I learned the phrase “contaminated culture.” Our collective history steeps us all in the muck of racist thought habits. There’s no Silkwood shower I can take to scour the biases and stereotypes from my mind. A quick fix doesn’t exist. I have to seek new ways of thinking.

I began making lists of people to follow on Twitter, lists of essays to read. Essays like this:

“Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

and this

“Please Stop Telling Me That All Lives Matter” by Julia Craven

and, how wonderful to live in the internet age because I encountered flyers like this to help me learn about more teachers:

By midweek, I reposted my support for the Rams’ demonstration at Facebook with an admittedly defensive statement, “Let’s try this again. I, Ruth LeFaive, show solidarity with these men performing this action. This is not up for debate. My FB timeline is not a democracy. And today, my FB timeline is not a forum for argument. I’m not asking you to agree with me; I will delete any hateful comments from this thread.”

One of the subsequent comments included these words from a white man, “Why would you want to support an action that only serves to promote ignorance and –”

‘Only’. Did you catch that? I’ve chosen not to quote the whole question* here because it is based in fallacy, in mistaken belief. I wondered then and I wonder now: Why would his first response to me be critical of the Rams’ action? And why did he feel the need to try and challenge my support? And again, the very fact that this surprised me–upset me–is proof of my white privilege, proof of the way I’ve been sheltered my whole life.

As frustrating as it was to have multiple rounds of misunderstanding looping through my social media microcosm, I was well aware of the fact that I was participating by choice, and that, by nature of being white, focusing on race was, and is almost always, optional for me.

My heart breaks for Eric Garner and his family. And my heart breaks for Michael Brown and his family. And my heart breaks for the thousands of black men and women in the for-profit prison complex in the U.S.

But hopefully the status quo is shifting. I want to do my part. I believe that starts with gaining an awareness of my own biases. Hi, I’m Ruth and I’m a racist.

I’ve been invigorated seeing Twitter alive with images of the protests this week. I’m inspired by the people taking to the streets, by the new generation of black activists leading the way. I will watch their speeches. I will read their essays. I will follow.

***

Additional Recommended Viewing / Reading:

 

“A Letter to My Nephew” by James Baldwin

“Affected” by Karen Walrond 

“Nyle Fort, the 24-year-old minister at the heart of Ferguson”

“In Conversation with Chris Rock. What’s Killing Comedy. What’s Saving America.”

Dr. Brittney Cooper at Salon 

“7 Reasons Why Reverse Racism Doesn’t Exist” by S.E. Smith

“Discussing Race with School Staff Post-Ferguson” by Kelly Wickham 

 

————-

UPDATE

*At the suggestion of the man who asked the question only partially quoted above, I am including his full comment which originally appeared at Facebook.

“Ruth, I understand the sentiment behind your words. Unfortunately this hands-up gesture perpetuates an inaccuracy promoted through the media which had been refuted by eyewitness testimony. Why would you want to support an action that only serves to promote ignorance and increase racial tensions? If truth with [sic] set you free, doesn’t ignorance of the truth enslave?”

And now I will parse it:

“Ruth, I understand the sentiment behind your words.” No. You don’t.

“Unfortunately this hands-up gesture perpetuates an inaccuracy promoted through the media…” No it doesn’t.

“…. which had been refuted by eyewitness testimony.” This is a huge matter of controversy and irrelevant to my support of the Rams’ action.

“Why would you want to support an action that only serves to promote ignorance and increase racial tensions?” This question is based in the misbelief that the action “only serves to promote ignorance and increase racial tensions”. That is not correct.

“If truth with [sic] set you free, doesn’t ignorance of the truth enslave?” This is a platitude. Whose truth? Whose ignorance?

10 thoughts on “I Won’t Ask You To Admit You’re A Racist Like Me

  1. Dear Ruth,

    I have been following the happenings you describe and am just as horrified as you are and admire your self examination. The Eric Garner murder I found particularly distressing. Choked to death for cigarettes. A gentle father of six. I have to fight back tears just writing this.

    No matter which country I’m in, and I have travelled through four in the last week, I see these stories. The international press has framed the conversation or rather steered it in my opinion. Please allow me to present another perspective.

    Let’s take Eric Garner. What was he doing when we was attacked. He was trying to feed a family of six by selling single cigarettes allegedly. In what kind of society does a man have to do that. Can you still breathe after swallowing your pride so far? His life is as sad as his death.

    What was Michael Brown doing? He was 18 right? Was he in school, Uni, work, doing an apprenticeship or travelling the world during his gap year? No, he was getting wasted and roaming the streets in an angry frame of mind. Let’s assume the cops version is accurate.
    Then a cop, presumably also not a Harvard graduate, maybe also angry about his station in life, tells him to get off the street. Humiliation heaped upon hopelessness, a bad day for both, and a kid dies.

    What am I getting at? Neither victims nor perpetrators ever had a chance at a dignified life, a real education or most importantly hope. Add no universal healthcare and guns for everybody and voila!

    The media paint it as a Black – White issue, not a Poor – Rich one. Result? Middle class white people like you feel guilty, poor white people feel angry that they are being blamed as they see it, poor black people feel victimised because of their race and the ruling class of all colours look down from their castles, protected by poor white and black cops, shaking their heads wondering how such awful things can happen.

    A few years ago I was in Soweto visiting the chess club. After I had a drink with some of the original ANC members. When I voiced my opinion about how great I found the end of apartheid and what a hero Nelson Mandela is one of them said the following.

    “Alex, the ANC was never a black emancipation party. It was a social justice party. Imagine a bus. Our destination was social justice. Emancipation was the first stop on a long journey but as soon as we got to the first stop everybody jumped off and grabbed what they could, including the driver. Now some of our masters are also Kaffa’s. Fucking great!”

    1. Dear Alex,

      I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to comment here. Yes, of course, this is a social justice and socioeconomic issue. Your eloquent compassion is lovely, and so appreciated. You remind me that the media, actively painting a picture, is merely the brush and paint being directed by deliberate hands (perhaps those in control of corporations like Cargill, Koch, Exxon and Apple). Although, I don’t know anything about economics. It’s probably time I begin to get serious about my education in this area.

      This post was difficult to write and is very much inadequate. I let my previously unexpressed thoughts about several comments at Facebook dominate the content rather than trying to address the broader issue.

      The reminder that the broader issue is socioeconomic fills me with dread, because if there’s one thing I find more painful than talking about race, it’s taking about politics and money. I struggle and usually fail when I attempt to communicate with those who have what I call the “me and mine” syndrome. Ugh, that’s for another post.

      All this to say, Alex, your input helps greatly. Thank you, again.

      p.s. How fantastic (!!) that you partied with some original ANC members! Wow! Awesome. Typical Alex :)

      1. Dear Ruth,

        I take issue with you describing your post as inadequate :-) It was most thought provoking and sincere. If anything was inadequate it was my reading. I didn’t follow any of your links the first time around, an omission which I have now rectified.

        Karen’s experiences of polite society racism were insightful and funny in a comedy noir sense. Greeting people louder with bigger smiles every time…priceless. I can understand how eventually it got old. I can’t help but wonder about the woman who asked her if she was really a real lawyer. Did she finish school?

        What struck me about Verna Meyers talk was her audience. Not one young black male did I spot. And her advice? Talk to one? Fine but if you talk to a young black Uni student you will miss the point entirely. It might relieve middle class guilt a bit but you will never understand what it feels like to have no hope. Any homeless person would be a better choice in my opinion regardless of age or race.

        Chris Rock resonated with me the most. He cut through the PCBS as usual. His Ike and Tina Turner analogy was exactly to the point as was his rich – poor comment.

        One last little story if I may. In 1983 I studied geology in Zagreb University, incidentally not long after touring with Greg in Europe playing chess for a few months. Every day after classes I would go to the post office chess club and spend the evening playing, drinking and generally having a great time. I stayed about a year and then moved on.

        In 1989 I returned briefly but everything had changed. Half my friends had left, the half that weren’t Croatian Catholics. In 1983 nobody knew or cared which religion or ethnicity anybody was. This had changed and the change had come from outside.
        I knew one group personally and their leader, an average chessplayer, lived where I had lived in Novi Zagreb. Now he was flush with funds sent from nationalist (nazi) sympathisers in Germany. Mladen was his Christian name.

        Mladen was less a racist than an opportunist but played his role with conviction. The Catholic church was cheerleading all the way. We poor Croats were the victims of Serb oppression. In Serbia the Orthodox Church played the same role and sang the same tune.

        My country Yugoslavia was ripped apart in an organised and systematic fashion by outside forces to gain access to markets and resources. The historic tensions between Croats and Serbs which went back a thousand years, almost forgotten, were cleverly reignited for a specific purpose by unseen forces.

        Know thy enemy, it may not be who you are told it is.

        Sorry for cluttering up your wall Ruth, I just felt I had to share :-)

        1. Oh, I love your stories, Alex! I can definitely benefit from your perspective, and I’m grateful you are willing to share it with my readers.

          I’m glad you enjoyed some of the links. Karen is a real source of light, and a talented essayist and speaker. And yes, Chris Rock’s expertise in distilling complex issues into concise images with aplomb inspired me to strive to be more incisive. Clearly, still working on that. Also, I found hope in his hope.

          Thank you.

          BTW, I was racing through your pics earlier & didn’t have time to say, “Pretty red mushroom!”

  2. Thanks, Ruth. I admire your compassion and your curiosity and your willingness to engage despite the vitriol it sparks. I’ve chosen not to engage, a choice which I’m ashamed of to some degree.

    1. Hi Dalyn,

      Thank you so much for writing. Hearing from you eases the discomfort of vitriol sparking. I know my current displeasure of participating in rifts is tiny compared to what so many endure around these issues–including loss, grief, imprisonment, torment and death.

      As for the shame you mention, I hope you can let that degree of it slide away. Peggy McIntosh said, “I don’t think blame, shame or guilt are relevant to the arbitrariness of our placement in social systems.” Your energy in all you do is flowing towards the greater good. Your daily life inspires me.

      xoR

    1. Karen,

      I meant to thank you for this note months ago. So kind of you to read this and offer encouragement. Thank you!

      Ruth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *