June 7, 2020

Dear Black Friends, I’m sorry I’m Racist.


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My coworker wrote her heart out in a piece about what she needs from her white allies right now.

Sit in your yuck, she said. In italics. Just like that.

Sit in your yuck.

She posed some questions. “Questions,” she said, “that will lead to answers that your heart and your head and your ego are not prepared to hear.”

So, I’ll tell it to you straight, the way I started to tell one of my best friends. The same best friend who sighed and said she felt the same. Maybe you will, too.

And maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll get angry with me because I am the only awful person on this planet to have thought this way, felt this way, feared this way. To have kept it to myself.

Or maybe you’ll get angry because you’ll find yourself in my words and not be ready to see them.

We’re in this mess because so many of us have long kept our racist beliefs “to ourselves.” So long, in fact, that we are often unaware that some of our thoughts and behaviors are racist.

So, let’s start this conversation in response to my colleague’s questions. Here we go. I’ll start:

Dear Black friends,

I am your coworker, your former classmate, your buddy. And I am a “racist.”

This is why I “haven’t spoken up about racism until now, or a year ago, or four years ago.” This is what has “kept [me] silent for so long about the systemic racism that has plagued our country for hundreds of years.”

I am a racist not because I was raised to be one. No, let’s take some real responsibility here: I am a racist because as I have grown older, I have not chosen to educate myself to be otherwise.

My conscious and unconscious beliefs that make me a racist are traits that I am still discovering. But here are just a couple of my least favorite, most cringe-worthy:

That it would ever be acceptable to have turned to my black friend several years ago when she spoke a certain way, to say, “Whoa! I totally forgot that you were black until you spoke like that.”

I ask myself in the moment that I’m writing this, what I meant by that statement. I don’t have an answer. So, I ask myself why instead. I keep asking why—why I said it, why I was taken by surprise when she spoke with a certain intonation, why suddenly it felt like I was standing next to a different person.

That’s otherness.

But she was not other. She was my friend. The same friend. I haven’t talked to her—haven’t had a meaningful conversation with her—in a year. My “friend.”

As for the second? It’s the fear that I’m confronted with the most recently—that being an “ally” places me in a space where I am vulnerable. The moment that I allow that nasty fear that I never let myself stare down come in, it whispers a single, terrifying word: vengeance.

What if this movement reaps me what “so many white people” have sown?

I try to combat that fear with “learning.” I try to combat it with “understanding” that “freedom” is what I’ve experienced and not what everyone else has, that it could look a different way.

I try to wrap my head around defunding or abolishing the police, and that’s about the time that I run full speed back into my hole of scaredness.

Vengeance, my inner racist whispers with its hot breath. It also tells me to keep that to myself. So, tonight, I write it down.

Sit in your yuck.

I’m still learning how I encourage or practice white supremacy in my everyday life, but here’s just one that stood out the other day:

Me, at work, mentioning that our readers are predominately white as well as are our writers, and that we may be affected by folks’ muting.

We might be affected? Poor us.

Maybe we should use our platform to solely #amplifymelanatedvoices? Sure. Let’s be the savior.

The intent to amplify voices might be “pure” if there is such a thing. But as someone pointed out in college, the idea of “giving” people of color a platform is white supremacy in itself. Who are we to give or take if we are truly equal? Who was I to throw out that idea?

The N-word and I have a limited past. My mother taught me, from a young age, about a friendship that she lost when she used it on a swing set as a child. My mother will tell you that she was proud of me when one of her boyfriend’s parents said it and, at the age of 10, I asked them not to use that language.

I will tell you that I have used it, as a teen or in my young 20s, when playfully speaking with a “black accent.”

I will tell you that I have encouraged folks who know people who use it to talk to their friends about omitting it from their vocabulary.

But considering all of the above confessional while sitting in my yuck, I bet that doesn’t mean much, does it?

I have locked my car doors in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. I have not been conscious of having crossed streets to avoid people of color. I have formed a relationship with South Los Angeles and its community—admired how people there always have each other’s backs.

But there I go again, with the otherness, using terms like “there” (clearly, not where I live), and “each other’s backs” as if it were some club I’m not a part of.

My mother will tell you she is proud that I do not see color. And while I’ll admit that at times I can be naïve, the above demonstrates that I not only see it, I hear it, and to my own disappointment, I fear it.

I suck at telling jokes, but I wouldn’t likely know if a racist joke bit me in the butt, and right now I can’t think that’s some charming ignorance. I can’t think that’s some sweet or odd naivety speaking. Right now, I’m awake enough to see that as privilege. And an area in which I can work to grow my awareness.

I think I might have said there is only the human race last week.

And several years ago, when I was accepted into a fancy university, I got upset that there were so many scholarships for everyone other than white people. What I said one day in frustration, I will not repeat, but let’s just say that the identities that I once said I wished I could assume for just a couple of bucks off of my education are not the shoes I’d wish to fill, or the cross I’d like to bear.

So, my friends, it doesn’t sound much like I am your ally, when I look at it—really look at it.

“Your allyship is going to cost you something,” a speaker said at the rally I attended because my roommate saw two people holding signs walk past our window and asked feverishly if I’d like to go.

“Maybe it’ll cost you a clean record,” they said. And I stood in front of a bus for what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds, fearing a ticket I would not be able to afford.

“Maybe it’ll cost you your job,” they said. And I write this in response to my managing editor. I post it on a website that publishes in perpetuity, where things are not removed unless they pose a threat to the person’s physical well-being.

“Maybe it’ll cost you friends or family,” they said. And I’m thinking of some of my loved ones who will be angered or frustrated by this article.

A note to them: I do not hate myself. I do not hate you. I do not think you or I are nasty, evil white people, or less than or, or, or.

I do, however, write this with a sense of guilt. When looking at the ways that I have unknowingly belittled my friends, there’s no way that we can avoid it.

But this guilt shows up in the same way as failing a test does: I need to do more work. I need to stop slacking. I need to better understand so that I can get out there with that knowledge and help improve this world.

And so, I write this with a hope that my owning some of my racist behaviors and thoughts might allow us—my fellow white people—to start a discussion.

I am a “racist” in many ways that I am trying to unlearn. I’ve made mistakes. I’ll make many more. But it is my intent to never stop trying, to never stop learning, to always do better.

Even when it’s hard. Even when it sucks and I am embarrassed to be found sitting in my yuck.

This is what we all need to do.


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