Lessons Learned

I have a story to share and a couple of books to recommend in relation to the protests in support of actual equality for POC, especially BIPOC.

Books: In the Silences by Rachel Gold. This is a YA book about being an ally. One of the main characters is a non-binary white teen and the other is a black teen girl. The book is set in Minnesota, which has a long history of poor race relations cloaked in MN Nice. I once overheard a black man say he preferred living in the South because at least there he knew where he stood. At the time I did not understand. Now I understand much better. The book is eye-opening, especially for people like me raised in largely white towns with very little first-person understanding of race relations.CE7A5D17-730F-43D0-92C8-AB86EBF3FFAD

The second book is Waking Up White by Debby Irving. This has been described as introductory material. A book to help white people start a journey into discovering what we don’t understand about race. This is a book a friend recommended. It spoke to me. I recommended it to another friend and she suggested a small book club. Five of us would get together on a regular basis and discuss the book. We never made it through the whole book as a group. It started out great. Then three meetings in, suddenly people had conflicts and couldn’t attend. So it stopped. Another friend recommended it to her book club. Only half the members showed up for that discussion. None of us would actually call ourselves “racist”. 0FE85182-BB3C-43EF-A594-5E98316683DC

Had you asked me 30 years ago whether I was a racist, I would have said “no”. I was raised to treat people as individuals, without regard to the color of their skin. That was pretty progressive for New Hampshire in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Pretty easy, too. I could count on one hand the number of black people I knew. And most were adopted children of white couples. The one black person I knew best sat next to me in school. Jenny was black, but she was visually white. She had albinism. Her white parents had adopted several black children with special needs (Jenny, like most people with albinism was legally blind. She had thick glasses and could see enough to read if she held the paper close to face). They all attended my little Catholic school- I believe the only school in the area to mainstream students with certain special needs.

The one black adult on my radar was a man who I saw once a year. He led one of the children’s groups at the overwhelmingly white family camp my family attended.

I didn’t actually internalize how racist it is to “not see color” until a few years ago. Of course I had heard and read and thought I understood that the progressive values of my childhood were actually more harmful than helpful, but I didn’t truly understand. Until the day I accidentally hurt (and likely scared) a black man in my community all while being the kind, sunny (if shy) person I think I am. And this only happened about 10 or so years ago.

He and I were walking down the street in our small town, moving in opposite directions on the same sidewalk. I did not know him. We had never met. When he and his dog were about a block from me, we were all nearly run over by a passel of high school athletes out for their morning run. I stopped to chat when our paths crossed:

Me: Big friendly smile ”Yikes, a bit dangerous for a walk this morning.”

Him: indicating the dog “Oh, he’s perfectly friendly.”

Me: completely oblivious and working to reassure the man, more big friendly smile “Oh, I wasn’t talking about the dog.”

Him: weird look and bustles off with the dog.

Me: all the way to work- what was that look about? I mean, we were both nearly run over by 20 teenagers. I was connecting on that commonality. And completely oblivious to what it might mean for a black man to be approached by a white middle-aged woman with those words.

It took me an embarrassing amount of time to understand what I had accidentally done. Now I wonder how I could have been so stupid. Back then I watched for him so I could apologize. Of course, in the ten-ish years since, I have not seen him. And why would he ever come near me again?

I have had people offer me excuses when I tell the story. Say “it’s okay”. But it’s really not. And it will never be. And if I carry around the reminder of how much I hurt/scared another person while trying to have a friendly chat on common ground without acknowledging our uncommon ground, then maybe it will help me not hurt or scare someone again.

 

 

One comment

  1. I hadn’t heard of these two books, so I appreciate you mentioning them. It’s not easy to confront our white privilege and how deep we ingrained racism. I’ve been with my partner, a Black woman, for over 25 years, and I still catch myself saying or doing something racist. We can’t let our uncomfortable feelings, our white guilt, embarrassment, whatever, from stopping us from becoming better people, better allies. Thank you for your column.

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