White Like Me in Times Like These

race riots in America, racial protests across the country for deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, racism, white people understand racismThe news reports are always lurking at the edges of my mind; another white policeman kills an unarmed black man and no charges are filed.

What does that have to do with me? I am a good person. Kind. Big-hearted. My intent, even as a child, was to treat everyone equally. I don’t know anything about the white policemen who have killed unarmed black men. Some, no doubt, are openly racist. But many, I presume, may be just like me—filled with good intent and thoughts of equanimity.

Unfortunately, none of us was born in a vacuum. The racial values and assumptions of centuries of U.S. and European culture were fed to us with our mother’s milk and our ABCs: White-skinned people are better/smarter/less dangerous/more deserving than black-skinned people.

Growing up in my moderate Texas household in the 1950s and 1960s, the black/white divide was never stated that bluntly nor articulated with such obvious prejudice. Yet my world was filled with upstanding white people—professionals, teachers, authors, neighbors and church members—and unknown black people—often either working in our homes or yards, reportedly breaking the law on the nightly news or rioting somewhere far away in civil rights protests. My limited experience led me to feel safer around my people, white people.

Until I identify and extricate these shards of racism buried deep in my bones, they will emerge in times of stress. Even when my sight is focused on justice and my vision is bold, these deep-seated, cultural biases don’t magically evaporate. I, and we, must wake up to the big and small ways that prejudice is infecting our actions and beliefs.

When racism shows up in me, it can break relationships, put black friends in jeopardy or cause deep hurt. When it shows up in white policemen armed with guns, these internalized racial fears too often turn deadly. When it shows up in grand juries and court trials, justice can’t be served.

We can no longer pretend that racism, conscious or unconscious, is an occasional or individual problem as too many more black men than white men are either killed by police or incarcerated. The underbelly of systemic racism has once again been exposed.

People ask me, often softly, “Do you have any hope?”

Yes, I do.

I’ve spent decades diving into the intersection of my life and the “Big Topics,” as I call them, as they cut through our world. My family and upbringing was rather ordinary, even for a white girl. No alcoholism, drugs or violence. No words of racial hatred. No overt sexism; my grandmothers and mother were all strong, independent women. Nevertheless, I finally noticed that I was asleep to the ways that race, class and gender—the big “-isms”—were present and active in the corners of my mind or in a reactive moment.

I knew I had to share these discoveries as small steps toward having our society come to grips with the kind of internal racism that’s hard to acknowledge, which is what I did in Big Topics at Midnight: A Texas Girl Wakes Up to Race, Class, Gender and Herself. I wanted my story to expand readers’ awareness of a bigger and more diverse reality of themselves and the world around them. When we awaken, I believe that we can see more clearly the ways that our actions—especially under stress—can be brought into alignment with our hearts and values.

Asleep and denying their presence, our unconsciously held beliefs are extremely dangerous in times of stress. Likewise, wallowing for too long in shame or guilt will derail change.

The shards of generations and millennia of racism, classism and sexism do not have to remain in our psyches. We can open them up, look at them with clear eyes, and change.

I have hope, but not because the changes required are quick or easy.

For the last twelve years, I have been part of an organization that gathers diverse groups across race, class, age and gender identity. There I learned to build strong partnerships due to my commitment to notice, examine, then shift subtle or overt shards of racism (or any “-ism”) that emerges in the middle of our work together. As a result, I am beginning to know myself and others separate from, and outside of, the wounds—historical and present—that have infected and divided us all.

My hope lies in the fact that more and more of us are waking up to our nation’s horrible generational legacy of racism and taking the necessary steps to remove these shards from our bones and institutions.

It is possible to make these profound changes. I’ve seen the impact of this transformation many times. Even while the heartbreaking violence grows in our streets and in the courts, something new and better is emerging. We must, as a country, wake up because it’s too near midnight to stay asleep.

As American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Committed to partnerships across differences, Nancy Thurston first had to own the diversity within. She is the author of Nautilus Silver Medal book Big Topics at Midnight: A Texas Girl Wakes Up to Race, Class, Gender and Herself, her first book, which explores the connections between personal, familial and global awakening. She continues to explore the “big topics” through writing at www.nancymthurston.com. She is a board member of Be Present, Inc., a group dedicated to building sustainable leadership for social justice.

Image via Depositphotos

  • Kim

    I wonder if we could all gather on the Mall in DC and stand together, shoulder to shoulder with our fellow citizens. In silence. Just be there. I don’t know what it would do, but it would be so wonderful to participate in.

  • I still remember sitting at a restaurant just off the town square in Arcada, CA. Women and children, mostly wearing black, began to gather in silence and soon filled up the center of town. Men, under a sign that read Veterans Against the War, stood silently in one corner. They stood in silence for an hour, a quiet protest to a violent war.

    I agree, Kim, it would be powerful.

    If we could have a combination of silent but powerful standing for what we believe is right, personal waking up and introspection to where those shards of violence or prejudice have lodged in our actions, and engaging in conversation that opens up moments where an action or word is out of alignment with our value of justice for all we would see the ripples of change move through our hurting world.

  • Noa Mohlabane

    Thank you Nancy, for speaking plainly.

    I have been seeing how my places of fear are the places of divide. They divide me from my own heart and from my fellow beings.

    The fear of experiencing and facing the discomfort of seeing and taking responsibility for those “micro-aggressions” a very descriptive term my friend gave me – micro aggressions that speak volumes and have a very strong energetic impact on my relationships.

    These are the form my shards of racism take – those moments when I do something (or fail to say or do something) that initially I could seemingly innocently say “what did I do?” until I take a closer look at that tell tale feeling of discomfort in my belly or the pain in my friend’s eyes.

    I am practicing seeing those plainly, acknowledging them and taking responsibility, resisting the temptation to explain away my behavior.

    I am also really looking at what was in my mind right before that action or inaction – to become fully aware of those hide-out places where my racism resides – bring them to my own sight – even writing these words I sense my own resistance to owning racist attitudes.
    And yet – I know there is very little chance of escaping attitudes and perceptions ingrained in all the media, institutions and cultrure I grew up and live in. I keep reminding myself of the gift that sight brings and responsible action brings – a deeper more peaceful relationship with my own heart and unobstructed fearless love flowing with all the people in my life.

    In this moment I am getting my courage together to rejoin the demonstrations in the streets – these have not been silent – the police in riot gear and the helicoptors overhead are very scary to me. And I do not want to live in the regret of letting my fear keep me from standing up in alignment with my heart.

  • So much waking up is to the little places, what you (Noa) are calling micro-aggressions, Those small shards can do big damage, especially in times of stress. And especially when we get defensive rather than stopping to look inside to see what is true and what isn’t true. When we can release our feelings of shame and guilt–remembering the culture we were born into–we are more likely to take steps toward the change we want to see in the world.

  • Rose Feerick

    Thanks Nancy for this piece. I have been in big conversations with my two sons this month about systemic racism. One of my son’s asked me if I have hope. Like you I pointed to the work of Be Present and what we have seen there about another possibility. Seeing that possibility is what gives me courage to turn inward and see how systemic racism lives in me.

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