Black History Month: Reflections on Racism

A while ago I read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. I’m not proud to admit that I am one of those white people who gets uncomfortable when I’m confronted with the racial inequity that is still taking place in the United States and beyond.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that and really wanting to understand why that is my response. As someone who prides herself on being well educated, well traveled, well read — all topics I routinely cover here — how have I avoided dealing with the topic of racism, and why does it make me uncomfortable?

This book helped me understand something pretty fundamental. The very fact that I’ve been able to push the problem of racism to my peripheral vision, to move through my life avoiding the topic of racism, is a luxury I enjoy because I’m white. It is the epitome of white privilege.

Acknowledging that I directly and indirectly benefit from being white — even at the bare minimum of not having to deal with the topic or consequences of racism on a daily basis — doesn’t mean that I haven’t faced challenges in my life. It means that the challenges I have faced have not been because of the color of my skin.

I cannot continue to avoid the topic of racism or pretend as though it’s not a very real problem in our society that is made worse by white people who refuse to acknowledge it or do anything about it. Because white people are in the position to do something about it.

I am in a position to do something about it.

Coming to this conclusion doesn’t make me any more comfortable with the issue of racism. In fact, it makes me very uncomfortable to think about the steps I need to take on a personal level to uncover my implicit biases (which I’ve started to do) and encourage the people I love to consider their conscious and unconscious prejudices. It’s hard to take a close, critical look at the parts of yourself that need improvement without growing defensive or dismissive.

This leads me to a second notion this book helped call to my attention, which is the importance of being open to feedback that drives self-awareness and using it to improve. While this is good advice in general, it’s critical to considering my implicit racial biases and correcting them.

I often fall into a trap of thinking in binary terms. I am a good person, therefore I cannot have racial prejudices. I have worked hard for what I have, therefore I cannot have benefited from white privilege. I would never intentionally hurt someone with my words or actions, therefore I cannot have had that impact on someone — what I said or did was clearly misunderstood.

Very little in this world conforms to this way of thinking – things are rarely either/or.

  • I can be a good person AND have racial prejudices that I need to unlearn.
  • I can work hard for what I have AND have benefited from systems that are advantageous to me because I’m white and that create disadvantages for people who are not white.
  • I can take care not to hurt others AND have said or done something that was hurtful – and my intention/ignorance doesn’t change that outcome or excuse me from apologizing, correcting my mistake, and doing better next time.
  • I can be proud of some aspects of this country’s history and my heritage AND be ashamed of others.
  • I can acknowledge the power and privilege that comes with being white in this country AND I can work to extend that power and privilege to those who are not white.

I don’t like conflict — I consciously avoid it. I know that is a luxury I cannot afford if I want to continue to evolve and if I want to stand up to injustices when I see them. 

Instead of rationalizing, validating, and protecting my opinions and perspectives when I feel they are being challenged, I want to examine what’s making me feel so fragile — what’s making me feel so defensive.

Instead of refusing to talk about racism and pretending like it’s not a problem because it’s not a problem for me or because I’m uncomfortable thinking about my own shortcomings, I want to build the resiliency to own my failures and do something about them.

Instead of blindly assuming my experiences and understanding of the world are a shared lens to everyone else’s reality, I want to listen and learn about other people’s experiences and understand how and why they are different from mine.

This book certainly doesn’t have all of the answers, but I found it helped me challenge my thinking and made me even more aware of how much I need to learn, and unlearn.

It also inspired me to seek out reading materials about racism and the Black experience in the United States from a variety of people and perspectives. I recommend all of the following books that I’ve recently read, and I welcome your recommendations on what I should add to my reading list as I continue to learn more:

  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
  • Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
  • How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon
  • The Trouble with White Women: A Counterhistory of Feminism by Kyla Schuller

I’m still early in my journey and embracing the following (now much-shared) sentiment as I continue moving forward.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Maya Angelou

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