Last month I took an online course facilitated by Patti Digh and Victor Lee Lewis called “Hard Conversations: Intro to Racism,” because I wanted to learn more about systemic racism in the USA and what I can do to be an ally to people of color. During the course of the learning, we covered a number of topics, starting with basic advice about how to listen deeply, understand that “it’s not about you,” empathy vs sympathy and non-violent communication. We watched the movie “The Color of Fear,” and the documentary, “A Class Divided,” and saw a number of educational YouTube videos by people like Chescaleigh, Kat Blaque and Akilah. We got into upsetting topics like the murder of young Emmett Till, the corruption in Ferguson, redlining in the housing industry, police brutality, and also touched upon Black Lives Matter and various activists in the new civil rights movement. We were reminded to take self-care days, and to grant specificity to the other, lest we fall victim to the danger of a single story.
From what I could gather, the majority of the participants were European Americans like me but there were also people of color present. You can’t fully understand other people’s experiences unless you have a somewhat complete knowledge of yourself, and white people in America tend to ignore their own whiteness, so we also got into discussing things like: what is whiteness? what’s wrong with saying you’re ‘colorblind‘? what are ‘white privilege‘ and ‘white fragility‘? Additionally, we discussed microaggressions, cultural appropriation and biracial identities.
I’ve shared all these links to videos and articles to give you sort of a mini-version of what we learned, and if you have the time to go through the links at your leisure, I highly encourage you to do so. If you’re really into this topic, here are a couple of bonus videos: White Man On White Supremacy & Fear of a Black Nation and A Brief History of White Privilege, Racism and Oppression in America | Legalize Democracy excerpt. And check out Michelle Alexander‘s book (or at least the review for) “The New Jim Crow.”
I’d like to share some of the things I learned which were especially eye opening for me personally:
- Racism is subtle. I grew up thinking racists were a small minority of clueless white people who just hadn’t made it past the turn of the 19th century in their thinking. In reality, racism is pervasive in American society, yet you may not be noticing it. And this failure to notice can be more damaging than a KKK march. After all, you can’t fix something unless you can admit it is a problem. Some examples: You might live in a progressive city and hire minorities at your company, while paying them less than white people for the same work. You might live in a diverse neighborhood, but when you walk by darker skinned people, you automatically pull your purse closer or avoid eye contact with them. You might be working retail and unconsciously spend more time and effort with your pale skinned customers under the assumption that they have more money to spend, while at the same time side-eying your darker skinned customers with the idea that they might be fixing to steal something. And this is just the beginning.
- When someone tells you their story about how they were hurt by something that happened to them as a racial minority, it really isn’t helpful to chime in with your own anecdotes about a time when you experienced something that felt like prejudice to you. People don’t feel listened to when you keep bringing the attention back to yourself.
- Most people of color are more comfortable talking about race than most white people. Pretending to not see someone’s skin color doesn’t actually help anyone.
- I also realized that I have long felt a sense of not really relating to my race or ethnic heritage, and that being able to ignore my race and ethnicity is actually a kind of luxury. No one looks at me, sees my Italian background and jokes about the Mafia, sees my German background and jokes about the Nazis, sees my Russian background and ribs me about the Cold War, sees my British background and makes a crack about the Revolutionary War, or sees my Polish background and jokes about how dumb I must be. My whiteness is considered the “default” so I have the luxury of being able to forget about it. Not so for people of color in America.
Ultimately, the deepest takeaway from this course is the reminder that we are all connected, and if one part of the human race is suffering, then we all are suffering, even if we don’t realize it. And, we all have an obligation to do what we can to help relieve systemic injustices that keep us from being free. In that sense, this understanding fits in well with my Buddhist values.
The course calls itself a “firehose of information” and it was indeed, but I looked forward to each new page of links to articles, videos and audio interviews. If you would like to sign up for the next session, you can do so here.