Below is a recent hometown interview I did in Q & A format. It's a good snapshot of where I am in my onoing journey to understand racial issues and the language I'm using to convey those understandings. I look forward to continuing to learn and grow as I engage with a range of communities, individuals, readings, and media in 2016.
Q: What are your earliest memories of awareness of race as a white person? What were your family's attitudes toward race?
A: I would characterize my family’s attitude on race as colorblind. I was taught to treat everyone the same – with kindness and respect. I can count on one hand the times my family spoke explicitly about race in my childhood. Yet all around me were images of racial stereotypes – the noble or savage Indian portrait, the subservient enslaved African film character, the angry black man doing the perp walk on the news, the lazy Mexican cartoon character. In the vacuum of white silence, these stereotypes became deeply embedded in my consciousness as my only racial reference points. I had no idea that these stereotypes were being created and promoted by white people and that they were cruelly inaccurate. To me they seemed legitimate and real. In hindsight, the biggest exposure I had to race and racism was to ideas and imagery that portrayed white people as normal and as superior. I couldn’t help but notice that white people, men in particular, held most positions of leadership. There are only two ways I can think of for a person to explain this pattern. One is to understand the way race has been used historically to control access to resources in a way that advantages white power brokers while disadvantaging everyone else. The other is to buy into manufactured stereotypes. In a household, community, and education system that didn’t talk about race, I certainly couldn’t understand complex historical systems, so I defaulted to what was in my belief system, regardless of how incomplete and faulty it was. I bought into all racial stereotypes, including the one that white people are somehow smarter, more competent, safer, harder working, and so on. Before waking up white, I wouldn’t have admitted this to you. I would have told you I was colorblind. Consciously I would have believed that. Getting at my subconscious has been the key to waking up white.
Q: Did you have racially diverse friendships growing up, or when did you first have diverse friendships?
A: I had superficial relationships with two Chinese classmates – one a boy in elementary school, the other a girl in middle school. We never spoke about race. What’s interesting is how little those two relationships did to counteract the weighty narrative of white superiority that had already gripped my mind.
My first real friend of color was with Herb Tyson, a WGBH colleague, and a black man two years my senior. We were both in our twenties. Unlike many of my white male peers at the time, who I think saw me as a girlfriend or wife material, Herb reflected back to me a belief that I had business talent. It was at Herb’s prodding that I applied to a managerial position at a young age – and got it. Knowing Herb made it impossible for me to continue swallowing whole myths about black people being less intelligent, hard working, or trustworthy. That said, I still didn’t understand why stereotypes haunted me, and I sure wasn’t going to talk about it or even admit to myself I had them. Somewhere along the line I learned that talking about race and racism was racist. This code of white silence trapped me in a state of racial ignorance that made me a mediocre friend to any person of color. Though Herb and I talked about race, we talked about his racialized experiences, not mine (because I was unaware I was having them), and never delved into systemic or internalized issues. Herb has stuck with me through the years and is still a friend. We now have deep discussions about the racial world we both share, and that impacts us so differently because of our respective racial assignments.
Q: How has your understanding of race and racism changed as you've lived your life?
A: If I had to give years and titles to my racial awareness development, it would look like this:
Age 0 – 21: Race? What? Where? There’s No Racism In Winchester! How White Segregation And Avoidance Left Me Clueless About Race And Racism
Age 22 – 48: Beginning To Sense An Elephant In The Room, I Look Everywhere But Inside Myself For Answers. How I Knew There Was And Elephant In The Room — I Just Didn’t Know It Was Me!
Age 48 – Present: Now That I Know Better, I Will Do Better. How I Will Spend The Rest Of My Life Trying To Catch Up On History I Wasn’t Taught And Righting Wrongs I Didn’t Know Existed.
Q: Where, as a culture, are we now in terms of race? Where are we headed?
A: When people think about diversity and inclusion initiatives, often they think only about who is and is not populating a space. “I wish my church/campus/workplace were more diverse” usually means most people are white and “diversity” means adding more people of color to the community. What’s missing in this understanding is that whiteness isn’t just about who’s in the room, it’s about the social norms and values that serve as our rules of engagement. To drive home this point, think about this. In terms of numbers, plantations were diverse. The rules of engagement were the issue. Those archaic rules, in which white people get to decide who is and is not included when, where, and how, has become so normalized that even being able to see it can be hard for white people. So while America becomes increasingly “diverse” the same rules of engagement and narrative about white people being more fit to lead is the real task at hand. We can change all the laws and policies we want; we can populate our communities with “diverse” people all we want; yet until social order, its origins, and power dynamics are understood and addressed, the rules of engagement will perpetuate the archaic social order inherited from our European ancestors.
Q: What does racism look like in 2016? What did the Obama administration mean for the understanding and conversation about racism?
President Obama’s time on the world stage has brought advances and setbacks. For some there’s a renewed energy to embrace a multicultural America – it feels so close on the one hand. Yet, the unfamiliar look of a black man in the Oval office has incited discomfort, hatred, and resistance in others. The divisiveness that permeates our culture at the moment is part of this divide.
President Obama’s election and two-term presidency has forced the issue of modern racism to the surface. Unlike explicit racism where humans owned, traded, abused, and used other humans for personal gain, or “white” and “colored” signs in the Jim Crow south, modern racism can be harder to understand, and therefore harder to counteract and dismantle. The piece of racism that’s yet to be dismantled is the way it lives in our belief systems, in our thoughts, and in our behaviors. (By “our” I mean Americans of all colors as we’ve all been exposed to the ideology and customs.) Unexamined individual racial bias then gets embedded in behavior and systems.
The police brutality and shootings we’ve witnessed in the past few years is an obvious example of racial bias in action. Systemic racism continues in every sector of America. The mass incarceration of black bodies for profit, continual redrawing of voting districts, and tying education budgets to property values which are tied to skin color are but a few examples. Less obvious and yet immensely important to understand, are the daily, repetitive insults and slights people of color face at the hands of white peers, neighbors, colleagues, bosses, and so forth. White people can be dismissive, patronizing, and of course also outright cruel – often without even knowing it. People of color have been taught not to talk to white people about racism, and white people have been taught not to talk about racism at all. When people of color do try to offer insight to white people, often the result is accusations of “too sensitive, too angry, too fill in the blank.” As a result, these seemly small slights add up. People of color grow increasingly frustrated and exhausted, and white people remain trapped in a cycle of ignorance. As I mentioned before, I could feel this elephant in the room, yet fear of saying something stupid or offensive made me clam up.
This code of white silence prevents white people not only from learning how racism operates, it prevents the development of the language, conversational skills, and emotional stamina necessary to get and stay engaged in cross-racial relationships. Meanwhile many people of color process daily the repetitive slights and outright cruelty with friends and family of color, and work in community to navigate America’s racially fraught systems. There’s a major skill and understanding differential between your average white person and your average person of color. White people have a reputation of not being able to handle these conversations very well. Defensiveness, denial, and accusations such as those above can derail a discussion and make a person of color regret ever having giving it yet one more try. This is why conversation guidelines and facilitators are so important early in the process.
I was teaching in a second grade classroom when President Obama was elected and inaugurated. I watched the black students in my class and school soak up the vision of a black president. Imagine never seeing a person that you could relate to in a position of great leadership. I’ve since heard from black teenage boys that the role model President Obama presented felt life affirming in ways that still matter. Hopefully, despite the immense backlash President Obama’s tenure produced, there is new motivation in America’s young black population to aspire to positions of leadership. Taking hope away from a person is to me one of the most violent acts a society can inflict.
Q: What was your impression of the Rachel Dolezal story last year? Do you understand her impulse to identify with African-Americans to such an extent? Or, can you explain it?
A: I’m most interested in studying and solving problems that are pervasive and ongoing, so the Rachel Dolezal story was more of a blip for me. What I learned from it was how angry black women are for the ways in which white women can undermine them in social, academic, and work settings as opposed to showing female solidarity in the fight to dismantle sexism. In this case a white woman took a position of leadership that many women of color would have wanted to fill. It also provides a window into cultural appropriation, the kind we see with Halloween costumes. The anger around cultural appropriation is that white people get to choose when and how to don blackness or brownness, to do so for their own advancement or entertainment, while not having to live the discrimination. It’s hard for me not to consider that Rachal Dolezal’s imposter urge has something to do with a childhood hurt and/or confusion from her parents’ adoption of African American children. And then there’s a habit of lying. Passing as a person of color is not enough of a pattern in our society to concern me. People of color passing as white in order to access loans, housing, education, jobs, or healthcare? Now that catches my attention as it speaks to America’s history of favoring the white prototype.
Q: What do you want people of color to know or understand about white people?
A: I hesitate to answer this one because my attempted answers feel so pat and the issue is so violent and traumatic. What can be said? White people are trying? White people want to understand? Also, people of color have to study white people every day in order to survive, so I feel there’s very little I could say that would bring enlightenment or hope about a racial group that currently holds the power to create change and yet is for the most part unable or unwilling to do that. That said, I will share one of the most unexpected comments I’ve gotten from people of color who’ve read my book: “You have finally convinced me it’s possible for a white person to be so clueless. Until now I was sure white people understood the whole system and just refused to admit it because they didn’t want to give it up.” My mission is to educate white people willing to be educated so that change can be made. I would add that not all white people are willing, but no one knows that better than people of color.
Q: Why did you write your book and what do you hope it can accomplish?
A: I wrote the book that I believe would have woken me up earlier in life. When I started to learn how racism works, I was appalled that it wasn’t general knowledge. I sensed there would be many well-intentioned white people who would also want to wake up to racial truths. Though my learning happened in a graduate school course, I knew it wasn't enough to educate white people in academic institutions. This is why I chose the book route, and wrote it as a non-academic memoir. What do I hope it can accomplish? A mass waking up of white America so that our brothers and sisters of color no longer have to disproportionately bear the burden of the racism we’ve all inherited, and that white people invented centuries ago.
(This last question did not make it into the paper, and the online version was incomplete.)
Q: Is it controversial for a white person to write about race? How do different races respond to it?
A: Racial justice work is an immensely conflicted space for a white person to work in. The risk of white people working alone, as I often do, is that whiteness is on center stage and harmful white behaviors are likely to be reproduced. For that reason, I’ve worked closely alongside colleagues of color since early in the project. Developing trusting, authentic, humility-filled relationships is crucial to cross-cultural collaborations and I'm both surprised and not when a blindspot or cultural habit emerges and/or gets pointed out to me. Three of my five go-to workshops are cross-racial collaborative trainings. This sounds great, and yet the practicaliity of aligning schedules and covering the costs of more than one presenter means that I end up leading engagements alone. In all cases, I work closely with hosts — often people of color — to assess what role they want me to fill when at their organization. Two years ago I reached out to Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr.,(founder director of The Privilege Institute) for coaching services. Though his primary role is to help me with marketing and curriculm strategies, he holds me accountable in every way imaginable – offers feedbalk about my talks and workshops, guides me in what conferences to attend, advises me on what my role is and is not, brainstorms with me about future projects. White racial justice educator Peggy McIntosh advised me early in my journey to set this expectation: I will never completely outgrow the white attitudes and behaviors I adopted in childhood. The best I can do is be willing to learn and grow over the days, months, and years. I am finding time and time again how right she is!