How I Learned Racism is Real and Present Part 2

Many here on OS are polished writers. I’m not one of them. I believe a few of the posts I’ve shared here are good, but I haven’t developed the skill of artfully discussing every day issues in a way that clearly expresses my understanding or insights on a given topic. This lack of skill (that I’ll gain eventually) has been the reason for my delay in sharing part 2 of “How I learned Racism is Real and Present.” I wrote part 1 eleven days ago here.
Swallowing my hesitation, I’ll now share my story in whatever way unfolds as I let my mind go back in time to one of the saddest learning experiences of my life.
I was 20. Old enough to drive, vote, work and be classified as an adult. I was old enough to live on my own. I wasn’t old enough to thoughtfully sort out the destruction triggered by the Rodney King verdict that I was witnessing on the news. I wasn’t old enough to feel anything but horror and then numbness at all of it. I hadn’t developed the faculty for mature reflection in the face of violence. Everyone had gone crazy. I was going back to the cafe for a latte and a cigarette.
Fortunately, I was surrounded by thoughtful people who believed something needed to be done, even if it was apparently insignificant compared to the magnitude of what was ultimately needed to bring order to the chaos resulting from the very real presence of racism in our nation. As I was often concerned with basic survival issues back then, like getting enough food, finding a job I enjoyed that paid enough for me to live on on my own, healing from an event I may never write about, when I look back, I only see disjointed scenes and conversations, but not a cohesive series of events. Here’s what I remember.
A weekly gathering for people to learn about various aspects of the Baha’i faith was changed into a weekly gathering of people who wanted to have an open, honest discussion about the current reality of racism and what we could each do in our daily life to heal the wounds already existing and help build a world much like the one I thought we already had (this is explained in part 1). I showed up every Saturday night. So did Harold, a tall black man who was relieved to finally have an opportunity to share his experiences with a group that included many white people he trusted would listen to him and not brush off his assessment of his life experiences as over reacting. Harold and I always had great respect for each other but it wasn’t always evident. I didn’t want to be lumped with all other white people. He didn’t want to believe my experience was real and he wanted me to clearly understand that his experinces were the norm. One time we stood next to the couch hot in a debate at high volume, Harold towering over me, me looking up at him, locked eye to eye.
Over time we learned from each other. I learned that a high percentage of the population felt justified in treating a fellow human being as inferior. I realized at least one assumption I regularly made based on skin color. If a white guy I didn’t know asked me how I was doing I figured he was being polite. If a black guy I didn’t know asked the same thing, I assumed he was about to hit on me. I can’t say for sure what Harold learned but over the next several years he became active in the Baha’i community again, a respected voice in the area.
Within a year of the beginning of this painful education, I attended a workshop called something like Healing Racism. There were two trained facilitators, one black, one white, both women. We watched a documentary about 2 close friends alike in most ways, notably, similar education and economic position. Their noticed difference was skin color. An experiment was performed around St Louis where they each applied for the same apartments, jobs etc. They were given different answers at many of their stops. The white man was treated with respect, the black man was brushed off with comments that contradicted what the white man had already been told by the same managers. We watched other videos, very graphic, that took us (the white participants) on a tour of our countries history of racism even up to present day. I can only recall one comment from that whole multi week workshop. The black facilitator expressed irritation that anyone would say they could never understand what black people have gone through. She said anyone who’s been treated unfairly based on gender, size, how much their daddy didn’t make, or for no known reason, could understand enough. She challenged us to start from there and think in terms of how any human being, regardless of color, would feel and respond to injustices such as slavery and institutionalized racism then and now. Something clicked. I finally had a way to understand. That’s when I started to cry.
Before these gatherings, for the most part I saw each person as an individual (except when I made race based assumptions about a guy’s intentions and the fact that I generally didn’t want to be bothered by “jocks”). I waited tables because I love people. I enjoy their smiles, their unique voices, how they laugh, the funny things people say. Gradually though, the more aware I became of this devestating social reality, the more difficulty I had being myself. I remember one day, in downtown Chicago, while waiting on a group of black women, I grew nervous. I started overthinking. Do they think I’m like other white people? Do they think I’m being nice to them because I want them to know I’m different? Do they think I’m irrelevant because I’m just another white person? It was incredibly painful. I wish I could explain how shattered I was that day. I’m even tearing up now, 16 years later.
Eventually my sadness would turn into anger and I would find myself regularly challenging the damaging assumptions of many of my white friends. Eventually I learned how to do this without alienating anyone.
If I were to tell my journey in regard to the efforts I’ve made to heal racism and create unity, as well as new understanding and insight, I’d go on too long. I’ve come to realize that racism is a tricky and ugly monster. I’ve come to clearly understand that in order to heal the wounds inflicted by this monster, we must all be willing to internalize the reality that every human being is a member of our family. Then we can begin seeing each person as an individual with a name given to them by their parents. And not simply, “one of them.”
I will hit “Publish,” even though this is a completely inadequate piece compared to what I feel it should be, as the issue of race in our country affects every one of us whether we know it or not. If there are comments, I hope they are respectful. Maybe I’ll have more to tell there, when I can talk to an individual.

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