For some people and the employers that they work for, 2020 brought new or deeper exploration of racism, racial injustice, white supremacy, systemic racism, white fragility, white girl tears, and what it means to act Black or white. I have been working in and around diversity and inclusion since 1992, but equity was a topic I hadn’t thought much about. You can look at me and figure out why. I typically benefit from racial inequities where others suffer from them. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Now that I know better, I do better.
Many of you are doing better, too. But like me, you still occasionally struggle to ask questions or express your views in ways that don’t offend anyone. Forgive yourself (Choice One). It’s impossible to avoid ever offending someone with what you say or do. You might be offended as you read this post, but I invite you to keep reading and challenge yourself to think deeply about these issues.
Is It Racist to Assume Someone is Racist Because They Are White?
Several years ago, I posted about a video in which a comedian used the words “racist” and “white” as if they were synonyms. Admittedly, his routine made me laugh. It was a creative expression of what many people experience every day. It was sarcastic and intended to be ironic, but it was also ironic for reasons he might not have seen.
One of the issues I have with the term racist when it’s used beyond a single behavior is all the assumptions that come with it. Rarely is a human being racist to the core. That’s one of the reasons the defense of “I have a Black friend” is not very persuasive. Behavior, however, can be racist. And most of us have engaged in racist behavior, including when we made broad generalizations about white people. I’ve made them, too. Good and bad.
Is the Law Too Historically Racist to Be Honored?
My legal training limits my ability to embrace the all-or-nothing approaches to discussions of racism. The lawyer in me is trained to look for direct causation before punishment is administered. We don’t punish bad thoughts; we punish the actions that arise directly from them. Or at least that’s the way I was taught the law works. It typically does, but when it doesn’t, the negative impact has disproportionately fallen on people of color.
That’s sometimes difficult for me to comprehend because Black teenagers have assaulted me more than once. After I was violently assaulted by a 14-year-old Black male wearing baggy pants and a hooded sweatshirt, my amygdala heightened my awareness of similarly dressed males around me whenever I went out. My brain was trying to keep me safe, but it was playing tricks on me.
Is Some Racism Justified?
Some people said I was justified in the fears that accompanied my temporary post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). They told me I had every right to be afraid of Black teenage boys dressed in baggy pants and hoodies, after being permanently injured by one. Did I really? Do you know how many young males in New York City in 2014 dressed similarly? Was I really justified in judging the honors student who was just trying to blend in? What about any other person–those I knew nothing about? How much did their clothes really tell me about them? Almost nothing. For better or for worse.
Are We All a Little Bit Racist?
There is a song in Avenue Q titled “We’re All a Little Racist.” Unfortunately, it’s true. We all have implicit (hidden) biases that are unsupported, or at least so loosely supported that they are ineffective. That truth is something we have been grappling with for years. It has been bubbling beneath the surfaces of our skin for much of our lives. Yet like the same red blood that flows through each of us, we haven’t been acknowledging it. We’ve been trusting it and giving it too much power.
Most of us don’t mean to perpetuate hatred and divisions based on immutable traits. We are trying to connect with others through comedy or common experiences. We want to be proud of the portions of ourselves that we have adopted as our identities: our races, our genders, our ethnicities, our hometowns, and our favorite teams, shows, music, etc. The Third Ear Conflict Resolution process might help us resolve aspects of this conflict.
Action One: Define the Conflict
We’re in a daily conflict between staying safe among those we think are like us and connecting with people who seem different.
Action Two: Identify the Interests
I can’t solve this for each of you. I can only address my own experience of it and modify my own behavior. But my exploration of my personal interests in racial conflicts might help you see how to create peace for yourself around them.
- I want to be safe more than I want to feel it. I have learned that I can feel safe when I am not and vice versa.
- I thought I knew how to recognize who was safe and who wasn’t. I discovered my brain can play tricks on me.
- I believed my brain was more effective than it is. I now know it might not have evolved to function effectively on its own.
- I expected others to want racial unity or harmony as much as I do.
- I wish we could put an end to racism, racial injustice, systemic racism, and all the things that divide us.
- I have to do what I can, even if not everyone wants what I do or if they pursue it differently from how I think they should.
Action Three: Play with the Possibilities
If I could have this conflict resolve in any way possible, we would all work toward racial unity, or at least harmony. We would listen to each other with our third ears for the hurts we can heal, and we would stop invalidating each other’s experiences. We would be better able to listen, even to people we don’t agree with. We would love them from afar when we don’t feel safe with them, and we would keep looking for reasons to love them. We would take responsibility for the harm we caused and give complete apologies. We would forgive those who similarly take responsibility, apologize, and make amends. We would stop blaming each other for things over which we had no control, so we could start focusing on what we can.
Action Four: Create the Future
Each time I update this post and reflect on my journey, I have been uncomfortable. I can see how offended, frustrated, and confused I was by others’ racist generalizations, even when they did not directly harm me. I have new understanding of why we need to focus on certain types of racism now and what my role might be in the current process. It’s okay that it and I were different before. You were, too, so don’t waste too much time punishing yourself for who you think or wish you had been. You can always take new actions toward change, including in yourself. Some actions I commit to take include:
- Listening to people I disagree with on racial topics and seeing what I can learn
- Searching for my implicit biases (e.g., ways and reasons I judge people before I know them)
- Giving complete apologies and making amends when I have personally harmed others
Action Five: Stay on PARR
I am playing a big, long game here with complicated rules that are not equally or equitably applied. As such, I will continue to plan, act, revise, and repeat, until I get the results I want. I expect that to take a lifetime, but feel free to surprise me and resolve these conflicts more quickly. xo