Confidential to New(ish) AntiRacists: Get a Life Raft

I don’t know everything.

Hell, I don’t know most things.

But here’s one thing I’m sure of: if you are a white person getting down to the hard, soul-searching work of becoming anti-racist, you’re going to need a life raft. Because there’s a tidal wave of rage, grief, regret, and full-blown horror headed your way.

Prepare yourself.

You’re about to discover that everything you’ve been taught is a lie. Racism is in the air we white folks have been breathing since the day we were born. It takes a lot of undoing. And, for some of us, the realization that the adults we trusted as children have programmed us to be unquestioning consumers of the message that people of color are inferior, deserve less, are in some way flawed, chose to be denied equity (and on and on and on) will be devastating.

The generation before us bought the lie and served it up to you. That is true. But we’ve all worked together to keep white supremacy alive and well. And being an somewhat-unwitting participant doesn’t absolve you of culpability.

You will recognize this, and it will rock you.

You may be called a race traitor. People will look at you sadly and accuse you of feeling having “white guilt” (and you may, if you just shuffle around with your head down saying “fuck fruit” and not doing anything. Don’t do that. It’s self-indulgent). They’ll ask you if you think you’re black (that one is particularly confounding to me). People will be assholes.

You’re about to engage in a completely new way of being. It is the right way. But it takes some serious psychic and spiritual equilibrium to ride this tidal wave.

That’s why you need a life raft.

Let me stop here. When you look around you, full of despair and itching for absolution, your instinct will be to run towards black folks and use them as your life raft.

Do NOT do this.

We’ve been taught (by our culture and sometimes by plain words) that black people exist in service to white feelings. They do not. Do not process your feelings with them, in front of them, near them.

Black people are busy. And they are done with our mess.

So where will your life raft come from? That’s up to you.

Maybe you go find you a good therapist to process the indoctrination of white supremacy and the dismantling of systemic racism with. If you’re choosing a new therapist, sniff out how they feel about antiracist work before you sign on. The last thing you need as you begin some of the deepest psychic work of your life is someone co-signing your bullshit as it arises. And it will arise.

Ferret out your white friends who are also engaged in antiracism work. If you don’t have some, make new friends. Talk to them. Share. Process. Avoid at all costs your white friends who are, in fact, racist. Anyone who thinks the status quo in America isn’t that bad will only frustrate you, bring you to tears, make you drown.

Go for a run. Take up yoga. Paint. Write poems. Dance. Sing. Meditate. Pray. Lay in a hammock. Stare at the clouds. Do what renews your soul.

You are a person. A whole, beautiful person. With a helluva lot of work to do.

Take care of yourself. You are no good to anyone if you get overwhelmed, throw up your hands, and decide nothing will ever change. You aren’t helping anyone if despair drives you deep into yourself. You can’t engage in a struggle if you’ve got both hands tied behind your back.

One of the least kind things that we, as allies, can do is process the ugliness of our own ancestry in front of black and brown folks. Choosing a life raft is a kindness–to you and to the people of color around you, who know all too well the havoc, chaos, and destruction that white supremacy wreaks.

Go find you a raft.

Then get back to work.

Now, What Happened Again?

Sometime around 6th grade or so, I got ahold of The Diary of Anne Frank. And suddenly, my world was awash in both the goodness and insight of a 13 year old European Jewish girl from forty years ago and the abject horror that human nature can unleash.

Both. At the very same time.

I, a WASPy eleven year-old living in the Florida suburbs, was completely enchanted by Anne’s urbaneness (she was a German girl living in Amsterdam–I couldn’t fathom that I’d ever visit either place) and her energetic and observant nature. I desperately wanted to be her friend. Or to be like her. Eleven is a hard, confusing age and reading Anne’s diary let me feel close to someone–another kid–that I admired and looked up to.

And then they killed her.

I was bereft.

Of course I knew what would happen when I picked up the book. I knew, intellectually, about the Holocaust. We’d covered the facts and figures–the loss of life, the utter devastation, the depravity of human nature–which are simply staggering. But numbers don’t speak to me like they speak to some people.

I didn’t understand what happened until I picked up The Diary of Anne Frank. And once you know–on a deep, soul level–the beauty and horror that occupy this life side by side, you can’t unknow.

I was obsessed.

I read and read and read. Every time I went to the library, I grabbed a book about the Holocaust. My mother tittered about my obsession. But I had so many questions. How could this have happened? I felt such loss. I loved Anne. And that love for her pushed me to examine the very hardest truths about life.

Stories change everything.

Anne Frank has been the gateway for reaching and teaching children about hope, strength of character, the destruction wrought by hatred, and the horror of war since the late 1940s. She made me better because she made me curious.

Stories make my daughter, Jane, curious, too. Some stories I wish I didn’t have to tell her, though. Like the story of what happened to George Floyd.

She listened quietly. I think she thought I was making it up at first. Because who puts their knee on someone’s neck and leaves it there as they scream “I can’t breathe!”? In Jane’s consciousness as a 9 year old, that doesn’t seem possible. It seems so absurd. Why would he do that?! she asked. I’ve never seen that look on her face before. That disbelief.

Because George Floyd was black.

That’s the answer I gave my 9 year old for why George Floyd died. Because that’s the truth.

We live in Southeast Atlanta. Jane is constantly surrounded by black excellence, black joy, black friends, black teachers and leaders all the time. That is a gift we gave her by moving here. She hears and sees the stories of black kids all the time–living, dreaming, laughing, just being. So when we talk with her about racism, she has an emotional understanding that I couldn’t have fathomed at her age–because she has something to connect with.

She can extrapolate. She knows her friends’ stories. And she knows the story of George Floyd. And that look of utter disbelief I got from her–it was about knowing how quickly that could become the story of someone she knows, someone she loves. It was the horror of knowing that, in this country, we allow people to die with someone’s knee on their neck for nothing more that being black.

She asks about George Floyd’s story. And Ahmaud Arbery’s. And Breonna Taylor’s. Over and over again.

So I tell her. Again.

She’s trying to make sense of something utterly senseless. She’s a bit obsessed. She’s been confronted with the horror of the war against blackness in this country.

And now that she knows their stories, she can never unknow them. Because stories change everything.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

We All Have To Start Somewhere

Hey, white folks! I’ve got an idea: let’s stop shouting “Racist!” at each other just to end a conversation. Let’s honor where each person is in the long, hard, soulful world of becoming anti-racist, meet them where they are, and help them along.

Because it sure isn’t black folks’ job to do that. That’s all on white people.

I was at a meeting full of white folks who were ostensibly there to chip away at white supremacy and address institutional racism. An elderly, white, Southern woman shared something she and a friend were doing … I honestly can’t even remember what it was right now. What I do remember is the response from the young, white discussion facilitator. He interrupted her, voice raised: “That’s not enough! We have to move beyond that. We have to do more!” And he summarily dismissed her–right there. In front of well over 200 people.

Well, shit.

That’s not going to work.

There is so much work that needs to be done. It is constantly going to feel like we aren’t doing enough. That’s because we have not done enough. But this isn’t a sprint. Stop for a minute to think how long this struggle has gone on. Racism is pervasive and insidious. It is not going away overnight. But we also can’t be running (potential) allies off because we fancy ourselves so much more “woke” than them that we dismiss them completely.

I fully believe I will spend the rest of my life unspooling my own racism. There is no room for complacency. It’s unnerving to discover something so ugly lying so deeply inside yourself. It’s easier to turn away than address it. Bringing it out into the light so that you can examine and release it takes unwavering courage.

White people need to encourage each other in this work, not shout each other down constantly. Because you cannot, you should not–DO NOT–expect black people to praise, encourage, or emotionally support you in your work to dismantle white supremacy & systemic racism. Do not expect your black friends to offer you a cookie for cluing in to the abject horror that is the racial landscape in this country. This is not their work. They should not have to praise you for finally seeing what they’ve been telling you is happening all along.

When I write about being silent or simply listening, I’m speaking specifically about how I think white folks need to conduct themselves in racial justice settings or discussions where black folks are present. Plainly put: do not tell black people about their own experience, do not talk over them, do not justify. And do not attempt to assume a leadership role. They understand this struggle better than any white person every will, so just listen. And follow instructions. It sounds so simple. But I can guarantee that the internalized centering of whiteness will make it difficult. Do it anyway.

For the love of god, call out racism where you see it. There’s certainly no shortage of it. But make sure you’re not centering yourself, as a white person, in the discussion. Our egos make the desire to be more knowledgeable, more righteous, more “woke” seductive.

If you are white, assume a complete lack of wokeness on your part. It’ll keep you from behaving like an asshat among other white people who are trying their level best. Offer suggestion, lead by example, challenge people to do more–but that can only happen when we don’t dismiss people who are new to this anti-racist journey.

Look, I’m so far from perfect at this. A white person yelling “Racist!” at me can silence me from 100 paces.It happened a few years ago in a discussion about our local schools. It was an absolutely crucial discussion, one that could have had a resolution that was rooted in actual equity, more integration, and a better educational outcome for all the kids. But folks started hurling “Racist!” at me, and I tucked tail and ran. I regret it. I backed down from what I really believed was right. I shut down.

Which is why, among white folks, there needs to be an understanding: if you see someone doing that grueling work of addressing their own racism, encourage them. No, they aren’t doing enough. Neither are you. But we all have to start somewhere.

Photo by Ryan Wallace on Unsplash

The Miraculous Power of Shutting Up

I did a very smart thing about 6 years or so ago: I started listening

Not very revolutionary, right?

Except, holy shit at the things you can learn if you just stop talking long enough.

Here’s the thing: encountering feminism in college gave me the mistaken impression I had license to talk all the damn time. I was tired of my desires and ideas being marginalized–I’d grown up in a super-conservative space in which women were fully expected to take a backseat to their husbands and all that bullshit. And, maybe, I didn’t do a very thorough examination of feminism (I can assure you there’s a lot more to it than just claiming center stage. Actually, center stage isn’t really so much even a thing…). I just heard what I wanted/needed to hear in that moment (the message to claim my voice) and ran with it.

In some ways, that served me. In other, long-term ways, my voice ultimately got all kinds of in the way of my ability to hear other people’s experience.

The first time I caught a whiff of intersectional feminism (a phrase coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, which examines overlapping systems of oppression, like being a person of color AND a woman) was when I took a head-over-heels-smitten deep dive into Alice Walker’s work in college. But, truth be told, when you aren’t ready for ideas, they just kind of slide off your psyche. And I totally wasn’t ready. The good news is that those ideas don’t just slide off into the abyss. They stick around, marinading in your brain until you are, in fact, struck down by the sheer magnitude of the truth of them one day, seemingly out of the blue.

For me, a woman with roots in Georgia and Alabama among people who were served by the social status quo of racism, I was afraid to take a serious look at my own internalized racism. Easier to just proclaim racism as “bad,”assure myself I’d never done anything (overtly) racist and carry on. I wasn’t hurting anyone, so I was a good person.

Right?

I think about that self (a little smug, but definitely full of fear and 100% lacking in understanding about the complexities and pervasiveness of institutionalized racism), and I want to shake her. Hard.

But that was my journey. And anything else just isn’t the truth. 

When unarmed black men started dying at alarming rates (or, more accurately, when cell phone video made it harder to deny that unarmed black men were dying at alarming rates), I started paying attention. And, once you see–really see–with your heart what is happening, when you witness the ravages in racism as real lives lost, real suffering, real and sometimes deadly inequity, you cannot unsee it. 

And it brings grief. So much grief. 

You can get overwhelmed by the grief. But let’s call that what it is: a cop-out. Because, y’all, there is so much work to be done. 

It’s instructive here to just grab a glimpse of what it looks like to people of color, who’ve been doing the grueling work of liberation and the uber-frustrating, often futile work of just getting white people to listen, when white folks jump into a shame/self-loathing cycle (which is mainly just a way to avoid actually doing anything). This excerpt is from a piece that appeared in The Root aptly entitled “Four Emails White People Send to Black People When Black People Talk or Write about Racism:”

I’m so fucking tired of White people and being a White person. We are so fucking awful. I hate myself. I hate my white skin and my even whiter than my white skin teeth . . . .Sometimes I look in the mirror in the morning and I just want to peel my skin off like an orange, taking each layer of whiteness off and tossing it in the trash with the rest of the fucking garbage. Actually, since oranges are covered in white pith after you peel them, that analogy doesn’t quite work. I guess bananas and apples and pears don’t either. Shit, have you ever realized how disgustingly white most fruit is when you peel the outer layers off? Goddamn there’s no end to this shit. Fuck racism, fuck white people, fuck whiteness, and fuck fruit.

Damon Young, Very Smart Brothas

While it’s true that sometimes if feel like there is no end to this shit, getting all fuck fruit on the systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States isn’t gonna work. Why? Because it completely lacks action. It centers whiteness and how “bad” we feel.

Feeling bad never changed anything. In fact, it’s a pretty clear path to self-pity and self-loathing.

Not helpful.

But one simple suggestion from Glennon Doyle a few years ago pulled me out of that fuck fruit cycle. She suggested that folks follow at least one person on social media that was different from them in some way. That’s it. Totally doable.

Rather arbitrarily I picked Ijeoma Oluo and Ally Henny. Seriously good choices that I deserve no credit for.

Here’s what these two women of color have offered this white girl: the ability to see the world from a different lived experience, deeper insights into the subtle ways of racism, and access to knowledge that I now don’t have to ask the black folks in my life for.

Because literally one of the last things your black co-worker, black neighbor, black friend wants to do is answer your questions about racism.

Totally not kidding on that.

If you have questions, if you’re having trouble envisioning how our culture looks stripped of the privilege of whiteness or if you want to know what you (as a white person) can do to make things better, ask the interwebs. Use Google. I hear its a pretty good search engine. Follow folks on IG or Facebook.

But remember that, to learn anything, you have to be willing to listen. Not justify. Not speculate. Not excuse. Not enable. Just listen.

It will break your heart. That much is true. But then you’ll know. And then you can move into action. Because make no mistake: racism a white folks’ problem. And now, NOW, is the time to fix it.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn

Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn lays out a meandering history of two prominent Atlanta families: the Allens and the Dobbs.  

Both instrumental in guiding Atlanta toward living into its promise. Both local royalty in their own right. Both produced Mayors of the City Too Busy to Hate. 

One was white. One was black. 

Through this whopping 550 page narrative, Gary M. Pomerantz masterfully wove storytelling and history. Each page was a delight.  

Reading this tome beefed up my understanding of Atlanta history. And it laid bare the wounds of racism that, at times, have almost torn the city apart. But it also uncovered brave acts by members of each family-that lead Atlanta toward a more egalitarian footing. But the little glimpses of the BIG names in Atlanta being so utterly human—for better and for worse—are what really immersed me in the saga.   

I was completely taken with both these families. I admire Ivan Allen, Jr. wholeheartedly for the way he shifted his views on race through his life. The quiet ways he did the right thing resonated with me.  

And Maynard Jackson, Jr…. Let me tell you, I would give almost anything to zip back in time to be at his first inaugural address—to see him do what the old school white establishment said he could not. To see him win. 

But I’ll have to settle for sending my daughter to the Southeast Atlanta High School that bears his name. And that feels pretty good, too.  

Gay Isn’t an Insult.

Some kid at school “insulted” my baby by calling her “gay.” And I swear, it lit me up… like I wanted to march down to that school and give that damn kid (and every adult in the vicinity of his life) a tongue-lashing he wouldn’t likely forget.

But instead, I took a few deep breaths to calm myself (being an adult involves so much RESPONSIBILITY and a thousand measured responses, when all you really wanna do is call some kid an asshat–but I digress). And then Jane and I started talking.

First up on the agenda: gently reminding Jane that “gay” isn’t an insult. Oh, I don’t doubt for a minute that this kid called her gay to hurt her feelings and to get under her skin. But … hello…. we go to Pride every year, where we celebrate being an LGBTQ family. Some of her very, very favorite adults in the world are two women MARRIED TO EACH OTHER. I swear, I didn’t yell at Jane. I wasn’t mad at her. But I was enraged that, despite all our living into our true selves, all our conversations about being who you are and celebrating that person fully, society has somehow managed to convince her that “gay” can be an insult.

I was mad because my heart was broken.

Statistically, at least one kid in Jane’s class is likely to be gay (even if they don’t know it yet). And, lately, gay kids are killing themselves at alarming rates. I could barely hold back tears when I thought about that gay kid–whoever they might be–pondering coming out one day, then flashing back to second grade when “gay” was hurled around as an insult.

What does that kind of memory do to a kid in crisis?

But what shook me most of all is that in our little liberal alcove of Atlanta, in Jane’s school where diversity is really celebrated, a homophobic “insult” was tossed at our kid–our kid who watched her Bobby transition, who has never seen either of her parents shy away from claiming a queer identity, who loves so many people who are gay–and it cut her to the core.

Because if it impacted her that deeply, what happens to the kids who don’t have adults that tell them being gay is okay? That it’s MORE than okay. That it’s something to celebrate.

What happens to those kids?

Toxic Masculinity Can Kiss My…

I try to approach life with gratitude. I think Oprah told me to do that once, and I listen to Ms. O. Also, the AAers may have mentioned it…. So, yeah, Attitude of Gratitude over here.

The gratitude portion of today’s programming goes something like this:

I am grateful that my body is healthy and strong enough to run. Also super grateful that my foot healed–and that my incredible massage guy taught me how to properly care for my body before & after a run. Running brings my mental, emotional, and spiritual life into balance. For that, I have much gratitude. And for Spring in Atlanta… it’s beauty far outweighs the threat of impending death by pollen.

See me? So grateful. Legitimately.

Gratitude gets me get out of my own head–and helps me stop creating my own problems and my own suffering–long enough to take stock of the world around me.

As I was running through my neighborhood, full of gratitude, nose running from crazy amounts of pollen, taking in the Spring morning, here’s an ugly truth I ran right up against: toxic masculinity SUCKS.

This is not news. I get that. But there’s a direct way that it’s impacting me lately–and it has to do with my ass.

You read that right. No reason to read it again. My ass is the issue here. Okay, not really my ass… the comments about my ass while I’m running are the issue.

Right now, you’re probably thinking “You’ve GOT to be kidding me.” Nope. Wish I was.

In the past two weeks, every time I’ve run some wanker finds it necessary to comment on my ass, turn around to stare at my ass, ask me if I can run back by so he can see my ass again, make his whole group of wanker friends laugh at some lewd comment about my ass, or whistle or shout at me (always after approaching me from behind–no pun intended).

Some of these guys probably genuinely think they are paying me a compliment. Fuck that. Objectifying someone is never a compliment.

Some of them like to sexualize random situations and intimidate women. Fuck that doubly hard. Because it DOES scare me when someone catcalls me out the window of his van as he drives slowly by. And what I want to do is flick him off or tell him to fuck himself. But I don’t. Because I can’t. Not without putting myself at risk for physical violence. Men have killed women for telling them no. So what does that leave me with? Impotent rage. A need to grit my teeth and fight my way through it.

Men, you have to do better.

It is absurd that I can’t run in my own damn neighborhood without fending off lewd comments. Not one but two men today found it appropriate to comment on my body. That is fucking infuriating.

Guys, my body is not yours to comment on. Not ever. It’s not yours to ogle as I walk by. My ass is none of your business. I don’t care if you like it or if you don’t. I don’t want to hear it. At all. Ever again.

If all the events of the last 4 years hadn’t shaped me into a much more indomitable spirit than I used to be, I’d probably consider just not running.

Let’s stop there: at a different point in my life, I would have considered giving up something that brings me joy and balance, that enhances my mental health, because toxic masculinity taught guys that it’s fine to make comments about a girl’s ass as she runs by.

I will spare you the litany of profanity that this inspires.

But I will say this: If you are a guy, you have a moral imperative to do something about this. And don’t even tell me that you’d never act like this. I don’t give a shit. I know not all guys catcall women. But you have a responsibility to call out your friends, your coworkers, your brother, your dad when THEY do it. Tell them to STFU. Tell them they are assholes. And, while you’re at it, go on and tell them that what women feel when they are catcalled is likely not flattery at all but an intense desire to take a baseball bat to their car.

Or maybe that’s just me.