Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, surrounded by farm country, I never gave the idea of race a thought until I reached high school. Even though cities were burning and rioting through several summers of my childhood, and I knew that a man named Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, it didn’t seem to impact my family much. We didn’t talk about race, we just learned from my mom that we should never judge a person by how they looked.
I wish I could go back and ask my mom what she really meant by that. Did she understand what was happening during the civil rights era? She certainly never communicated much of it to her children, other than to take my father to task if he let a racist remark slip. And because there were no families of color in my elementary school, nor can I remember any in my junior high school, my high school experience was shocking.
A wise social studies teacher – I don’t remember her name, just that she was young – invited one of a very small handful of youth of color to speak to our class about her experiences growing up black in our school system and our neighborhood. I cried all the way through class, I cried again at home, telling my mom about the experience, and I struggled mightily to understand why people would be treated so differently, so horribly, just because of the color of their skin.
It was the first time I understood something about race. But not really. At the time, all I understood was that I didn’t have a race – at least not one that caused people to say horrible things to me before they knew me.
It’s been a long journey for me to understand how race works in the United States, to learn what it means that my race is white, to acknowledge the privilege, unearned, of my race, to understand the sea of white supremacy that we all live in. Starting from that class in social studies in my first year in high school, I became interested in politics, started protesting the Vietnam War, watched as we gained the vote for 18 year olds, and canvassed for George McGovern (I wasn’t yet 18, so couldn’t vote in that election.) Those high school years were also the years that I started watching race relations, trying to understand why things were so bad and what I could do about it, personally.
I believe many of us found ourselves in similar situations. A kind of naivety was broken open, our rose-colored glasses were cracked, we saw the world in much of its cruelty, and tried to make a difference. And how horrifying that we are still in such an awful place around race! It sometimes feels like it was all for naught. But it wasn’t. Voting laws were changed. Attitudes changed. Rose-colored glasses were put away.
For me, delving deeply into racism as part of the credentialing process as a Unitarian Universalist Religious Educator, the journey has been deeply maddening, painfully personal, and full of mistakes and apologies. As a white woman, I have not walked in those shoes of experiencing racism. I have enough experience, growing up and coming of age as a female in the 70s to understand what it means to be marginalized. (Ask me some time about my experiences working as a young female on a road construction crew, pre-1980!) My job, as a person who cares, is to read as deeply as I can, to continue to struggle in understanding why our world is the way it is, to work hard to make a difference in as many ways as I can, and to listen. To listen more. To listen to everyone I can. And apologize. Oh, my, do I apologize. All the time. I just made a HUGE mistake leading my last training, saying something unwittingly that came across as terribly bigoted.
Me? A bigot? I’ve been fighting this for all of my adult years! And yet, out of my mouth it slid, in front of people that I am supposed to be teaching how NOT to marginalize people. All I could do was apologize, and promise never to say that again.
Jay Smooth has a dental hygiene philosophy of racism that I am particularly enamored by. He explains that we often think of racism as something that we treat once, and it’s gone. Like removing our tonsils. Instead, he suggests, perhaps we could think about racism as something like dental hygiene. We need to keep brushing and flossing every day, otherwise the plaque builds up. Similarly, we need to keep checking ourselves each and every day on our way to being anti-racist. It’s not a once-and-done, it’s an ever changing process.
I’m committed to continuing in my anti-racist journey. Will you join me in one of the Anti-racist Book Groups we are running this fall? You have two chances: Tuesdays afternoons from 1:00-3:00 pm, and Tuesday evenings from 7:00-9:00 pm, on the second and third Tuesdays of October, November, and December. You can sign up here: http://tinyurl.com/UUCC-AdultREd
Let’s floss together.
Yours in faith,
I appreciate your exquisite vulnerability in describing your experiences (and inadvertent transgression). It is indeed a never-ending journey. There seem to be infinite opportunities for big or little experiences that reveal unquestioned assumptions or norms that may marginalize others. I prefer to pursue these endeavors primarily outside of my religious community, but I may be at the beginning of reconsidering that approach.
Psychiatrist Scott Peck, author of the 1980’s book. the Road Less Traveled, said we grow until the day we die.
I think Robin is inviting us to take The Road Less Traveled. It takes a willingness to change to start that trek. It’s a risk but at road’s end, we will have wanted to do what we could to defeat racial injustice.
Awesome sharing of respectful insight and vulnerability. Thanks Robin for sharing some of your story.
I have conflicts on some Tuesdays–can you miss a few but still be part of it?