I’m a white, queer, 56-year-old Jewish woman with disabilities. In general, I do far more listening than speaking on the issue of racism, for the simple reason that I’m not targeted by it and so I always have something deeper to learn. But right now, I’m speaking – partly to take the onus off of people of color, who should not have to constantly go through the exhaustion of explaining their ongoing trauma, and partly because, frankly, a lot of white people will not listen to people of color at all. I believe in engaging with people where they are, so if white people are very defended on this, and will only listen to a white person, then I want to begin the conversation there.
I am fully aware of the contradictions involved in this stance, and I cannot resolve them. The contradictions are inherent in living under racism. On the one hand, oppressed people should always be listened to when they speak the truth of their own experiences; on the other hand, if majority people were listening to them speak the truth, there would be no oppression to begin with. My hope is that once we all begin to understand what racism looks like, white people who are new to this understanding will start listening to those who are the targets of it every day. People of color know far better than I what racism against them looks like, what it feels like, how it works, and what impact it has.
I don’t come from a culture in which confession and absolution play a large role, and I generally dislike confessional pieces about privilege and whiteness. I have no interest in either confession or absolution. My interest is in action – in modeling how I am moving through my own learned ignorance and the contradictions that racism creates.
My parents both grew up poor, but after I was born, my father became a professional and my mother became a stay-at-home mom. I grew up solidly middle class in suburban Massachusetts during the 1960s. As a small child, my level of insulation from the larger world was not unusual for many middle-class white people back then (or even now): I was five years old before I became aware that I share the planet with people of color.
Until I was five, I had lived in an environment that I can only describe as white-washed. I was raised in ignorance and my world conspired in that ignorance. As a small child, I had never seen a picture book with a person of color in it. I had never seen a television show with a person of color in it. None of my neighbors, none of my teachers, and none of my classmates were people of color. And when I did meet a person of color, my childhood response speaks volumes about the racial system of the society I live in – about whiteness and about how race is constructed.
It was a summer afternoon in 1963. We had just moved to the suburbs a year before, and my mother and I had gone into a shop in our neighborhood. A black woman was standing behind the counter. I had never seen a black woman and, before anyone knew what was happening, I had blurted out, “Look, mommy! A chocolate lady!”
Even now, over 50 years later, I feel such shame about that moment. And, at the same time, I know that I meant nothing negative at all. I didn’t think that the lady was made of chocolate. The first thing I realized upon meeting her was that her skin color was absolutely beautiful to me. And because I’m an associative thinker, I went directly to something I had seen of the same color: chocolate. So, in my little kid’s mind, I was saying something complimentary — that the woman was beautiful.
I can’t choose between my feelings of shame and my knowledge of my own intent. They are in contradiction, but they are both true.
What is critical here is that my impact did not match my intent at all. This moment is where so many of us lose our way. We feel the need to choose one over the other, rather than live with the contradiction that the most innocent intent can create the most painful impact. But I can’t choose one over the other. My intent was to say something positive about the woman’s beauty, but my impact was dehumanizing. My intent was absolutely good; my impact was absolutely not. The woman looked at me coldly, as if to say, “NOT AGAIN,” and my mother was very upset. She apologized to the woman and she said to me, “DON’T say things like that. EVER. You DO NOT talk to people that way.” And she took me by the hand and dragged me out of there.
I knew right away that I had missed something critical — something essential about the context I was living in, something that the woman knew as intimately as the intake of her own breath, and something my mother knew without needing to have it explained to her. I didn’t know what it was called at the time. Now I know that it’s called racism.
My mother’s response, I think, was largely correct. She put the other person’s needs before mine, knowing that my impact on another person was more important than my intention at that moment. I give her a lot of credit for that. She didn’t try to smooth anything over with patronizing words about how I hadn’t meant any harm. She didn’t try to minimize the effect of my words. She went right to the impact and to the larger context.
But something was missing there – something that stands in direct contradiction to my gratitude that my mother stepped up. What was missing was a conversation about why my intent had gone so completely wrong. I wonder what would have happened if my mother, in addition to taking the woman’s part, had sat me down at home and explained why my words had had such an impact. What if she had told me that the world is full of different kinds of people, that I live in a world where people fear and hate difference, and that people could be wounded by my words, despite my intentions? Like most small children, I had a natural curiosity about difference and my words had come out of ignorance. But the fact that she did not explain to me why I had said something wrong made me feel ashamed.
I was just a little kid learning about life; the shame belonged to the world. But my natural curiosity was already tainted by the racism of the world I was growing up in. Fifty years later, I do not think that my sense of the woman’s beauty was simply visual appreciation. I think that much more was going on there. After all, it was the first time I had ever remarked upon anyone’s skin color. I’d never said to my mother, upon meeting a fair-skinned white person, “Mommy, that lady looks like the color of a bathroom sink!” I didn’t remark upon white skin at all.
It had never occurred to me that white skin had color. I grew up with “flesh-colored” bandaids and crayons, where “flesh-colored” meant “white.” For me, that was the default. For many people, it still is. Flesh was white. White was the absence of color. So when I saw someone with black skin, I was seeing color for the first time. I had never seen skin I thought was more beautiful, but I saw the woman and talked about her as Other – a stunningly beautiful Other, but still, an Other.
Although I couldn’t put it into words, I could see that we were somehow stuck in the roles that the world had given us. I didn’t want it to be that way. I knew, in that moment, that it was all wrong, and that I was part of that wrong, despite my innocence and all my good intentions. I couldn’t articulate any of it, but I saw it just the same.
Race is a construct, and it is a powerful one. Many people like to say that race doesn’t matter, but race matters a great deal when it comes to rights, privileges, safety, opportunities, and access to resources. It matters when people are targeted as a threat. It matters when people are denied employment and housing. It matters when people are stopped and frisked. It matters when people are killed. It matters in a myriad of ways that thread themselves through every institution in the society. In a world saturated by racism, how could it be otherwise?
We live inside a system that makes whiteness the norm. People of color, our culture teaches, are caught in the construct of race, while whiteness is somehow neutral and invisible. As a white woman, my whiteness becomes invisible and taken for granted because our society defines my racial identity as what I am not. My society tells me that I am not racial, that I am not a person of color, that I am not different, that I am not like the “Others.” My society tells me that I am somehow outside of all of that.
But I am implicated in racial constructs all the same. I am implicated in them even as the world I live in tries to convince me that I can escape them and occupy a mythic neutral ground.
Even at five, I was implicated in this system, without my consent, and I’m still working to change the roles we play. It’s not just a question of understanding whiteness. It’s much more a question of how to take action – how to step in when I see racism taking hold, how to break down and dismantle the notion that whiteness is both neutral and superior, how to root out the lies that have been placed in my mind by a racist world, how to change institutions, how to heal bigotries of all kinds. I’ve understood the need to do it since I was five. I just haven’t always understood how.
Many times, we white people feel a sense of guilt and shame about racism. But in my experience, when people of color talk about racism, it’s not a call to guilt or shame. It’s a call to empathy and action. When all is said and done, it was my mother’s empathy for the other person that got me to see that I was living in a world of suffering, and that all of my good intentions would not be enough to heal it. My mother’s response told me that I had to have empathy. I had to think hard about my words. I had to understand that not everyone lived as I did. I had to care about the fact that my words would ring very differently in the ears of people whose experiences were vastly different from mine. And yet, her response exposes yet another contradiction: she was horrified at my response to a black woman, and yet she had chosen to live in a place where all of our friends were white. I had to be told to have empathy because I was so isolated from people of color.
While the childhood shame still lingers, I realize that, as an adult, the only shame would be to close off the contradictions: to choose intent over impact, to choose innocence over complicity, to choose shame over empathy. The only shame would be to close my eyes and my ears to the complexities of a racist world, to be silent, and to do nothing.
And that I will never do.[Headline image: The photograph shows four hands clasping the wrists of others so that space between the hands is a pentagon. The hands and arms are white, brown, and black.]