by Michelle Palmer
It was a couple of months ago when I was with some of the family, cleaning out a shed at my grandparents’ house, who passed away earlier this year. We were going through a large box of family photos when I saw one that caught my attention. Three white children. One black child. It was really old, maybe from the 20s or 30s. It was surprising, curious, intriguing. What was the story behind it? Were these kids defying the norms of Jim Crow era rural America? I was hopeful. And then I turned the photo over. There was a racial slur in the caption. My heart sank.
But then I remembered that my grandmother was passionately anti-racist. She was always willing to call out anyone on their racist comments and attitudes. She worked tirelessly to serve the less privileged in her very segregated small town. And it gave me hope that no matter what world you come from, even if it’s one where racial slurs are written on the backs of photographs, there’s hope for growth and change.
In my childhood home, racial slurs were completely unacceptable. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) As a kid, reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings broke my little 10 year old heart. I didn’t want to be the way the white people were in that book. I’m thankful for that. But racist stereotypes and attitudes still found a way into my heart and mind. They always do. Through the media, through my friends with less tolerant parents, it happened. It happens to us all.
I can still remember the moment my eyes were really opened. I was 25, in grad school, sitting in a cafe, reading in preparation for an essay I needed to write. I opened Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices, and suddenly, it was like the blinders were taken off. Wright beautifully connects slavery to what was happening in the black community in 1941. And I could see so clearly that what was happening then is directly connected to what’s happening now. My preconceived, sometimes subconscious, ideas about why things are the way they are came crashing down.
In preparation for this post, I went to my white friends, the ones who seem “woke,” and I asked them, “Was there a moment/experience/period of time when you were awakened to the realities of injustice, particularly racial/xenophobic injustice, in America?” And I asked them to tell me about it. Over 20 of them did.
It was a very casual data collection technique, but I found two major patterns: empathy and education.
There were many who said, “I always sensed something wasn’t quite right….” But for each of them, something happened. They began to see life through the eyes of a friend who was a person of color, and those things that didn’t seem quite right suddenly made sense. Empathy. They read something that helped them to understand that something really isn’t right and helped them figure out why. Education.
“I was teaching a photography class with some friends at the time to teenagers at a local low income housing facility. I learned so much about the oppression these teens were enduring when we put them behind a camera and tried our best to give them the outlet they needed to express and process that tension. It was at that moment that I understood that racial injustice is still happening and still worth crying over.” – Mattie
“The moment I can pinpoint truly waking up and realizing how protected a world I lived in because of my white skin was when I elected to take a Black Dramatic Literature course at Wayne State University. It was during this class that I truly understood being a bystander to racial injustice is just as bad as actively taking part in it. …Through our class discussions, and my study of the texts, I saw a great change in my desire and passion to be active in helping others fight the inequality they face.” – Courtney
While I can’t provide you with friends (apart from my own white self…), I can provide you with a list of resources. That list can be found HERE. If you want to join us in our fight against racism, my best advice is to read. My second best advice is to pray that you will find friends who don’t look like you – patient, precious friends who will allow you to witness their lives – and that through their friendship your eyes and ears and heart and mind will be opened. And then you should keep reading. And while you’re still reading, you should figure out how you can use your privilege and resources to fight against oppression. (More on that later, but for now, let’s just start reading.)
There was something else really important that I found in the stories they shared. Not a single person said, “I’m not a racist.” Not a single person was under any illusion that they had arrived in a post-racial state of mind. In fact, many shared the truth I believe we all face: We must continually fight the racism that creeps into our thoughts.
“I wake up a little more every day to my own internalized racism.” – Charis
“I still have these moments that are not okay. It is my job as a white, educated women from a middle-class family to understand that I not only have this ugliness within myself but also to understand my own privilege and use it to help those who were not born into the same type of privilege that I was.” – Corie
“…I have tried my hardest to see life from a different perspective. To check my privilege. To extend my voice and life for those who are marginalized, misunderstood, and underrepresented.” – Lauren
“Through all of this, I have been continuing to find my voice, continuing to educate myself and own my privilege, and stepping up my personal philanthropy in support of social justice. As a white woman, I know I failed in doing that up to this point and that I shouldn’t have waited until after the election to recognize the need to build these bridges, but, as with my own awakening, I believe it’s better late than never.” – Sarah
“I still have some issues with it, but I’m better than I was.” – Lizzie
“Even to this day, I still have times where my initial reaction to a situation is to revert back to the ignorant way of thought that I was raised with. I would say it’s always a work in progress to retrain your mind how to think, especially when you were programmed to think a certain way.” – Ben
“I still find myself making knee-jerk assumptions about people based solely on the color of their skin. I just try to question myself about these things as often as I can.” – Susannah
The photo also reminded me that racism isn’t someone else’s problem. Those people were MY people, MY blood, MY history. And it’s my responsibility to undo the damage. Continually.
And you know what? If you’re white, those are probably your people, your blood, and your history too. If you want to join our fight and don’t know where to start, start here. And if you have any questions or hesitations or confusion, get in touch. We’ll be glad to do this thing by your side.
For more information…