The Anti-Racist Shields We Hold
Calling someone racist is a strong word, and most people are repulsed by it, and will defend against it.
We hold up our anti-racist shields and go through a list of exactly how and why we aren’t one of those people.
Maybe your shield is an explanation of your childhood, and where you grew up. Maybe it is your black best friend or someone you are close to.
Personally, I am guilty of feeling that my daughter is one of my pieces of evidence against any possible racist accusations. She is black, born in Ghana, and subject to inferior treatment like too many others who share her skin tone.
As her mom, I have had to talk to schools about how she is treated, spend countless hours on her hair, and comfort her after she is kept out of games at school due to the color of her skin. I had to talk to her principal about how offensive it was to her that a boy in her class said her hair looked like a lizard tail or vomit. Because of her, we have, on purpose, included many different books in our house featuring kids that look like her, and make sure that she is every bit as much celebrated as my son is throughout our home.
But this isn’t enough.
With this amazing uprising of protests the last few weeks, I know a number of people who proudly post pictures of themselves at the protests, holding signs and walking in solidarity with the black people of the nation, agreeing with their struggles and pledging their willingness to stand with them against injustice.
But this isn’t enough either.
I have taken it upon myself to learn more about racism and injustice because of these marches, and the first thing I learned from reading the books White Fragility and So You Want to Talk About Race was just how much I, and many others, create a type of “anti-racist shield” around ourselves, protecting ourselves from questions about our attitudes and actions towards people of different races than our own.
No matter what our shield is, if you are white like me, we have to realize that we have privileges given to us, purely because of the family we were born into. Also, we live in the majority in the United States, and never have had to grapple with how it feels to walk in a world where you are under represented in books, magazines and movies. These movies perpetuate ideas about black aggression and white heroes without us even noticing.
Among other concepts, we are taught from a young age that being considered racist is bad. We don’t consider ourselves bad, therefore, we aren’t racist. Anything we do that is considered treating someone worse because of their skin definitely has to be a misunderstanding. On their part. Because we would never do, or say, or act in anyway that falls into the ugly racism label.
If someone dares to suggest otherwise, we are ready with our anti-racist shield.
Because we see their words as an attack.
We feel like they are attacking our character, and we have to protect our self image at all costs.
It was definitely uncomfortable to read about this idea in these two parallel books, one written by a white author and the other by a black author. But when I honestly reflected about it, I realized they were completely right.
Too often, if the subject of race comes up at all, I feel a pressing need to bring up my daughter. How can you accuse a mom of a black daughter of being racist? Yet, I grew up in and still live in a white world. White parents, coworkers, schools, etc. are all my daily interactions, and there is a high likelihood that my actions, words and even thoughts are influenced by this culture that surrounds me.
I can’t know how it feels to be black.
And I can’t pretend that my daughter’s experiences transfer to me understanding how others feel.
Part of empathy is realizing that you can’t know exactly how they feel, but you still try to imagine how it might have felt from their perspective.
When people from a different race try to communicate with us about how a movie made them feel or how a specific comment sounds to them, too many times our first reaction is to raise an anti-racist shield and block those comments.
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Don’t be so sensitive.”
“My black friends don’t mind when I…”
When whites deflect the comments, we turn the conversation back about us, which it shouldn’t be in that moment. Change can’t happen when we are unwilling to listen to the problems about what we say or things that are a part of our culture. Precisely because we think they aren’t a big deal to us, but matter to someone else is why we should be aware of them.
We need to change our perspective.
The comments about ways to reform our culture, if we are informed about them at all, shouldn’t be viewed as an attack, but like being informed about broccoli in your teeth or a tag sticking out.
Whenever you see someone with a smudge, food in their teeth, or something else that takes away from their overall appearance, we are all faced with a choice.
We can point out the flaw, cause momentary embarrassment, but allow them the opportunity to fix it and restore themselves to a good appearance, or we can ignore it.
Sometimes it is tempting to not mention it, because you don’t want to cause that moment of discomfort… but by doing so, you are inadvertently causing them to have longer lingering embarrassment. If they are meeting a boss or a date later that day, it could be even worse for them that you didn’t point it out.
So, most of the time, the polite thing to do is to mention it.
I feel grateful when people let me know, because I want to be able to fix it.
The same should be true for racial “broccoli in teeth” moments. It stings, for a bit, to think that we were perceived that way. But it is better to feel that for a little bit, and fix it, than continue to act in a way that is offensive to a community, right?
The protests are moving and inspiring, and I know there are many others like me who want to go beyond just a march, and go beyond just the appearance of being anti-racist to becoming a true ally of blacks and black culture.
The first thing that I realized that I had to do was educate myself more on their perspective.
I read over and again on Twitter about how the wrong thing to do right now, in the middle of a movement, is to pester black voices online, asking “What can I do to help?”
Their job is not to educate you or me. Especially in a time that they are likely already busy, being a part of this moment, and they don’t have time to sit down with you and give you a long detailed list of what you are doing right, wrong and where you can improve.
These voices said to find a book already written for this moment, for whites and other cultures to understand where blacks are coming from. That is what led me to read, and to also share the lessons that I’ve learned so far with others. I have many more books planned for this summer, to continue educating myself, so that I can be more culturally aware and educate others as well.
Also, there are likely already people in your life that have told you before or will tell you in the future what you are doing that is culturally insensitive, but unfortunately we have a hard time receiving this news graciously.
Let these widespread protests and marches open all of our ears to be ready to listen when we learn ways that we can improve ourselves and our relationships with others, especially those from other cultures and races.
Second, take the time to vote with care.
Vote this November in ways that support this movement, not just at the top presidential races but at the lower levels too. Find out how mayors, representatives, and other elected officials feel and treat others and then vote as fits both your political leanings and your newly aware racial conscience.
The protesters are inspiring, but even the largest gatherings can’t actually directly change how the country is run. It is in the elections that we can take these marches and turn them into action. For now, look for and sign petitions, because they also can spur change more than just a picture on Instagram.
Third, if you have the means, speak with your dollar as well.
Most of the police reform calls will be made through legislation. But many of the inequalities we see between the white communities and black communities is one of income, schooling and access to higher education.
Black owned businesses can use our help, so make a point to seek out and support black restaurants and stores, especially during this recession. As you benefit those owners, you can benefit their families and help their kids have a more stable home. My family looked for, and enjoyed a black owned, vegan sushi restaurant this weekend. It wasn’t able to be delivered to our house, and it was more than 10 minutes away, but the trip was worth it. Not only was the food delicious, I knew I was supporting the movement in a way that could make a direct positive impact to at least one person in the community.
The books not only encouraged me to look at my white privileges, but to turn those advantages into a focus for how I can try to make a change for others, not just in the summer of 2020, but going forward too. As I lived in a home where my parents were able to take the pressure of financing college off my shoulders, I wanted to donate to foundations that can do the same for young black men and women who deserve the same advantage, but might not have homes that are able to do that for them. Our monthly donations will make an impact long after these protests stop.
Maybe there is another way that your home or community helped you get where you are today. How can you change that into a way that you can give back?
Do your research, find a way to make a difference, not just today, this week or this month, but going forward.
It is so encouraging to see that most people, when polled, see that there is a problem. We need change, and the changes need to last long after these protests dwindle and end.
As individuals, we need to be open to hearing about what we are doing that causes harm to others around us, for whatever reason, without trying to defend our thoughts or meaning behind our words and actions. We should also take it upon ourselves to read online or in books about what are the biggest problems that still haven’t been fixed in the hundreds of years that black men and women have been oppressed.
As a city, country and nation, we need to put leaders in place that understand the heart of the problems, and vote into law the reforms that need to be made to start making changes at a major level.
As communities, we need to put our money towards helping the communities most affected by the inequality inherent in our nation. We can support their businesses and donate to foundations and organizations that are actively changing lives in more ways than a march, and do what we can to keep our personal involvement in a long lasting way.
We, as a nation and a world have made powerful statements by marching in unity.
But will it stop there? As a statement? Or will you commit to making real changes in your actions to back up the statements that you are making by marching?