What I Failed To Teach My Children About Racism

What I Failed To Teach My Children About Racism

Posted by Rosalee Rester on Jul 6th 2020

Dear white passing parents,

I frequently come across posts from frustrated white people trying to navigate how to stop being racist. A recent Facebook conversation argued whether or not the use of Black emojis by white people was racist. It devolved into expressions of frustration from both white people and people of color.

My intent is to share my personal journey of how I came to recognize how my life thus far has harmed Black people in the hopes that it can help others to forge their own path to non harming and beneficial behaviors towards Black community members.

Last year my daughter was accused of a racial hate act. Through one moment of ignorance for allowing herself to be included in a school photograph showcasing an image of Black oppression, her life and ours would be forever changed. That moment of ignorance led to both individual and community pain…but it also gave us, as a family, a lens into the kernel of our own racist programming.

Anger and Shame

As her parent I have struggled with my anger and shame over the past year.

Anger at the news outlets for spreading rumors both locally and internationally based solely on the posts from one student’s twitter account.

Anger at the teacher for assigning a racist project (and the school not recognizing it as such).

Anger that she is called out for the very behaviors and beliefs she abhors.

Anger at the white kids who ripped her apart over and over again.

Anger at the death threats, cancelling, trolling her phone, social media, emails and even her employment.

Anger at the school for lack of transparency around the incident.

Anger that she had to leave high school two years early.

Angry that she is still being called out a year later.

Anger that she is now fearful of social interactions.

Anger at myself for having pushed my daughter out the door that morning instead of letting her finish her breakfast. Five more minutes and she wouldn’t have even been in that damn photo and she could have continued on living her blissful, white privileged, unfettered life.

Then shame for wishing away the entire incident while knowing that every single day all Black mothers worry about the abuses their children face at school, work and in our streets.

Shame for not teaching my daughter about white privilege, or the imagery of Black oppression.

Shame that I’d attempted to pull the discussion away from racial equity and social justice for Blacks and shine the attention on my daughter’s pain.

Shame from being part of a nation that stole, enslaved, oppressed and tortured an entire population, only to set them “free” with no equality or opportunity to forge a livelihood of their own.

Adding to my shame, was the truth that the discomfort my daughter was experiencing was nothing compared to the racial injustice that people of color experience every single day. Then anger at that false equivalency. Then shame for feeling that anger.

My anger and shame rests on a country seeded in anger and shame. Pervasive and systemic inequity and injustice is difficult to absorb. Even the best intentioned of us become defensive when faced with the realization that our success most likely rests on the hands, necks and shoulders of Black citizens.

The shame, along with the resulting anger, creates such Cognitive Dissonance that it is easier to stifle the shame and let the self-righteous indignation flare. It’s the sort of indignation that would elect someone like Trump. It’s the sort of indignation that had me writing letters to media outlets asking them to correct their stories. To fix the narrative.

It is the sort of self-righteousness that blocks out any incoming signals that conflict with the carefully built narrative that protects a nation from seeing its shame.

Racist

I’ve labeled Trump supporters as racist. I’ve dehumanized them and lumped them all into the basket of deplorables. I’ve made my share of glib and self-righteous comments on social media regarding racist behavior.

But, this past year has changed me. With my daughter being called a racist in a town where racism is tantamount to pedophilia I have come to believe the current use of the word “Racist” obscures its true power by associating it only with overt acts of racism and shuts down beneficial conversation.

If you accuse a white person of being racist we tend to melt down in defensiveness. We can’t even talk about racism without listing all the ways we are NOT RACIST. This was my response when my own daughter was labeled as racist.

I was defensive because she did not recognize the item included in the photograph as an object of Black oppression, therefore she was unfairly being tagged as racist. I did believe it to be an example of white privilege but wanted everyone to know that she was not a racist.

One year later, after research and self reflection, my thoughts have changed. It was a difficult process, as I suspect the following will be difficult for others to hear as well.

Racism and holding white privilege are one and the same.

It’s socially acceptable to acknowledge our white privilege because, hey, we didn’t have a choice in that. The term white privilege relieves you of responsibility to take direct action.

I now acknowledge my daughter was racist for not seeing her whiteness,

and us, her parents for not educating her we’re also racist,

and her school, for not educating any of their students or teachers was racist.

Most significant though is the failure of our society. For the belief that the privileged do not need to recognize their own whiteness and how it has benefitted them. Our very kernel is racist.

But in a racially structure polity, the only people who can find it psychologically possible to deny the centrality of race are those who are racially privileged, for whom race is invisible precisely because the world is structured around them, whiteness as the ground against which the figures of other races–those who, unlike us, are raced–appear. Charles Mills The Racial Contract (p 76)

Every single day Black people suffer overt racism, systemic oppression, police brutality and microaggressions. They are forced to think about the color of their skin whenever they leave their homes. How often do you think about the color of your skin? It all depends on where you sit on the light to dark color continuum.

I began to recognize the structure of white supremacy once I started studying the history of our nation. Not the history I learned in school, but the history hidden from us because it did not fit the narrative of the people in power.

John Oliver did a great video segment outlining some of the gaps in our public education. It is worth the time to watch it.

Overt & Covert Racism

I made this pictograph of common racist beliefs and a friend commented that it did not seem realistic as the items at the top seemed egregious compared to others directly under it. How could declaring “Blacks are lucky to be brought here as slaves or they’d be stuck in their ‘shithole’ countries” be on par with someone wearing dreadlocks, throwing gang signs or dressing up as their favorite Black pop star?

The reason I put no line between overt and covert racism is because I discovered that they both have the same harmful impact; maintaining systemic racial oppression and injustice.

In the chart I draw a single line. Everything above that sits in the same space of harming behaviors. The white liberals with a BLM sign in their yard who believe  they are not part of the problem are born from the same racist seed as the Trump supporters who believe confederate statues should be protected because they are part of our great nation’s history.

In fact, covert racism is much more difficult to tackle than overt. Shine a direct spotlight on it and it sneaks off under the cover of gaslighting statements like; “I’m not a racist. You’ve misinterpreted what I said. I was just kidding around. You’re so thin-skinned. You’re reading too much into this. I don’t see skin color.”

The truth is my daughter is racist. I am racist. If you are white passing, you are racist too. We should be able to talk about our racist behaviours without losing our shit. Because good intentions don’t stop oppression. Feeling guilty doesn’t stop police brutality or redlining.

It is time for us white liberals to stop using the word racist to split us into ‘good’ non-racists and ‘bad’ racists. In order to kill the cancer we must identify racism within ourselves and others without causing meltdowns and starting culture wars. To eradicate it we need to be able to name it whether overt or covert. Before we cast the first stone or the fortieth, let us remember that if we are white passing, we ourselves are not free from sin.

What Can We Do?

I joined a group of moms in Portland, Oregon that were actively protecting BLM protestors and what an amazing group of female identifying folk. Everyone is there to support BLM and to learn.

Therefore, I found it surprising when white women were telling other white group members that they were sick of the white fragility in the group and how people needed to educate themselves. If they couldn’t take it they should just leave.

This infighting evoked a need in me to #EducateNotHumilate. Perhaps I am overly sensitive because of what my daughter is going through right now but, there is a difference between punishment and discipline.

Punishment and shaming pushes little levers that gives you a little self-affirming boost and humiliates the recipient.

Discipline teaches, inspires and guides the recipient.

All of humanity, whether right or left, is susceptible to justice based schadenfreude. This is the enjoyment of seeing a ‘bad’ actor being harmed or punished. Recent examples include streams of “anti-maskers” being videoed and kicked out of stores and airplanes (and the shameful pleasure we feel when we learn of an anti-masker who ends up on a ventilator). It includes the excitement we feel for every “Karen” (**note that our white patriarchy has conveniently come up with a term for white entitled women while a pejorative term for white entitled men who obviously hold the crown to self-entitlement is still missing.) who is shamed on social media resulting in job loss and criminal charges. Who doesn’t want a self-affirming boost?

Justice based schadenfreude can be evoked under certain conditions, including when you witness misfortunes of someone you dislike, are envious of, or someone who shares opposite views, such as competing sports teams or political parties. It is especially evoked when we see them get their “comeuppance”.

I came to recognize that I am not helping the Black fight for racial equality by throwing around my white self-righteous anger. It is also not our anger to hold.

During protests and riots here in Portland there has been looting and rioting. I believe that the Black protesters who loot are justified. Black author Kimberly Jones does an excellent job talking about the destruction of the social contract in this video.

The white protesters dressed all in black who break windows, loot, throw firecrackers and set fires to buildings do not have a right to that anger. The job of the white protestor is to support Black protestors, to lift up their voices, and to follow the lead of Black leadership.

It’s easy to shame and humiliate one another and it can feel good to press the punishment lever to receive our self-affirmation boost. It is much harder to empathize and educate. It takes time. It takes dedication. It is beyond frustrating. But, it is our responsibility as white passing folk to have these difficult conversations with the other white people in the room.

If you are white passing and you see another white passing person trying to move in the right direction, well, let’s clap our hands and give them some instruction. If they’re struggling, let’s educate them. For inspiration read this interview with Megan Phelps Roper on leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. Your connection leaves something behind whether you know it or not.

White supremacists use empathy and trust to reel in their recruits. It’s our job not to make recruiting even easier for them by humiliating and shaming people who hold racists beliefs. Let’s take a page from the White Nonsense Roundup codes of conduct and Beyond Intractability to focus on educating our white community without the cutting comments, calling people names, insulting, harassing, or trolling.

We white people can practice active listening with people who hold racist beliefs. Alexandra tells us you have an opportunity to use your white privilege to teach your white counterparts. Understanding why they hold their beliefs is the first step in being able to ask them questions that elucidate their erroneous foundation. White Nonsense Roundup offers up pages and pages of information that will help you be able to better inform your white counterparts.

How to approach your white racist family members

Daryl Davis tells a story on NPR that stuck with me. Daryl Davis is Black. If he can make this effort, surly we white people can too.

He made the statement, which I’d heard before, “Well we all know that all black people have within them a gene that makes them violent.” I turned to him and I’m driving and I said, “Wait a minute. I’m as black as anybody you’ve ever seen. I have never done a carjacking or a driveby, how do you explain that?” He didn’t even pause to think about it. He said, “Your gene is latent. It hasn’t come out yet.”

So how do you argue with somebody who is that far out in left field? I was dumbfounded. I’m just driving along. He’s sitting over here all smug and secure, like “See you have no response?” And I thought about it for a minute. Then I used his point of reference. I said, “Well, we all know that all white people have a gene within them that makes them a serial killer.” He says, “What do you mean?” And I said,”Well, name me three black serial killers.” He thought about it — he could not do it. I said, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy. All whites. I said, “Son, you are a serial killer.” He says “Daryl, I’ve never killed anybody.” I said, “Your gene is latent. It hasn’t come out yet.” He goes, “Well, that’s stupid!” I said, “Well, duh. Yes, but you know what, you’re right. What I said was stupid, but no more stupid than what you said you me.” Then he got very, very quiet and changed the subject. Five months later, based on that conversation he left the Klan.

My Racist Ways

As a half Asian child growing up in the Deep South I experienced unceasing racist comments about my nose, my eyes, my flat face, my skin color, my thick lips.

As a graduate student I studied Stereotype Threat with Dr. Ben-Zeev and was intimately aware of how negative stereotypes impacted performance.

When my daughter was two years old I created a sold out coloring book featuring leaders often left out of traditional history books. I believed in reparations and affirmative action.

I thought myself to be an anti-racist merely because I had felt the sting of racism. And because I believed myself to not be a racist, I thought I was not part of the problem.

By June 2019 I had not picked up a single anti-racist book, nor had I listened to Black podcasts.

I rarely read Black writers (except for Toni Morrison and James Baldwin.)

I’d watched only a handful of Black movies, shows and documentaries. I had sexualized Black bodies.

I had chosen white schools over Black schools because of test scores and classroom size.

I believed the talk about Black inner city violence.

And, even though I knew that 1 and 3 black men will enter the prison system within their lifetime and our Land of the Free and the Brave only represents 5% of the world’s population yet imprisons 24.7% of the it, I had not bothered to talk about white privilege nor systematic Black oppression with my children.

I felt discomfort when talking to anyone about racial issues. The sort of discomfort you feel around someone when you know you’ve wronged them.

I had difficulty navigating what was racist and what was not.

I was going to print a pickaninny on some clothing I was making.

I took pictures of my baby in a giant afro wig.

I used the word Negro because the Negro College Fund used it so I thought it must be ok.

I later discovered that one woman I included in the coloring book had supported the forced sterilization of Black women.

The above is a short list of my racism.

After the racial incident I began reading. I haven't read a book in years because I work all the time. But, if I have time to watch a show on TV, I have time to learn about racism in the US.

Here is a short list of my recommended reads. 

  • I’m Not A Racist (I loved reading about his personal journey to becoming an anti-racist.)
  • White Fragility (Specifically written for white people)
  • How To Be Less Stupid About Race (One of my favorites)
  • Me and White Supremacy (This journey allows you to see your own racism.)
  • So You Want To Talk About Race (A very frank discussion on race in a conversational tone you can relate with.)
  • The Half Has Never Been Told (God, this was a difficult one to read. It will change you.)
  • The Souls of Black Folk (I can't believe he wrote this at the beginning of the last century. A must read.)
  • Ain't I A Woman (A fantastic Black feminist book.)
  • Sister Outsider (Powerful nonfictional prose that will get you thinking.)
  • How We Get Free (if you are wondering why there is a separate Black feminist movement)

This journey is setting me free from the cognitive dissonance I felt all my life around Black people. Each time I finish a book I eagerly pick up another.

The more I educate myself, the more capable I feel of stopping myself from committing racist acts and microaggressions. My awareness of Black history and pain makes it feel so very wrong to laugh at racist jokes, throw up a Black emoji to show my wokeness/support or start up a non-profit to support Black people without asking for their input and leadership first. It lends me the courage to speak out and educate when I witness racist behavior.

I am learning how to listen and communicate about race so that when I do screw up and harm someone, I am able to accept the criticism, apologize and grow.

Just as now we look back and see slavery as a great moral wrong, we will look back at our imprisonment of Black people, redlining, job discrimination, educational discrimination and police brutality in the very same way. Our children will ask us, how could you stand by and watch this injustice?

White Privilege

It is wrong how this term relieves us from the direct responsibility of harming racist behavior and also makes it sound as though we whites are giving up something when we work to end Black oppression.

Even to-day the masses of the Negroes see all too clearly the anomalies of their position and the moral crookedness of yours.

W.E.B Dubois The Souls of Black Folks

Can we start calling it the Disease of White People? Because while working through my own racism I can tell you that I am starting to feel healing from the burden of shame and finding ways to act upon my guilt. One psychologist points to toxic shame as the root cause of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Does it surprise you that our nation sits in its house of shame with Trump as its leader?

I just want you to know that you aren’t giving up any privilege. You are discovering the truth and the truth shall set you free.

I will end with a quote from John Lewis’ posthumous op-ed.

“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war,” the congressman said. “So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.” John Lewis 2020