I’ll start out by saying I am a young white woman, 5th generation Montanan, self identifying as progressive, and a believer in racial social justice. I help promote events, and all week-long we had events related to Martin Luther King Jr. and I have a lot on my mind from these discussions, often times intense and emotional, but also hopeful and inspiring. The people who attended these events were people who cared about these issues, and from many racial and ethnic backgrounds, mostly graduate students. Two questions stuck out the most for me.
Q: Is the white community even ready to reconcile?
This question saddened me. We were discussing Ferguson, and the idea of truth and reconciliation commissions. One man on the panel argued that they are working right now on truth commissions, but why would you reconcile if they (the police) might do it again. Or in general. There is so much racism and bias in our everyday interactions, perhaps it is too early to move onto reconciliation, when the majority of white people have not even recognized the existence of a problem, i.e. racism. This question was raised after a heartfelt discussion of the effects of racism, both structurally and on a personal level, and how much trauma is in communities as a result. There was talk about having a logical argument against racism, and how to get people to ‘get it’. I don’t think it’s about logic and facts, but a gut emotional reaction of fear and ignorance, and not being willing to deal with uncomfortable realities that you have benefited from a social structure that privileges your skin color. And it is uncomfortable. Growing up I had always been sensitive, and tended to have friendships with other outcasts, who were often the foreign exchange students. From an early age I was exposed via friendship to other cultures and differences, although mostly of various Asian cultures. Even still, Montana is 95% white, and a relatively homogenous place, and there is a big difference between reading about things, and experiencing and witnessing things, especially related to social and racial injustice, or on the positive side, developing more friendships with people of different ethnic and cultural background. I think much of my development was furthered after I began traveling in Central and Latin American, as well as moving to Hawaii for undergraduate school. I consider myself a smart person, but there were many things that I had applied very selectively – like media bias on the Colombian human rights record, but hadn’t considered just how widespread and ingrained it was. I remember a course on media and propaganda that was very eye-opening for me as a young college student, as we analyzed case after case, and how images are selected and why, and the intense process of imagery and using that to support and idea and a point. It was not accidental, the images were often doctored, and it furthered the seed in me that has already been planted of.. this is all bullshit! I love to read, and books by Noam Chomsky, bell hooks and Edward Said were an important part of consciousness raising for me. I remember feeling extremely uncomfortable of my ignorance on certain issues, and angered that I was a part of this legacy of violence from the US, especially as I learned more about our colonial conquests in Hawaii and around Latin America. It is uncomfortable. And the point I wish I had made to the group about the event, is that it still is uncomfortable, and it should be, and it will continue to be, because that means you are doing it right. It’s not like I suddenly became race conscious and gender and class conscious and now I’m healed. These experiences and these biases are so deeply ingrained in society and in our daily interactions, that it is a continual process to analyze your actions, what you see around you, to questions it, reflect on it, and continue to grow and to act towards change. So my answer to the question – is the white community ready to reconcile? I think the answer is that many are. But many of them are ignorant. Some are blatantly racist. And this society that we live in produces this, and it is going to take a long long time. And I hate that it is going to take a long time, and that people of my same skin color will likely continue to be ignorant, because they can, and continue perpetrating this horrible system that is violently both overtly and covertly affecting society.
Q: Do white people lose friends /community when they speak out about racial consciousness?
This conversation intrigued me. I would like to think I’m doing something valiant and brave and have lost friends in this process, but in reality I haven’t. This was not the general consensus from the room, and I question whether people were inflating their sense of suffering in their quest to be good people, but I do recognize my situation may be different from others. For me, the people who don’t want to talk to me anymore over my politics,( including everything I stand for, such as a single payer healthcare system, or gay rights) are not people who I was good friends with anyways. I have never lost a good friend over politics. Half my relatives aren’t close to my family because of religious and political beliefs, but if you don’t really like someone in the first place it is easy not to care. I’ve had far more heated exchanges with this group over the Affordable Care Act / “Obamacare” than racial politics. Have I ever been isolated by it? No. I have found wonderful friends through other means, and generally from the same idealistic belief system, so that may be part of why I haven’t lost friends. The people I am closest with tend to believe the same way, some simply don’t care about activism, and that is also ok with me. What is hard for me, is to try to continue those relationships with people I am not close with, and to keep engaging. Disengagement is easy. Isolating myself from a specific ideology that is in my opinion ignorant, is easy. It takes effort and patience and understanding to have a conversation and truly be willing to listen to viewpoints that I find offensive. Sometimes it is also very difficult to know when and where to have that conversation. If you do it wrong, people will just shut down. People’s opinions change because they trust you and your opinion, not because you are making a really good logical point. I remember when my grandfather was very ill, and as all the extended family was visiting for his last birthday, he asked as his dying wish for us all to go to church. The church was right-wing and railing against California letting out the black felons and how people should be afraid and protest this policy. It was insulting. I am atheist, and didn’t like being in church in the first place, much less a right-wing racist church. I wasn’t sure how to speak up though without being disrespectful of my sick grandfather, and my religious family members who take church very seriously, and probably would dismiss my concerns as insulting their church, and I didn’t have any credibility with them as the local atheist. I ended up not saying anything, but I still think about that moment, and how complicated it can be to speak up and wanting to support your conscience. I want to do better in the future.