Saturday, March 14, 2020

"I don't care about your white feelings. I care about you."

Credit Honey Yanibel Manaya Cruz at Unsplash.com
The headline of this blog post comes directly from "The Confrontation" episode of Invisibilia, one of the many podcasts I subscribe to. You can listen to the show yourself. I've embedded the episode in this post.

As I listened to the episode, I recalled my 15-year-old self and wondered whether I would have survived the intense summer program for teens the show profiles. During two of my teen years at a predominantly white, exclusive and all-girls boarding school, I stayed pretty angry about both innocent and intentional slights resulting from baked-in racism. And I was not silent. Some girls started referring to me as "the little militant." Some clothed in wealth and whiteness called me "obnoxious." I spent a lot of my time meditating on that word, obnoxious.

Back then and earlier, I still wore my heart on my sleeve about everything. My mother, aunts, and grandmother counseled me often that I needed a thicker skin. But when it came to racist acts, their advice was more difficult to parse. I was as good as any white girl, they assured me and wanted me to stand up for myself -- yes -- up to a point, a very fine, complex point that I had trouble locating when angered. They also had an arsenal of rhetoric and stances they hoped I'd adopt.

From well-meaning white people, I often heard, "Don't take it personally," when they knew some other white person had been offensive. But in a country that assured me the color of my racial category is the most significant part of my identity, how could I not take racist behavior and remarks personally at age 7, 13, 16, and beyond.

Inoculation against the rage racism provokes takes years to cultivate. Decades may pass before you don't flinch. You struggle and grow until you believe in your bones, "It's not me, it's them. It's not me, it's their mindset, their system," and keep moving forward.

When dealing with individuals, however, my mother had one saying that's kept me from acting on anger. I apply these words to racist behavior and rhetoric consistently: "That person is very limited" in understanding, in scope, in vision, in intellectual potential and in empathy. So, if you see me observing someone acting ugly, know that's what I'm thinking in that moment.

Do Words Matter Anymore?

I'm not sure a program like the Boston program discussed in the episode would have worked for teens in the mid-70s. I think we would have "spoken our truth," fooled ourselves into believing we could change the world, and remained silent beyond the safe space of camp. Or maybe I only feel that way now because the world seems to be backpedaling and it feels like wisdom is losing.

We didn't have have words such as microagression in the 70s for behaviors stemmed in white supremacy. The word racist was not thrown around as much then as it is now. Critical race theory was not a codified, academic discipline in the 70s. The "race problem" was whittled down to the need for black esteem slogans, "Say it loud, 'I'm Black and I'm proud" or "Black is beautiful, so buy this hair spray for your afro." Far fewer people dissected institutionalized racism the way people do now and there was no Internet to transport their analysis virally.

I remember people calling the meaner and sometimes well-meaning white people simply "prejudiced" as though racism was a character flaw. "Miss So-and-So is so prejudiced!" What a weak word to describe behaviors, attitudes, policies, and laws that harm millions of people. But does greater accuracy in corrective rhetoric make any difference? The current divisions in this nation say, "No."

In the podcast episode, much is made of black people telling the truth and only the truth to white people, but the question arises, What good does telling your truth do if the people who need to hear it leave the room?


Invisibilia describes its episode "The Confrontation" this way:
Welcome to what is possibly the most tense and uncomfortable summer program in America! The Boston-based program aims to teach the next generation the real truth about race, and may provide some ideas for the rest of us about the right way to confront someone to their face. | To learn more about this episode, subscribe to our newsletter. Click here to learn more about NPR sponsors.
I would say more but you can listen for yourself.

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