The most well-targeted ad social media’s ever given me was probably for a t-shirt that says “Empathy is more rebellious than a middle finger.” Part of why that shirt was well-targeted is because I love people. So much. I want them to be happy and healthy and safe and compassionate and successful and seen and valued and loved. It’s incredibly important to me to consider other people’s perspectives and why someone is doing what they’re doing, even if I don’t like what they’re doing. Empathy is the best way I know how to do that. I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts around the message on that shirt for several weeks now, mostly in response to COVID-19 and the pain I’ve felt and observed—and still feel and observe—because of it, but right now Black people are dominating my heart.
I am by no means an expert in racial issues. I’m still recognizing my own biases and combating them, and I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past, but I’m trying. What I am an expert on is my own experiences, and some of them are:
- Like pretty much anyone else in American public schools, I learned that Racism is Wrong. It’s a simple and logical concept for a kid to grasp, and my influences at home seemed to support that idea. No one was saying white people are better than Black people or that white people deserved more.
- Despite growing up primarily in the American South, most of my family is pretty Northern, which created, for me at least, an illusion that I and mine are specially immune to racial prejudice—“My family didn’t own slaves,” etc. I’m not aware of conclusive evidence that parts of my family did own enslaved people*, but I’ve definitely found evidence that we’re not immune to racial prejudice just in my own actions, to say nothing about the unhelpful stereotypes about Northern and Southern people that are tied up in that view of things.
- As an early teenager, a white person who I’ve looked up to once said, “I’m not racist against Black people—I’m racist against n*****s,” the latter defined essentially as a Black person with an attitude; the example given was a hypothetical Black man crossing the street slowly in front of their car with an air of entitlement. I didn’t have the vocabulary or awareness at the time to challenge that effectively, and hearing that from a role model set me back because it made me think that… maybe this is an acceptable position to have.
I do have the vocabulary and awareness now, and racism is racism is racism. It is wrong, no matter how you spin it to be about their character. The discussion of whether or not “reverse racism” exists doesn’t matter here—this is not a good enough excuse for a white person to call anyone a n*****. There isn’t a good enough excuse.
- It has taken me a long time to disagree with some of the things I learned growing up. As early as I can remember, I trusted the people telling me about the world, and questioning authority does not come naturally to me. I think some of that is just how I am—I do try to assume the best intentions of everyone, and I don’t get off on conflict or discord—and a lot of that is because, for all its issues, my childhood and upbringing were pretty happy and secure, and I didn’t have to worry much about what other people would do to me. If something was happening that I didn’t like or didn’t think was fair, I usually assumed it was that way because it had to be. Surely people knew to try other options and they just didn’t work? Turns out that a lot of things happening that I don’t like or don’t think are fair don’t have to be; too many things are the way they are because of inequitable power structures trying to maintain themselves.
I’d like to think that if I lived in another era, without the already-lain groundwork of the American Civil War and the civil rights movements and without as ready access to all the resources and accounts of different experiences that I have through the internet, I’d still eventually have recognized racial inequities as they are… but I’m not so sure I would have, and that’s really uncomfortable to know about myself. At least I know it. I hope that the internet can be the resource to others that it has been to me in regards to recognizing and stopping racism where I otherwise might not have.
- In my early twenties, I started looking up feminism—a thentofore “bad” word—and racism in earnest. How much I didn’t know about other people’s lives now and in the past stunned me, and I went through all the stages of grief that often accompany white guilt when you recognize that you have privilege. The final stage, for me, has indeed been acceptance—not of the conditions we live in now, but of my potential role in improving those conditions. In my later twenties, I’ve tried to keep up my education on those subjects and have also tried to learn more about ableism, gender, and whatever prejudices against other marginalized groups I can. From everything I’ve seen and heard, racism amplifies pretty much every other prejudice people experience.
- I speak up more, mostly online but in in-person conversations as well, against racist beliefs, misconceptions, and statements. I’ve been called a “brainwashed liberal,” and it used to scare me to get a label like that that would put me outside of some of my white in-groups and put me clearly into an “other” category when I want to get along with everyone. It doesn’t scare me as much anymore, though it’s disappointing and painful to have people close to me reduce my intellect, experiences, and education to not only a broad-strokes stereotype but a tired one, let alone the intellects, experiences, and educations of the people actually suffering from racism who are informing a lot of my beliefs now. I care more about defending people who need it than I do about being called names, though, and I’m sure some of the people calling me names think I’m reducing their experiences, too. I really try not to. Sometimes I think I succeed.
- I’ve definitely been the person tired because I was asked to explain research I had made the effort to do to people who couldn’t be bothered to do the same because they wanted it spoonfed to them under the guise of a discussion. I’ve also been the person asking for a devil’s-advocate discussion; in one instance that stands out to me, I got a very gracious decline and was still hurt because they didn’t want to have a conversation with me, as if they hadn’t already written plenty about it for me to read or even knew who I was.
- There’s a near-relentless insistence in parts of my life that we must be able to say racist, sexist, and other hurtful things to each other “as a joke” without getting upset in order for us to be able to successfully coexist. I know you can’t please everyone—someone still may be hurt—and my sense of humor isn’t exactly vanilla, but it is not more important to me to say whatever crosses my mind than it is to just… try to say kind things to people. Somehow I manage to laugh often, despite these “restraints.”
- In one conversation, I said white privilege is real to someone insisting it isn’t, tried to explain what that means, and was asked over and over, “Why are you so determined to be miserable?!” as if systemic racism is something I made up because I was bored and wanted to be sad about something, rather than an extremely well-documented and shockingly visible reality if you just open your eyes to experiences beyond your own (or to peer-reviewed statistics, or to video evidence).
- While I wouldn’t describe myself as “miserable,” and certainly not because I’m determined to be, I admit I’m a much sadder person since I’ve started learning about how deep racism runs in our country and the world. And I try very hard not to be bitter, but I am angry. I’m angry that people who came before me didn’t do better. I’m angry that people who exist with me now are actors of racism, explicit and implicit. I’m angry that the color of a person’s skin should be so incredibly neutral and is so horrifically not.
- There’s this bizarre, sick sense of loss I feel sometimes because I exist in a time when I don’t get to “enjoy” my privilege worry-free like I might have earlier in our history when it was easier to bury our heads in the sand, and I don’t get to be worry-free in the context of post-racism either since we plainly are not. Similarly, if a Black person gets something nice that’s just for them as a Black person, I’ve wanted something special just for me, too, even though there would be no need for the Black person to get something special if I didn’t already have race-based advantages in the first place. These are selfish feelings and they don’t reflect well on me, but I want to acknowledge them because I’m not the only white person who’s felt these ways, and I know they can be a barrier to hearing and understanding what happens to Black people or getting on board with fighting racism more actively. The feelings are real and upsetting, but they’re not Black people’s problem, and they’re not more important than the fact that racism is wrong and needs to be stopped.
- I was raised Christian and pagan. A tenet from Christianity is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A tenet from the paganism I was taught is, “Do as you will, but harm none.” Absorbing these guidances is particularly where empathy fits into how I try to move through the world. I’ve needed grace. I’ve needed patience. I’ve needed understanding. I’ve needed slack. I’ve needed safety. I’ve needed advocacy. I’ve needed opportunities. I’ve needed peace. I’ve had most of these needs met as they arose, blessings I’m more grateful for all the time. I want to offer those things to others that need them. Black people need them, so here I am.
I want to be part of the solution to this increasingly unignorable stain on our culture, and I’ve spent the last ~six years mulling over a rambling account such as this of my journey to recognizing modern racism with the hopes that other white people might see some of themselves in where I started and where I’ve ended up and decide to help fight that racism. I remember wishing for accounts like mine describing the messy parts of becoming an ally that seem to be uniquely white. Maybe you don’t see yourself in any of this—my story isn’t exceptionally extreme—but I’m trying to meet people where they are.
More than that, I am begging my white friends and family to please see the humanity of Black people and recognize that we have to do something for this to stop, especially if we’re going to demand it be done “peacefully”—something people have been trying to do for hundreds of years, and they have been roundly ignored and ridiculed by people with the power to effect broad change, including us. We have to listen to and support the people who are suffering for the color of their skin. Black people don’t get to have a little human rights for good behavior, as a treat. They’re entitled to them. We’re faced with chances every single day to confront racism, and we can start with ourselves.
There are plenty of “But what abouts” to things I’ve written here that I’ve worked through myself or have talked to others about (“But what about looters and rioters, what about people who take advantage of me, what about Black people who are prejudiced against white people, what about my safety, etc., etc., etc.”), and for all the specificity I tried to offer, this is definitely a high-level account of my experiences and of recognizing privilege. A thousand other things fell into place over the course of my life that I couldn’t describe here, some that helped me and some that didn’t.
I’m routinely disappointed, upset, and outraged about racist choices white people near and far from me make and I’m not upset when people call racism racism, but, whether it’s deserved or not, I don’t think shame inspires positive action very well, and I didn’t name names for the white people I spoke with in the points above. However, I, Jerrika, am personally asking you, my white friends and family, to do some research right now on white privilege and the history of violence against Black people in our country, and I am asking you to look inward and truly identify where you fall in your support for Black people and condemnation of racism—especially if you think any of those conversations were with you or could ever have been with you, even hypothetically.
As I said, I’m not an expert. There are myriad (often free! Google is free!) resources both abbreviated and thorough by people who are experts that put racism and privilege into the clearest of terms, as well as ways to dismantle them, and I’m forever grateful for the generosity of these people’s time, research, and vulnerability in sharing their and others’ stories and calling out the racism both blatant and masked that pervades our society today. I hope we give these efforts the respect they’re due sooner than later and enact the changes so desperately needed. Please do the work. Please listen to Black voices. Please give them your support.
The right thing is the right thing no matter what anyone else is doing, and you either believe racism is wrong or you don’t. You’re either part of the effort to stop it or you’re not. It’s true that I love you, and I want you on my side. But if you’re Black, I love you, too, and I hear you, and I stand with you. Because Black lives matter.
Edit: Here, people have made that research incredibly easy for you. Find resources here.
*Edit: I originally posted this with what I am told was a false statement that parts of my family probably did own enslaved people. I wrote this based on information I’d heard that further research into our family tree has made inconclusive. The point of this post is honesty, so I’ve updated this information for the sake of accuracy. Whether or not my family owned slaves changes nothing about the takeaway of that part of the narrative here: I’ve thought my family owned slaves and thought they didn’t, and I had racial biases and privilege either way. I’m not off the hook for addressing those things within myself or in our country just because my white family might not have owned human beings whose descendants are, with certainty, still being discriminated against right now, and neither are you.