Thursday, May 28, 2020 – Live to Blog from Under Cover of Shame
Given all that is happening this week in Minneapolis, New York City, and, recently, in Brunswick, Georgia, I need to write about race – specifically the dynamics of white racism toward black people. I have never felt fully competent to offer a meaningful opinion on race. Even more, as a white male I wonder if I even have standing to offer an opinion given the horrific history of white male oppression of minorities and specifically black people which continues even to this very day. Let’s face, white men, we’ve blown it…again…and again…and again and we keep blowing it. Still, to remain silent is to ignore the racism in our country and to become complicit in it. While I often refer to this blog as being full of “drivel,” race is not a drivelous matter. For this reason I will move forward with this blog on race, but carefully, thoughtfully, and respectfully. I will save drivel for tomorrow.
A Little Context
My father figure gave me my first education about race. I vividly remember him often saying this: “I don’t so much mind the n****** and s****, but its the g**** that really get to me.” Unfortunately, that racist perspective defined or informed my view of nonwhite people and race for many years. Growing up in very rural Iowa, inhabited and surrounded by white, Anglo, Northern European people like myself, I had little life experience to challenge that understanding.
Only one time did I ever see black people in my hometown. In fact, they visited our home. It was a woman my mother worked with at a department store in a city about 20 miles away and her husband. They were out on a drive that Sunday afternoon and decided to drop in on us. My parents were wholly unprepared and I thought one or both were going to have strokes. They quickly ushered the couple into our house, all the time looking about to make sure the neighbors hadn’t noticed. We had a very awkward visit which I very much enjoyed. I was, after all, just at that age when teens enjoy seeing their parents suffer.
There was a time in my life when I was like Amy Cooper. Not long after I left my hometown I was working for a religious youth organization in a larger city in Iowa. I was meeting with a group of white youth in a park and we were playing volleyball together. A group of young black men came up and asked to join the game. My conditioning told me they were probably dangerous to the white youth, so I ended the game early and segregated my group from them by moving on to a Bible study activity for just them…the white kids. How ironic, eh? I have always felt embarrassed and ashamed of my actions that afternoon.
Though my social conditioning told me one thing, my conscience told me another. I began to wonder why I acted that way toward those young black men and, over time, the lingering shame I felt opened me to exploring it. At just the right moment of my life and career, two people helped me with my growth. One was Kevin, a black man who worked with me at a nonprofit organization in Iowa. Kevin was on my staff and by getting to know him, I got to know myself better.
A Transformation Begins
Both Kevin and I attended a diversity training sponsored by the local YWCA, but at different times. He attended it first. I attended it the next time it was offered. When I finished it, I came back to the office and was telling him all about my experience and what I had learned. At one point, he laughed and said, “Tom, you are the whitest white boy I’ve ever known!” We both laughed, because some truth makes us laugh when it slaps us upside the head. Even as I remember this and write about it today, I still smile with appreciation because his candor was so genuine, so refreshing, and so right on.
This week I saw this video going around on Facebook and it reminded me of Kevin. If you haven’t seen it, please take a moment to watch it. If you click on the image below, it should take you to a Facebook page where the video appears.
The other person who helped with my growth was Al Vivien. Al’s father is C.T. Vivien, a close associate of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, a Presidential Medal of Freedom Honoree by President Obama, and the creator and founder of the diversity work and organization Al leads today. Al was the facilitator of that diversity training I attended.
It would take many blogs to describe that experience as it was one of the most momentous and transformative of my life – hence my rush to share it with Kevin. I will only report now that I gained a lot of content but knowledge alone was not enough. The knowledge only provided context for me to understand what I experienced. It was the experience that Al facilitated – the experience of being skillfully transported, for a few hours, into a black man’s life – that impacted me.
Still, it was my friendship with Kevin that actually prepared me for what Al would teach me about the common humanity of blacks and whites. The stories we shared about our lives, the conversations we had, and the experiences we shared as co-workers prepared a place in my soul where Al’s message could be received and embraced. I have not been the same since.
The Need to Keep Moving Forward
Today it would be easy for me to pull a muscle patting myself on my back for how far I have come. I have a diverse group of clients – white, black, Hispanic, Latino and Asian. I live in a black majority county in a very diverse neighborhood. I have a very diverse group of acquaintances and friends. My Colombian spouse does not self-identify as a white woman.
However, I know my early racist conditioning was continuous and strong. I cannot and should not ever forget that that is how I learned to be. If I do, then I risk falling back because the racism of our culture today rivals that in which I came of age. Yes, we have a pandemic of COVID-19 that is stressing everyone and makes all things seem worse. It still cannot hide the pandemic of racism in the United States that has silently infected the souls of us white people througout my lifetime.
One reason I decided to tell this part of my story is so that people who care about me will hold me accountable when I fail to do it myself. You see, I’m a pretty nice guy. The “me” most people know today is very different from the “me” of years ago. They probably don’t know this racist past of mine because they have never seen it. At least I don’t think they have, except Kevin who is incredibly insightful and authentic, and was brave enough to call it out.
I know I’m responsible for my own life and for being the person I am. In asking others to hold me accountable I’m not asking them to be responsible. I’m just saying that I’m human. I can make mistakes. I can fail. When I do, I want people who care to snap me back on track. That’s all.
I do not want to be Amy Cooper, or the cop who strangled George Floyd, or the cops who watched him die, or the man who shot Ahmaud Arbery, or the man who instigated the shooting. I do not want to be a person who inflicts any level of pain on another person because they are black or a member of any other minority in this country.
As much I do not want to be that kind of person, I have to live daily in the knowledge that I am not so far away from it. My social conditioning, combined with our current racist environment, can call forth aspects of my still unconscious racism in the Unknown region of my Johari Window.
There are two kinds of deadly racists in our country. The first are those who know they are racist and are proud of it. They are the ones who show up in places like Charlottesville. They are dangerous but, frankly, not as dangerous as the second kind. The second kind are the socially conscienced unconcious racists. They are the people who think they are not racist and tend to deny its existence today, preferring to believe “we are better than that.” They are the ones who stand by and do nothing while racism kills people. However, afterward, they do stand around with friends like themselves and lament how bad things must be for “those” poor people. I do not believe I will ever be the first kind, but I am never far enough away from being the second.
If white folks were being honest, I think my reality is close to theirs. This, I believe, is what Don Lemon was trying to school Chris Cuomo on last night on CNN. This is a 9+ minute video clip from the start of Don Lemon’s show, as Chris Cuomo was “passing off” to him. It is a powerful, honest dialogue between two men who claim to be, and who I believe, are friends. Take the time to watch it now, and I’ll pick this up on the other side with a couple of questions.
Okay, thanks for watching the video. May I ask you a question: If you are a white person, did Don Lemon’s comments get under your skin? Did you feel for Chris Cuomo who was squirming just a bit? Did you squirm just a bit yourself? Did you feel even a little offended by Lemon’s comments? If you are a white person and answered yes to any of these questions, then you still have work to do.
You are not alone, though. I’m there with you. I still have work to do because I don’t like the alternative if I don’t remain attentive. In fact, all of us white people have work to do…lots of work…continously. The roots of racism – especially white racism toward blacks – run very deep in our country. We cannot allow ourselves to believe it isn’t there. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking we have, or can, iradicate it from our beings. These beliefs and delusions continue to kill black people and others who do not look, or sound, like us.
It is past time for us to wake up into the reality of our delusion.
Stay safe, be well, keep calm, keep washing your hands, keep wearing your mask, and, if you are white, keep searching your soul for the unconscious racism that lies within. We only become better when we are willing to confront the problem and heal the illness.