(I’m going to keep this next part vague, because I’m sensitive about confidentiality, so my apologies for any lack of clarity that results. I’m trying to speak as much as possible from my own experience, and I’m trying to do so as authentically and blamelessly as I can. So please, if you read this, read this with that in mind, and read this, too, knowing that while my intentions are pure, the lenses through which I see are grubby indeed. Forgive me, please, for that.)
There’s a group I’m a part of, a group of about twenty-five other individuals of various ages and from differing areas, individuals of different races and various cultural backgrounds. In most respects we’re remarkably close: these are people I’d trust, and have trusted, with my deepest secrets and most personal truths. With most things we’re able to hold each other.
It’s become apparent, though, over the past few weeks, that the topic of race, within our group, is a deeply painful issue.
(An aside: it just occurred to me that all of this should go without saying; the fact that people have different backgrounds, that I feel I can trust them; that racism is a tremendous reality … ought not these statements be true in any group? Anyway.)
So far we’ve been dancing around this elephant in the room. Some of the group members in the white majority censor themselves because they feel awkward; some of those in the minority have expressed that they don’t feel safe speaking about what they really feel, and, too, that when the topic does arise it’s overshadowed by the issue of ‘white guilt’; some of the biracial members of the group feel torn; and everyone, obviously, has their own personal take on the matter.
But things have come to a head, and the tension has gotten to be too much, and so next week I’m going to be helping to facilitate a discussion on the dynamic, and about what all of us might do.
Needless to say I’m a little anxious about this conversation.
This issue is so, so deeply painful for me. It’s painful for me because at one point it wasn’t an issue. It’s painful for me because there was a time in my life when I would have not seen it as my problem. In high school, I was sure I wasn’t racist. I believed in the myth of a colorblind society; I thought, in trying to treat everyone the same, that we could all be made equal. I had no idea how incredibly damaging this blindness of mine was.
And I don’t feel particularly guilty about it. I feel, rather, a deep rage and sorrow at the fact that I live in a society that allowed me to grow up so utterly oblivious to the rampant oppression and pro-racist ideologies it perpetuates. I feel, rather, a deep sense of grief at the entire history of not just the US, and not just Colonialism, but the human race as a whole.
It’s Black History Month. Affirmative action is again in the news. The topic came up for me recently around law school; blacks make up 13% of the US population, but only 6% of law students. This statistic, combined with the fact that 12% of black males (compared to under 2% of white males) in their late 20s in the US are in prison, indicates that there is something supremely wrong with our society. (Here’s another little fact: In South Africa under apartheid, the incarceration rate of black males was 851 per 100,000. In the U.S., in 1994, the rate was 4,919 per 100,000. This is America, in comparison to the most openly racist country on the planet.)
I know that looking at this requires looking at the fact that the history of the country and our current capitalist system is deeply stained with the atrocities of the slave trade. I know that looking at this requires accepting that the European development of the new world was made possible, in part, by the use of the “free labor” of African slaves, which provided the wealth – from the cotton and sugar and rice within the plantation system – necessary to make such technological advances. And I know that looking at this demands all that goes with it, from the fact that Christopher Columbus sent more slaves to Europe than any other individual in his time to the history of exploitation and cruelty that stand as the dark unexamined underbelly of development.
This is an ugly topic, I know, and I know, too, that it’s easier not to look. But I’d suggest, in not-looking (assuming, that is, you have the “luxury” to do so), that you might be making yourself complicit in the very perpetuation of such injustice.
I know this, but what I don’t know is so much greater. I don’t know how to heal any of it. I don’t know how to make a difference. I don’t know, at all, what to say when faced with this past.
I don’t know. It makes me so sorrowful, and so, so full of anger.
Thich Naht Hahn said once that, when anger arises in you, to think of three sentences to tell those you’re feeling anger toward. These sentences are: “I suffer and I want you to know it.” “I am doing my best.” “Please help.”