Race. Four small letters, one powerful word.
Race. The four letter word and social construction that has been used for millennia to subjugate a sector of people to lower class, lower than human status.
Race. The four letter word that white people rarely think about but, when they do, they become terrified, defensive, or both.
Race. The four letter word that’s created the biggest divide in our country for centuries.
Last week I had the privilege of participating in a confrontational workshop on race and dismantling racism with the organization POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild). For two nights, an intergenerational, interfaith group of around two hundred Philadelphians from various socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds came together to talk about race.
We welcomed one another, questioned one another, challenged one another, and called out one another. There were moments when the facilitator asked us to get together with someone we didn’t know and ask each other “the hard questions.”
During one of these moments I sat with a woman named Julia. A mother and grandmother nearing her seventies, Julia was one of those women who exhibited such warmth that you immediately felt at ease with her. She was one of those fancy women whose eloquence and style drew you in. Born a black woman in the south, she’d seen and felt a lot of pain in her life.
As we pulled our chairs closer together, the facilitator asked us to tell our partners something that is difficult for us to say, something real. So I went for it.
I told Julia about growing up in a mostly white, middle class area where I learned and internalized racism I never knew I had until I was an adult. Without being told explicitly, I grew up believing that having white skin was the absence of having a race. I grew up with an internalized, irrational fear of certain black men that I didn’t ever realize I had until I lived in the city. And when I discovered that, despite all my education and aspirations of social justice, I was racist, the shame was incredible.
I knew better so why did I still have these fears and subconscious feelings? I felt like once I knew and understood my own racist thoughts and where they came from I should be able to turn them off and suddenly be free of them. But it doesn’t work like that.
Julia listened to me intently with concern in her eyes before quietly saying, “I’ve felt these same things as you, just the other way around.” She told me how she had mistrust and fear for white people, how she knew she was and had been racist and felt shame for it, and how she grew to love people and work through her fear and hate.
But she also told me that you can’t just change over night. “It takes time. Yes you know better but you spent years internalizing things that will take more than a few days to tear down.”
After our conversation, the facilitator asked for volunteers to share what they had discussed. With Julia’s permission and encouragement, I stood, shaking like a leaf, and shared our conversation. The facilitator listened to me and challenged me and then asked how many people in the room felt the same things I did. And as I slowly spun around to look at everyone, nearly every hand was raised.
So many people claim that racism is over. “But we have a black president! But we abolished slavery! But we had the Civil Rights Movement!” But nothing.
As a 94 year black woman shared in one of the breakout groups, “I’ve been on the face of this earth since 1920 and nothing’s really changed all that much.” One person, on this earth for nearly 100 years, has witnessed astounding changes in culture and technology and lifestyle all around her, but when it comes to racism, nothing’s really changed that much. That should make us sick.
So what the hell do we do? Racism is a disease that has eaten away at the very core of our society and infiltrated our systems and policies in ways that have reverberated for generations. It took time to build and will take time to tear down. But it’s not impossible.
First, take a good hard look at yourself. Dismantling racism starts with recognizing your own implicit, explicit, and internalized racism and owning up to it.
Have conversations about race. Talk with anyone and everyone. Start with your family and branch out to friends and neighbors. Talk about race with someone of another race and ask them what they need from you and people of your race. Tell them what you need from them. Talk about racism with people of your own race. Just talk about it. Racism needs to be addressed in relationship.
Educate yourself. Read books, watch movies, and listen to podcasts by people of other races. Learn about how racism has affected our nation’s history and present. Diversify your news sources in many ways and I’m not just talking about race (this means you, CNN devotees!).
White people: shut up and listen. Recognize your privilege. Yes, you have privilege.
Recognize that dismantling racism is a work of redemption. It will take grace. It will take patience. It will take raw honesty. It will take vulnerability. It will take courage. It will take everything you have.
Refrain: We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons
And that which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me
To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can shed some light as they carry us through the gale
The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hand of the young who dare to run against the storm
Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be just one in the number as we stand against tyranny
Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot I come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survive
I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At time I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word