Circumstantial Racist

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.

 I fled the scene of my first teaching job in Baltimore City, accused of being a racist by the principal.

Those of you who know me now may find this surprising.

YOU??!!

Global Citizenship teacher?
Muslim student association sponsor?
Diversity conference planner?
Multi-cultural education trainer?
Restorative Justice facilitator?

You?!

For you who know this intercultural work that I’m always deep in the thick of, you may see this accusation of racism as proof that no matter what a white person does in contexts of color, they will almost inevitably be accused of racism.

But for others…particularly people of color, you will likely be asking a different question:

Well….were you? Racist?

My answer may surprise you.

How could I not be?

Born in the Ozark foothills, raised in a transition zone between rural and suburban, liberal arts educated in Garrison Keillor country in the upper-Midwest, the first time I lived in an area that was not disproportionately white was when I moved to Baltimore after college.

In my first teaching position I worked across the street from central booking, caddy corner to a cemetery, surrounded by infamous drug corners captured by The Wire, and cast in the very real flashing blue lights of police cameras.

Now how in is any 23 year old white girl supposed to make sense of all that? How likely is it that most 23 year olds regardless of color can have the historical, political, social, economic, spiritual perspective to understand the causes and consequences of such a stark human reality?

So…was it true? Was I racist?

Of course I was.

But not on purpose.

I was not raised in a context of deliberate and cultivated bigotry. I was raised in a compassionate Christian household where, above all, my mom insisted our faith was rooted in caring for the most vulnerable in our community. She was a champion for children. She hated bullies and would confront them in schools, church suppers, and super-market aisles. Despite the socially conservative constraints of the Bible Belt, she was bold enough in 1988 to reject the callousness of trickle down solutions and vote for Dukakis.

Her 8 year old staunchly republican daughter was appalled.

Her 36 year old progressive daughter couldn’t be more grateful.

No, my racism was not by personal design. It was by systemic proximity (or more precisely a lack there of) from neighbors who’s narratives could disrupt the mass media education I was getting from Law and Order and the nightly news.

Structural racism does not just keep people of color out. It keeps people of the pale in.

We move through an insulated existence where there IS such a thing as normal. Where there ARE absolute answers. Where you CAN trust authority.

And then at some point we come to the edge of our enclave. With our gaze off in the distance on our endless horizons, we step off the curb we didn’t expect into a pothole we didn’t see, twist our ankle, and collapse in the middle of oncoming traffic.

You want to know why white girls are always crying?

We weren’t raised not to.

And now we (overly) protected lily-white children have wandered into a world full of struggle our communities gated us from seeing.

3 years ago I took a group of public high school students on a study abroad trip to rural England. It was a group that reflected the diversity of their school and country from skin tone to head-covering.

During the day, they visited schools in pastoral settings. At night we would cook together in the kitchen where we would process the discoveries of the day. Many of their conversations with their British peers circled around race and culture.

When Miles told yet another story about yet another English kid comparing him to yet another black celebrity he looked nothing like, he laughed and said…

“You have NO idea how racist you sound.”

As we washed dishes together I asked. “Why do you think it feels so different to you to talk about race here? Why doesn’t their ignorance offend in the same way it would back home?”

After a few jokes about all the things that sound better with a British accent, Chloe was quick to put her finger on the difference.

“If you don’t know about race in America, you just haven’t been paying attention.”

These kids in North Yorkshire growing up amidst sheep farms, they were nestled snug in their culture. Where would they have ever had a chance to make friends with a black kid who could call them a racist?

I could identify. I grew up around sheep with Midwestern drawls. None of them black.

But unlike my planned community of the past or the physical spaces of the present, the virtual spaces most of us occupy today are NOT gated in the same way. There’s no way to not pay attention…unless you’re averting your eyes.

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.

Don’t flee the scene. We must bear witness. And then we must decide whether to aid and abet or become first responders.

Despite the risks.

The wounds are deep. So is the fear.

Apply pressure.

Hold.

 

Patchwork History (Lest we forget)

Become enfolded in Black History with “Emancipation Revisited” at the Chesapeake Arts Center

This Saturday, Feburary 20th at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Glen Burnie, Maryland, a coalition of Black Churches called the North Arundel Cultural Preservation Society (NACPS) will put on an original play entitled “Emancipation Revisited: Lest We Forget.”

Months ago I met some of the members of the NACPS at the Bates Legacy Center. Surrounded by quilted History, pieced together by hands around the county and state, the story of these women, these churches, this play began to unfold and enfold me.

quilt

Since moving to Baltimore over a decade ago, my life has become increasingly interwoven with Black Lives and Black Matters. Over the last two years especially…I feel this tapestry interlocking with fragments of my own. I am invited deeper into spaces of trust and love…and pain and struggle. Students’ stories. Colleagues’ stories. Friends’ stories. Maryland’s stories. America’s stories.

Stitched Together.

Painstakingly.

I am humbled. I fall silent.

So much work to be done. So many stitches left. But with these hands?

Soft. White.Trembling.

Because this fabric is hallowed, the pattern unfolding, the lighting dim, my stitches are halting. Despite my ineptitude, I believe in this circle, am consoled by the hands that grasp mine.

I am not yet the person I need to be to tell the stories of these encounters. My voice is not strong enough to honor these odysseys.

And anyway… the stories are not mine to tell. Perhaps, when “my” story and “your” story become “our”story, perhaps then it will be time.

Until my words can catch up, I will let my stitches speak louder.

I have come to believe that the only meaningful change that happens in our world occurs through deepening relationships. So even as I labor over this short post, this tiny patch, know that the place I have decided to weave my deepest efforts is not here.

It’s out there.

With you.

Until the day we are truly “we”.

(Lest we forget.)

Owed to Chloe…

America meets in the classroom. We need cultural diplomats like Chloe who serve as a bridge between.

Ain’t no mountain high enough to sing the praises of my girl, Chloe. As a tiny tribute to the way she has let her light (and our lights) shine, I wanted to make visible the often invisible act of the recommendation letter. 

This is about her…but its also about us, America.

This song of praise.

This song of freedom.

I am writing in support of Chloe Hill’s application for your scholarship. I can say with utter certainty, Chloe has done more to shape me as a teacher and as a person than any other student I have ever encountered. She is a compassionate, deep thinking, and justice minded human being.

Justice Minded Human Being
Justice Minded Human Being

Over the last four years, Chloe has been an integral part of a Signature Program at our school entitled “Community Development and Global Citizenship.” This program is open to all students who attend our school. Chloe opted in early and will be a part of the first graduating cohort of Signature students.  Even more importantly, though, is that through her participation she has shaped this program for all students who will come after it.

To illustrate how and why, I need to tell you two stories. One is a story of collective transformation. The other is a story of personal transformation.

With mentor and spiritual sister Katara West.
With mentor and spiritual sister Katara West.

Leadership II is a required course for students in their Junior year of the Signature Program. This collaborative class allows students to create projects that benefit their local and global communities. Chloe’s project, “Growing Global” was aimed at teaching elementary school students about empathy and cultural awareness. How can students work together on projects, though, if they don’t trust each other? It wasn’t long in this seating-chart-free class before a pattern began to emerge: Self-segregation. Black students on one side. White students on the other. Only a smattering of outliers as the bridge between.

Having taught in public schools for a decade I have come to realize that schools reflect the schisms of the societies in which they are embedded. I usually see it as my role to help students see this pattern, question it, understand it, and decide how they should act to address it. For the first time, though, I watched as the students within the class began to navigate this journey naturally on their own. One person at the center of this social evolution was Chloe Hill.

Chloe and #Squad

A day that students now simply refer to as “the class” began with an impromptu spoken word performance. Students having memorized poetry for English classes began to recite for the Leadership class. Quickly, other students began to recite other works. Then came Chloe with a piece that addressed the systemic inequalities of tracking students into segregated AP classes. Though it has been written by another student in another state, its resonance in our class was immediate. What ensued was a breakthrough moment where students of all colors began to confess long held family prejudices disrupted by the relationships in the class.  They asked questions of one another related to their experience of race in America.

Students looked at each other not with judgment but genuine compassion…and none of it would have ever happened without Chloe. The ripple effect of that class has effected the trajectory of ALL who witnessed it. There were students who changed career paths. Students who changed political parties. Students who began to believe that ignorance is not inevitable. Students who began to trust one another in a new way. Students who began to hope for more in their class…and their country.

“I didn’t say it would be funny…”

On another day, months later, Chloe and I were reviewing for an AP HUG exam. We stood in front of a hanging wall map of America and spoke about where we’d visited, where we had family, what regions of our country were calling to us.

“I’ve always felt drawn to the South,” Chloe said.

I had a different confession.

“I’m scared of the South.”

Chloe was surprised…so was I. I had never named this fear before. Didn’t realize it was there. Began to examine it.

It wasn’t until this conversation with Chloe that I realized my aversion to the South was about the racism that I feared would bowl me over. I went on to explain that I wasn’t afraid of the black people, but the white people of the South.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t afraid of “them out there” I was afraid of “me in here.” I was afraid of my own part being from a privileged class. I didn’t think I was strong enough to face the history of cruelty and oppression that the South has come to symbolize.

But standing in front of America, arms linked with Chloe’s, I was suddenly emboldened…

“I’m scared of the South…but I’d go there with you.”

And I will. To visit her at Bennett. To visit her classmates in Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi. I will go south to face America. To face myself.

Right on Time

This is Chloe’s power. She somehow makes us face that which we fear and emboldens us to move towards it, not alone, but in community. With conviction. With the knowledge that we are braver together.

America meets in the classroom. Chloe has been a vital part in helping her fellow students…and her teachers not just BRACE for this meeting but EMBRACE it.  Chloe is a bridge between. She stands between divides of race, gender identity, and generations. She is a cultural diplomat who has a rare ability to question systems of inequality while compassionately confessing her own fears and vulnerabilities.

Meeting America

I feel truly privileged to have had Chloe as a student and whatever influence I may have had in her life, she has and will continue to shape the trajectory of mine.  America needs the lessons and leadership that students like Chloe offer. I have no doubt that just as she has challenged her classmates to face the social divides that keep us a part, she will do this for all the classes, communities, and countries of which she is a part.

I would happily answer any other questions you have about this remarkable person.