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.

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 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.

 

Lullaby for Baltimore

A year ago, I wrote this as we mourned for the pain of our city. A year later, she stirs, wakes, begins to rise.

Tonight, my children are sleeping, but from my roof I can see buildings burning. My children are sleeping, but I can hear the constant hum of helicopters and whine of sirens.

Still…my children sleep.

Other mothers in this city do not know where their children are.

Other mothers had to leave their houses, leave work, leave safety and plunge into the unknown to retrieve their children. They had to worry whether their children would make it home safe on the public busses that shut down and stranded students all over the city. Other mothers live near those burning buildings.

Other mothers have already lost their children.

Tonight before bed we talked to Grandma and Grampa, we played dress-up, we brushed teeth, put on pajamas, picked out stories. Ivy picked out Do Princesses wear hiking boots? Kip picked Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-a-zoo.

I needed a story, too.

I chose He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, by Kadir Nelson. I used to sing this book to my children every night. It was a gift for their Baptism. The Inscription from their Uncle Ben and Aunt Sarah reads, “Dear Kip and Ivy, on the occasion of your baptism, we are reminded that you are indeed in good hands, large and small. All our love…”

This beautiful book…

These beautiful children…

This beautiful city…

Yes. Beautiful.

Make no mistake, she will rise. Do not judge her by the color of her flames, but the content of her character.

Her story will unfold not in the destruction of the night but in the creation of the days and weeks and months and years to come as we plunge into the unknown searching for her, determined to bring her home, bind up her wounds, hold her close, whisper prayers in the dark as she rests.

She is in our hands.

Sleep, my love.

Sleep.

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.

I to Lance, America

The first black boy I ever looked in the eyes was already in prison.

He was 19. I was 21.

We sat across from one another, a foot between us, eyes closed, as the facilitator gave us the following instructions:

“Decide who is A and who is B.”

“This exercise will be done in silence. No talking, no laughing, no touching, no smiling or other facial gestures.”

 “A, keep your eyes closed throughout the next part. Your partner will be looking at you. Now B, open your eyes …”

I open my eyes and study the young man before me. With his eyes closed, he looks more like a boy then a man. Light brown skin, medium height. Handsome.

“Look at this person in front of you, who has the same desire you have to feel good and safe and loved, who has your same will to survive … the same desire you do to make sense of his or her life … Take this rare opportunity to look at this person without embarrassment …”

We are in a Minnesota correctional facility. I am here volunteering. He is not. I am a Senior at Carleton College, a semester from graduation. But this program has created a space where we can, for a moment, feel our true equality.

Look into his/her face; you may see clues that reveal traces of sadness, hope, fear, loss … like having loved someone who died, or left … We’ve all experienced these things, so find it in your partner’s face … Then realize that it’s in your face too … and it’s all right … See all the common experiences you share … of being hurt, of being lonely … of feeling shame, of being scared, of feeling worthless, of praying for help … of feeling guilty and ashamed, of looking for some kind of relief, some kind of peace … moments of joy, pride, satisfaction, and of the yearning we all have to love and be loved.”

We are both participating in an organization called the “Alternatives to Violence Project” (AVP). This organization was founded in the 1970’s through a collaboration between the Quakers and inmates at Greenhaven Prison in New York. The inmates there were, “ concerned with the ‘revolving door’ they clearly saw in their institution. Youth were appearing in prison for fairly minor offenses, only to return (sometimes multiple times) for increasingly more serious and violent crimes.” They were desperate to try something different. Their lives had been characterized by violence. They longed for peace. So they asked themselves who knew how to make peace…the answer was the Quakers.

See that your partner is like you … and appreciate that s/he trusts you enough to let you look at him/her while his/ her eyes are closed … What a gift! And realize that s/he can trust you — and you can trust him/her, because you see how much the same life is for both of you…

One of the most profoundly surprising things about AVP is the egalitarian power structure. One might assume that the instructors and facilitators of the program are the volunteers who have come into the prison to offer advice or guidance, that the students and participants in the program are the inmates. But I sit across from my partner as his equal. He may teach me. I may teach him.

… At a real level you know this person … s/he’s just like you … So allow your heart to soften and your compassion to grow as you recognize these things in your partner.”

For whatever reason, my partner and I shared an immediate affinity for one another from the onset of this two day seminar. So when we moved into this exercise called “Human to Human,” there was no question that we would choose each other as partners. Move through this powerful experience together.

“Now B, I want you to give your partner the greatest gift you can give him or her: I want you to keep looking at him or her, with total understanding … total forgiveness, total compassion for all that s/he’s experienced … for anything s/he could reveal to you … Whatever stupid, violent, ugly, shameful, crazy thing you could find out about him/her. You understand, don’t you? … Show him or her you understand through the power of that divine love in your eyes … Allow that compassion to beam from your eyes so that you’re bathing him/her in love … You don’t have to “try” to do anything; just relax and get your ego out of the way and let divine love shine through your eyes.”

I’m a crier. This has always been. When I was a child it was a source of constant embarrassment and vulnerability that I couldn’t hide the hurt of every slight, couldn’t hide the compassion for every creature. So now, as a grown woman, I sit across from this young man with tears in my eyes. It’s not pity. It’s love. Love for him. Love for humanity. Mourning, perhaps, the circumstances that divide our lives.

“Now A. what I want you to do now … before you open your eyes, is to bring to mind those things in your life that you want to let go of … all your burdens … your loneliness, pain, shame, fears, hopelessness, weariness, your secrets … all of it … Be prepared to let them all go. Because you can do that …

 Now. I want you to open your eyes and look straight into the eyes of love across from you …

 My partner, I suspect, is not a crier. But as we are given permission to see each other, gaze at each other, love each other unfettered, if only for a moment, he too begins to fight the tears that will betray his own vulnerability. I see him swallowing his emotions.

 Receive the compassion, understanding and forgiveness that are there … You can let go of those burdens now … all your pain and shame and secrets … Surrender it all into the eyes of love … Let it all go. Your partner understands … S/he really does … You can allow him/her to see the real you … maybe more than you’ve ever allowed yourself to be seen by anyone …maybe for the first time … Because it’s OK.”

I feel compelled to do all things we’ve been trained to do in the face of pain. Smile. Reach out. Look away. But I don’t do any of these things. Neither does he. We have committed to face our humanity in this moment, and neither of us break. Together we are courageous.

After the experience, we are allowed some time to process, but we both struggle to know what to say.

“When you looked at me…” my partner begins, but doesn’t finish. The question is implied.

Did we mean it? Was it real? Did it matter?

“Now, both of you close your eyes. We’re going to switch roles.”

Were it that easy.

After this experience, I walk out of the prison back to my life. My partner does not. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be my last AVP experience. I intended to do more. Intended to come back. But I had friends to tend to. Classes to finish.  Life offered me other paths. My degree opened other doors and opportunities.

He remains behind. He is my equal, his life as valuable, but our constraints cannot be exchanged.

I have thought of him often. Could never forget his face. His eyes. Somewhere along the way, though, I forgot his name.

It was not until this winter, in the wake of Ferguson, that a powerful compulsion came over me to remember his name. To tell this story. To tell mine. Because our story is not our own. Somehow, ours is America’s story. America’s Incident. America’s Tableau.

“Now, for just a minute. sit and just look into each other’s eyes, with no games, no pretense, no power trips, no staring competitions, no roles at all … without your act, your front, your present. Don’t smile or make any other facial gestures. You can relax and just be you and just human beings on the path, who have recognized each other.

I began pouring through my journals from college. Certain that somewhere within them I would find this young man who I carried with me. As I read various entries, I moved through this potent time in my life of deep loves, deep thinking, deep failings. I brought these journals with me over winter break.

One night I could not sleep. I left the warmth of my bed and in the darkness of my Great Aunt’s farmhouse, I once again delved into the past looking for that moment. Searching for him…and then, there he was. I found him.

Lance.

“Before you close your eyes again, give each other some nonverbal expression in appreciation for what you have just experienced together. “Now close your eyes. Feel that experience you just had. That deep sense of your common humanity. of the goodness that’s there in each one of us …”

I close my eyes and weep again. Lance. I’d found him again. Found his name. Loved his name.

Immediately the power of it struck me.

Lance: An instrument of attack. A method of healing.

America’s story. Our story.

Like the trust lift and the trust leap, this exercise calls for a huge amount of trust and community feeling in order to succeed. If the group has not built up that kind of environment, it will be uncomfortable to say the least, even traumatizing perhaps and probably should not be done. Since the exercise can be very powerful for people, we often schedule a break right afterward so they can have some silent processing. After the break, re-gather with a sharing about their experience of the exercise.

His name may be a symbol, but he is a man. A real man. I don’t know where he is. Don’t know where his life took him after that experience. I wish, though, he knew I carried him with me. Into Baltimore. Into St. Frances Academy. Into public schooling. Into diversity training. Into a degree in conflict resolution. Into Kibera Slum in Nairobi Kenya. Into parenthood. Into this moment.

America needs all her children.

Needs us to face ourselves.

Needs us to sit across from each other,

eyes closed,

then eyes opened.

Did we mean it? Was it real? Did it matter?

Lance.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

“Human to Human”

Purpose: To have an experience of Transforming Power, of our common humanity, and of the goodness within each of us. To experience empathy and trust. To learn to see self and others more clearly, beyond the masks.

Time: 30 to 40 minutes.

Materials: None.

(“Human to Human” Taken from AVP Manual for Second Level Course)