I like to think of myself as a pretty enlightened, 21st century kind of guy. I was raised by liberal parents in a relatively multicultural environment where I was encouraged to view my experience as a middle-class white male as a privilege not everybody shares.
When I attended the 2.5-day Understanding & Analyzing Systemic Racism Workshop offered by ERACCE in September, I went in with an open mind but not expecting to learn much that would shake up my world view. I am well aware that racism exists in the U.S., that we have a long history of oppression we have yet to overcome, and that the work is slow and complicated. However, I did take away three important lessons.
Racism is ugly. Talking about racism can be even uglier. And that’s okay. It’s natural to either shut down or become defensive in situations that make us uncomfortable. The solution isn’t to push that discomfort away and pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s better to acknowledge the discomfort and work through it.
For example, during the training people were encouraged to share their own stories of how they’ve experience racism. That was really uncomfortable for me to sit through. My instinct was to defend myself— to say, “Sure, bad things have happened to you but I’m not oppressing anyone.” That’s not a constructive response. It’s more important to accept other people’s experiences at face value than to argue against them.
We Are Not All The Same
No two people’s experiences are identical. I know it sounds obvious, but the way it struck me came as kind of a surprise. We were (again) discussing our own individual experiences with racism. A 30-something white woman was telling us about her upbringing and relating it to the experience of middle-class, white Americans in general. But I didn’t see myself in her generality.
When generalizing groups of people, we make a lot of assumptions. That can be useful when talking about broad societal problems, but we have to remember that those generalities don’t work when you get down to the personal level.
Case in point, another young woman told us she hadn’t faced much racism in her own life. Based on her dark skin tone and the way she was dressed, I assumed she would have faced lots of racism in her life.
The Solution is in the Process
Lastly, I learned that we aren’t close to solving this problem of systemic racism in America. And that’s okay too. We have a lot of work left to do. But part of solving the problem is actually within the process of solving the problem. Does that make any sense?
Much of the two-and-a-half days we were together at the workshop was spent in earnest discussion. We talked about our own experiences. We listened to others’ stories. We dissected and re-imagined a myriad of social institutions and situations.
I think that’s part of the solution. There may not be a structured, simple solution that we just need to identify and then enact. We can do an awful lot to help solve the problem of racism by just talking and listening.