Whose Responsibility Is It to Teach about Racial Oppression?
The labor is heavy but "nothing about us without us is for us."
Last time I wrote about how I had to intentionally learn how to distinguish white people from one another. This is a continuation of that story. Please read part 1 of this story here.
Fast forward to 2014 when I was in seminary.
Another friend, Carolyn, also a beautiful young thirty-something African American woman, was telling me how exhausted she was about white people demanding (very nicely) that she educate them on yet another “Black issue” like an incident in the media about Starbucks or something equally offensive.
Sidebar: Carolyn is smart as heck. Y’all, she is a bioethicist (I bow!) with a great job that she loves.
She works with mostly white Americans and each day, someone comes up, oozing with sincerity and good intentions and asks her questions that make her feel she is behind the thick Plexiglas of a laboratory, being observed for a modern-day version of a freakish Frankenstein experiment.
Or that she is the spokesperson for that well-known monolith called "Black people."
She said, “Everyday, they look at me with fascination in their eyes and ask me questions like ‘are those twists or braids in your hair,’ ‘hey, I was listening to Kanye on my way this morning. Do you like his music?’”
She went on with a series of endless agonizing questions and finally said, “I am exhausted, and it is not my job to educate white people about being Black. It is not my damn job! I am sick of this!”
I did not really get it. But her hurt and frustration was real.
I said, “What brought this on?”
She said, “I was asked to head a diversity charge for my company even though that is not my area of expertise. Why do they think I know everything about being Black?”
I paused and looked puzzled. I said, “But if Black people do not take the time to educate and respond to sincere and genuine curiosity in order to bridge differences, what will happen?”
I thought that was the sweetest way possible to point out the absurdity of her statement. After all, the requests are done in good taste and are genuine attempts to bridge gaps that exist.
She lunged into a soliloquy: “You came to this country when you were 16. Who showed you the ropes? You had to learn it by osmosis. You had to adapt because you had no choice. You recognized that if you did not adapt, you would drown. Nobody taught me how to navigate this white world that I must live in. I go to work, and I have to figure out what a micro-aggression feels like in my gut, wondering if I am reading too much into a benign statement,” she said as she clutched her stomach.
“I must be 10 steps ahead of my peers to keep up with them because they instinctively know the system. I don’t trust anyone. No one looks out for me on my job. I asked to be mentored and I get blown off. No one is interested in my application for PhD programs. Why should I have to teach ‘them’ how to talk to me, why my hair care is different, why I like a certain kind of music, why I provide for my mother, why I may choose to have a child without getting married since there are too many black men in prison, and I do not want to opportunity to pass me by, or why police brutality is a treat to my own brother who is a straight A student? Why should I be the one to answer these questions? So, yeah, tell me, who showed you the ropes?”
My brain pinged at recognition of that very American thing of competition - sink or swim, you are on your own! I felt her aloneness. I felt her lack of support. I felt her isolation. I felt that pain in her stomach that she was still clutching. She was enraged.
And I don’t blame her.
I recounted to her the story of TV watching in my dorm room at age 16. That “true friend,” the angel whom I call Angela, (read that excerpt here) who took an hour a day of her own precious life to walk me through Days of Our Lives, and is literally the only person I can think of who took the time to explain to me anything about how to navigate white American culture. She helped me decipher the code of why all white people looked the same to my fresh eyes. Just because I had a white mother did not mean I understood how to navigate this majority white culture.
I was clueless.
Angela instinctively understood community and interdependence. She also knew what it felt like to be “othered.” She was born into privilege and had travelled to various far-flung places on the planet with her parents and wanted to support my transition. She was committed to being a support system and a cultural broker for me.
Carolyn went on to discuss how the beginning point of any process of educating the white people she interacted with was so low that she felt she was a kindergarten teacher talking to two year olds.
She said, “If you really want to know about me, why do you know absolutely nothing about my social cultural context?” She went on to express the deep dissatisfaction of embracing, and responding lovingly, to a curiosity that so focused on superficiality and not the depth of personhood, her relationship to her community and her place in the larger context of the world.
She talked about how she felt like a subject studied in a classroom in these conversations. She likened it to feeling like she was being observed like when we watch with fascination the naughty nature of pandas in those adorable 3-minute clips on Facebook. She said, “I just want to be known and seen for who I am: A complex living breathing expression of life. Not an object of fascination.”
She went on to say, “When I think about my contribution to the world, and the contributions of my ancestors to build this country, to make this the greatest country in the world, and you treat me as if I am a fascinating panda up to some crazy shenanigans on Facebook, I feel a deep rage.”
We talked about how that rage was from a deep place of a human needing to be humanized in their community. Anger relates to a person’s individual emotions. Rage on the other hand, is collective. It is about justice. Carolyn’s rage was born of collective anger and grief. It represents the generations of trauma that Black bodies in America have endured and it seems like it will not end.
She concluded with, “Do you know how, once, I would like to meet the eyes of a white person and they look me in the eye and my gut sees respect, mutuality, and acknowledgement? Do you know how many times I feel as if a person is barely seeing me and just looking right through me and past me? And you want me to educate that person about my Blackness? No, thank you.”
I will never forget her next words. She said vehemently:
"I will never try and convince anyone of my humanity as that is the one sure way I become responsible for dehumanizing my own self. Hell naw!"
I was silenced by the truth of her reality, yet I could relate.
I remember when I was 16 and I would smile at my dorm mates or school mates in college as we walked down the path to classes. I noticed their gaze would settle somewhere slightly north of the highest strand of hair sticking out over my head. I remember the day I was able to label that sinking, raw feeling in the belly of my tummy to that unseeing gaze as I realized that I sensed an unseeness in response to the eyes of that person. I remember the feeling of invisibility. My own social context of being a privileged transplant and the child of an amazing mother who just happened to be white, generated feelings of sadness and isolation for me. Not rage.
I felt an exhaustion born of the futility of reason when encountering the unreasonableness of talking about race in this country. I felt her own weariness.
I walked away from that conversation with Carolyn thinking about the angel called Angela, that dorm mate in 1981, who taught me how to “see” white people so I could honor their individual dignity and humanity and not see a blur of sameness. I am so grateful for the saint that opened my eyes. My life is richer for it.
However, that was not her job. It was grace that let her “see” me so I could “see” others. I am grateful for Angela.
If we want a society where we deconstruct the abuses of power and value our interdependence as a multicultural society, we must learn how to appreciate the learning process of learning about the reality of racism.
Well, there is an unlearning as well - an unlearning of erroneous learnings.
Whose responsibility is it to teach white people about race, racism, white supremacy culture and oppression?
Do we asked women who are raped to educate rapists on how bad rape is? No. We would never do that. We understand that it is not “the victim’s” (not that Black folk are victims but Black bodies are oppressed, ok?) responsibility to educate their oppressor, right?
Yet, "Nothing About Us Without Us Is For Us" is a term used to communicate the idea that no policy should be decided by any representative without the full and direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy. Today, this often involves national, ethnic, disability-based, or other groups that are often marginalized from political, social, and economic opportunities. It is a social justice war cry. This particular term is based on slogan popularized by South African disability rights and youth activists.
Frankly, the global majority does not trust white people to do their work and “fix” the problem of racism and inequity and they want to be part of the healing, problem solving and activism that is required to make cultural changes.
If you do not understand the rage of African Americans and other Black folks in the US, then you have missed a big part of the “unlearning.” And it would be wise to learn when to leave folks alone who are “processing” and are not ready for your “gestures of kindness.” More about this rage on the podcast.
Dear Reader, whose responsibility do you think it is to teach about racism? Especially if you are a white bodied person, whose responsibility is it to teach “YOU” about racism? How do you seek out those teachers and healers?
Tell me what resonated with you in this story. Thank you.