Yes, it is Awkward to Learn about Race! Yes!
I did not know what I did not know but it was so worth it.
Friends, you have not gotten a writing piece and podcast for a couple of reasons. I did not schedule them although they were prepared (ha!) and I got too busy to realize this happened. I will make up for that this week. So do not be surprised by multiple emails this week. I will spread them out. Thanks.
Part of why I do this work is that I feel deeply in touch with my own awkwardness when I encountered the newness of learning about racism. And I still learn new things about this stuff every day! Coming from Africa, I was well versed on apartheid in South Africa and colonization in my home country. I thought I knew everything that I needed to know. I thought racism was pretty much over because of the civil rights movement. I had already read books about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. And I had even watched, "Roots." But I was sadly mistaken.
If we want a society where we deconstruct 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. And there is an unlearning as well - an unlearning of erroneous learnings
And the fact is that although black people are dying, and white people may not be acting but instead choose to learn about racism - it is a luxury to learn about racism. I do believe in the learning part. It is critical. It is necessary. We have to learn before we act, if possible. That way, our actions are informed by the reality of racism.
Dive in and read about how I learned to distinguish white people from one another. Yeah.
When I first came to this country, one of the major hurdles that I had to overcome initially was that all white people looked alike if I did not know them personally. I could not distinguish one from each other. Everyone, from the deeper olive toned skin of Italians to the Nordic Scandinavian palest skin, all morphed into one collective in my mind as “white people.” This meant that if you were non-Black, you were white, one seamless collective that was the majority and held the power, history and prevailing values of this, the greatest country on the planet! I was totally oblivious to my naïveté. I even thought of brown skinned folks like East Indians and Hispanic Americans as non-white but close to white and from a different part of the world: International.
After a few weeks at Goucher College, I made friends with a woman in my dorm, a lovely African American twenty-something named Angela. She saw how I struggled with names and faces with other women in the dorm and she decided to help me out. She sat me down in the dorm rec room and made me watch the soap opera, “All my Children.”
First, I could not even understand the concept of a soap opera. Then, she explained who Erica was and her various husbands (shocking!!!) Then, she tried to get me to follow the story line. I figured if I could conquer understanding this immense anomaly, I could do anything in America. Since we could only talk during the ads, she would painstakingly weave together the different facets of the story line for me and patiently answered all my ignorant questions. No Tivo back then! I started taking notes and leaning into the TV intently, somewhere deep inside of me, knowing that this cultural learning moment, held the key to my future.
I would get the actors and actresses confused as they all looked alike, and Angela embodied the patience of the biblical Job as she would describe a “bob” haircut as opposed to a “pixie” haircut. What were “bangs?” Duh! The most confusing was “curly” hair. What she called curly was straight to my eye. Curly, to me, meant thick, coils, and tight, the norm for African hair. Big waves of curls on 18-inch hair? Straight to me! Ok? Teaching nuance is an art reserved only for those endowed with spiritual gifts. Angela was well endowed.
I did not know the difference between dirty blonde, brunette, blond, ash blond, brown or dark haired. Maybe I could tell a red head. Maybe. They were just all “white people.” Tall was anything above 5 feet 8 inches. “Skinny” was even worse. I was not used to people being described by their body size. What is the difference between “robust,” “slender,” “skinny,” or “slim?” That looks all the same to my eyes. At home, we describe people as tall, short, fat (not slim), young, old, and add their tribe to the description.
But, Hallelujah, I could tell men and women apart. That part was fine. Everything else, was a blur. I felt stupid. I felt like a fish out of her natural habitat of water. But I was determined to grow lungs and suck air.
And suck air I did.
I did not grow up with the visible absorption of a diversity of white people all around me all day long. The reticular activation system in my brain was attuned to dark African skin. Not white skin. It took intentionality and focus to retrain my brain to recognize and differentiate among these new people around me.
It was hard but I had to do this to survive. Within a few months, faces came into focus and sharpened as I gained language and sight to tell white people apart.
Learning the culture was another aspect of my learning. It was a steep learning curve to understand how deep individualism functioned for a 16 year old who came from a communal culture.
Food was another difficulty. I thrived on spicy foods and the food was so incredibly bland that I could barely swallow it. How people interacted with one another was different. And snow! I still do not understand solid flakes falling from the sky. Prior to my stay in this country, I am sure I had ever experienced anything below 60 degrees.
At 16, my still developing brain was taking all this in and shifting gears to ensure that I survived in this place of my mother's home.
I have empathy today when white people cannot tell Black people apart. I get it. Your brain does not see and process the varieties that exist among non-white people. Yet it is probably one of the most offensive things that a white person can do: Call one Black person the name of another Black person.
This form of “mistaken identity” is exacerbated by the fact that Black, Brown, Indigenous and all People of Color have been rendered invisible and less valuable in Western civilization.
So tell me, have you had a hard time telling folks apart? What does your brain do when you become immersed in a visual experience of people who do not look like you? Seriously. Share. I put myself out there - that is your invitation to do the same. No shame in these parts. And thank you!