One night back when I was about 14, my father sat on our sofa, the yellow pages on the coffee table open to the letter A. He told us that he was an alcoholic and that he would be attending AA meetings.
My memory of that night, the first night of my father’s sobriety, is that even my mother questioned his decision. I haven’t checked in with her lately to see if her memory matches mine, but I know I was doubtful.
I knew what an alcoholic was. An alcoholic was someone passed out on the sofa with empty vodka bottles on the carpet. My father didn’t drink vodka. He drank beer. Not even at home, not usually. An alcoholic was someone who missed work because of hangovers. My father never missed work. An alcoholic was someone who showed up late to school functions stinking of booze and yelling sloppily at the principal. My father showed up on time everywhere he went. Well, except for that one Halloween. And those dinners when we’d start without him so the mashed potatoes wouldn’t get cold.
“You’re not an alcoholic, Dad.” I remember saying.
But he insisted he was. And he quit drinking, and our lives improved substantially. Clearly, I didn’t understand the breadth of what being an alcoholic means.
This past week, I realized that I neither trust myself, nor any white people, to understand the breadth of what being a racist means.
Now, if you just read that sentence and feel defensive about it, I ask you to hear me again. I’m telling you something about myself. I will repeat it: I do not trust myself to know what “racism” means. Nor do I trust you, if you are white, to know what “racism” means. If you are white, you might be able to convince me you know; perhaps if your name is Tim Wise, and you wrote an essay like this, or if your name is Kristen Howerton, and you wrote an essay like this. Or if you are Peggy McIntosh, and you gave a lecture like this. But I won’t start out trusting you. Just like I don’t trust myself.
Early last week, an argument erupted between my Facebook friends in the form of comments to this:
People wrote judging the looters and judging Michael Brown. I was confounded. I don’t see any looters in this photo. I don’t see Michael Brown in this photo. I don’t mean to be obtuse, but I wondered: what about my support of a political statement made by black men incited my Facebook community to want to speak out against looters and Michael Brown? Why did those few friends at Facebook feel compelled to defend the St. Louis County grand jury when they could have simply ignored me?
Why was there a magnifying glass up close and limited to the 2014 events of Ferguson instead of a compassionate acknowledgment of the history of racial injustice in the U.S.?
Busy with the workweek, I attempted (unsuccessfully) to observe rather than participate. My intention had already been posted: solidarity with the Rams who had made a statement I found inspiring. Eventually, I took the thread down because people were using it to toss hateful memes at each other. One in particular pushed me over the edge. It used images of Michael Brown’s family. I hid it as soon as I saw it. I hid it because it was dominated by code phrases like: “never married” and “never had…two real parents” and “need to rebuild real, solid family units and values.” The level of contempt it portrayed enraged me.
After I calmed down, I felt critical of myself for the rage because its existence–my anger over a meme–shows how very sheltered and protected I am. I decided then that I needed to write about this.
But more importantly, I realized that I need to read about this. My unearned advantage of everything I have by living in white skin blinds me to what I need to know about this.
I need to be quiet and listen to black scholars and black writers and black activists.
I started by watching this talk by Vernā Meyers.
I learned the phrase “contaminated culture.” Our collective history steeps us all in the muck of racist thought habits. There’s no Silkwood shower I can take to scour the biases and stereotypes from my mind. A quick fix doesn’t exist. I have to seek new ways of thinking.
I began making lists of people to follow on Twitter, lists of essays to read. Essays like this:
and, how wonderful to live in the internet age because I encountered flyers like this to help me learn about more teachers:
By midweek, I reposted my support for the Rams’ demonstration at Facebook with an admittedly defensive statement, “Let’s try this again. I, Ruth LeFaive, show solidarity with these men performing this action. This is not up for debate. My FB timeline is not a democracy. And today, my FB timeline is not a forum for argument. I’m not asking you to agree with me; I will delete any hateful comments from this thread.”
One of the subsequent comments included these words from a white man, “Why would you want to support an action that only serves to promote ignorance and –”
‘Only’. Did you catch that? I’ve chosen not to quote the whole question* here because it is based in fallacy, in mistaken belief. I wondered then and I wonder now: Why would his first response to me be critical of the Rams’ action? And why did he feel the need to try and challenge my support? And again, the very fact that this surprised me–upset me–is proof of my white privilege, proof of the way I’ve been sheltered my whole life.
As frustrating as it was to have multiple rounds of misunderstanding looping through my social media microcosm, I was well aware of the fact that I was participating by choice, and that, by nature of being white, focusing on race was, and is almost always, optional for me.
My heart breaks for Eric Garner and his family. And my heart breaks for Michael Brown and his family. And my heart breaks for the thousands of black men and women in the for-profit prison complex in the U.S.
But hopefully the status quo is shifting. I want to do my part. I believe that starts with gaining an awareness of my own biases. Hi, I’m Ruth and I’m a racist.
I’ve been invigorated seeing Twitter alive with images of the protests this week. I’m inspired by the people taking to the streets, by the new generation of black activists leading the way. I will watch their speeches. I will read their essays. I will follow.
Additional Recommended Viewing / Reading:
*At the suggestion of the man who asked the question only partially quoted above, I am including his full comment which originally appeared at Facebook.
“Ruth, I understand the sentiment behind your words. Unfortunately this hands-up gesture perpetuates an inaccuracy promoted through the media which had been refuted by eyewitness testimony. Why would you want to support an action that only serves to promote ignorance and increase racial tensions? If truth with [sic] set you free, doesn’t ignorance of the truth enslave?”
And now I will parse it:
“Ruth, I understand the sentiment behind your words.” No. You don’t.
“Unfortunately this hands-up gesture perpetuates an inaccuracy promoted through the media…” No it doesn’t.
“…. which had been refuted by eyewitness testimony.” This is a huge matter of controversy and irrelevant to my support of the Rams’ action.
“Why would you want to support an action that only serves to promote ignorance and increase racial tensions?” This question is based in the misbelief that the action “only serves to promote ignorance and increase racial tensions”. That is not correct.
“If truth with [sic] set you free, doesn’t ignorance of the truth enslave?” This is a platitude. Whose truth? Whose ignorance?