Recently, Black people treated me really badly, partly because I was White, to the point that I had panic attacks and could not work anymore. I lost my classroom, income, dignity, and my sense of worth as a teacher. I felt confused, misunderstood, betrayed, and angry. The layers of hurt are something I probably will have to work through for a while.
I think I didn’t realize the depth of the hurt until recently, when I found myself suddenly distrusting all the dear Black friends in my life. I suddenly suspected that they didn’t like me, that they found me condescending at best, or racist, at worst.
It was a moment when I understood the collateral damage of racism in a fresh way.
I looked at my Black friends and ascribed to them the qualities of other people who looked like them, but other people who had very different characters than my friends do. I judged them, out of hurt and anger, based on the color of their skin, and not on the contents of their characters. And it’s possible some people wouldn’t blame me.
A few things occur to me at this realization. The first, and possibly most obvious, is that I have a small inkling of what people of color might go through on a daily basis. I even think about the people who hurt me so badly, both emotionally and economically. They looked at me and saw a White woman, not unlike so many others they had probably encountered in their lifetimes, and treated me as such.
Their response to me was based on a deep mistrust of White people that they have most likely developed in order to survive.
This was the observation that my friend Michelle texted to me when I frantically sent her messages on the day I was charged with racism. She was kind enough to work through some of the emotions with me, although this was, no doubt, additional and unnecessary emotional labor that was forced upon her as a Black woman.
The second thought that I had is that I think there is a great cost to calling oneself an “ally,” and sometimes this might even come in the form of collateral damage. I think about the story (possibly partly fictionalized in the movie Malcolm X) of the White woman who wanted to help the movement and was angrily turned away by Malcolm X, who wanted nothing to do with the “White devil” at that time. This must have been devastatingly confusing for the White woman, although we are not meant to pity her in the context of the movement of Black self-actualization.
It is too much to ask of my Black brothers and sisters to feel sorry for me. My pain and suffering are small compared to the historical and current systemic marginalization of Black people, as well as other people of color, non-native English speakers, immigrants, etc.
More specifically, my persecution came about because I was outspoken about “race,” racism, and other injustices institutionalized in the school system.
This is not to say I went about it in the best way every time, but my agenda and curriculum were explicitly anti-racist and culturally relevant to Black and Latino kids (although I also kept in mind the small percentage of White kids). The pushback I received was most likely because these topics are not seen as the domain of White people, but also because this kind of curriculum can be done so badly most of the time (i.e. the 90’s when culturally relevant pedagogy meant every lesson got turned into a rap song).
All that to say, it occurs to me that Black, Latino, and Native peoples get huge pushback every day from all levels of the system when they attempt to talk about issues of social justice. People get passed over for promotion, they lose jobs, and sometimes they get beaten, arrested, or lose their lives.
White “allies” have also suffered at the hands of the institution. Perhaps it’s only confusing when the opposition comes at the hands of those who I would imagine might support me in the work, namely, Black people.
I think about this on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, even as his contemporary, Rep. John Lewis is scorned and mocked by the president-elect on Twitter. I think about the movement that has existed since before the beginning of this nation, as Black, Latino, and Native peoples have struggled to get free, and sometimes White people helped (but most times they didn’t).
A small part of being a White person who works with people of color to get free probably has to be learning to forgive being part of the collateral damage. It has always involved learning to see people as people, and not as a just a part of a supposed monolithic group. That is, some people who are Black hurt me, but not all Black people will hurt me. Sadly, I imagine the same generalization can’t be made by Black people about White people.
The other aspect that I understand more deeply is my responsibility as a White person to show compassion for other White folks who find themselves part of the collateral damage of racism. I know I didn’t fully empathize before with the attempts to say “not all White people” or the angry retorts about “reverse racism.”
The reality is that being lumped into one big group of people hurts really bad, and as a White person, I didn’t know what that felt like before. It’s not reverse racism, and it doesn’t help to say “not all White people” (because #mostWhitepeople), but at the same time, when someone treats you based on the color of your skin and not who you are as a person, it really sucks. And I think it’s okay for White people to get in a little White people huddle and feel sad about that for a minute.
But then, I think it’s important to get back into the work again, to open up our hearts to love (and get hurt) again.