I distinctly remember one of the days I had to really own my racism. Yes, that’s right. I’m a white mother of 2 black boys and I’m a racist. Shocked? You shouldn’t be. As a white person with white privilege, it’s in the very air I breath. I am owning it. I can speak it, “I am a racist.” I try not to be, every single day. But, I am.
How do I know I’m a racist? There are a lot of examples, but I’ll share one. I was teaching high school. 9th grade, cultural anthropology. One of my black students, ‘Hank’, called me out. I am grateful for his courage.
‘Hank’ was a B-/C student. Nice kid. Charming. Liked to tell stories about his mom. Football player. Low cut with a nice line (he taught me the value of that for my sons). He did OK in my class — he was fairly engaged in discussions, did his homework (mostly). He was a good talker. I wanted him to stretch his conversational skills into written work, because he could do some good thinking out loud, but needed to build his writing skills. In my class of 24 kids, he was one of 2 students of color, 2 black boys, to be precise.
I noticed one day that ‘Hank’ was furiously writing in a notebook with his head down, writing on and on and on and on. Since he was not an engaged note-taker, I knew what this meant. In a word: GIRLFRIEND. I walked around the room, as I always did, confirming as I walked past him that he was indeed writing to his ‘girl’. I did nothing to interrupt the writing (clue 1). Day 2 the writing continued, and while I called on ‘Hank’ for a discussion point, I did not saunter over and casually close his notebook (clue 2). On day 3 I ignored ‘Hank’, thinking to myself, “he’s doing ok in class, he’s a C student. That’s good for him” (clue 3). Day 4 and I figured ‘Hank’ must really be ‘into’ this girl. And still, I let him write (clue 4). I remember thinking, “he’s a B-/C student, I’ll intervene if he drops to a D.” Yes, I thought that. On Days 5.6,7 I started feeling a little worried about ‘Hank’. I started to get uncomfortable. It slowly dawned on me that I was letting this kid slip away right in front of me, and I had let thoughts drift around that undervalued him, valuing him differently than his peers. I WAS VALUING HIM DIFFERENTLY THAN HIS WHITE PEERS.
After nearly 2 weeks…TWO WEEKS, at the end of class I gently tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to stay after the bell. My request was quiet and friendly, but he knew (clue 5). As soon as the class emptied out he looked me right in the eye and asked, “What took you so long, Ms. Plum?” He had me. It’s all he had to say to let me know that he KNEW that I didn’t value him like my other (read: majority white!) students. I felt my heart sink to the pit of my stomach. I had waited too long. I had let him slip away. My inaction had conveyed to him that I saw him in a more mediocre, expendable, “he’s doing ok for ‘him’ (read:black boy)” kind of way. My actions WERE the actions of someone who valued him, his black skin, his future, LESS than my other students. He caught me. And then I caught me. My only response was to look him right in the eye and speak from my best and truest place, “I’m sorry ‘Hank’. You are right. I took too long to tell you that you are an important part of this class. I took too long to tell you to put that pen and notebook in your bag and get back to work.I’m telling you now. I’ll see you tomorrow, ready for class.”
That was it. It broke me, in the best kind of way. ‘Hank’ and I went on as usual, he was one of the first, but not the last, to remind me of my racism. But I know, I KNOW that I am one cut in his 1000 little cuts, in his world of constant microaggressions. I went on, changed. He went on, his understanding of himself as a young black man confirmed, yet again, by me. That sucks for me. It sucks worse for him. I’m not the victim in this story.
His words set me on a more intense journey filled with daily practice to intercept and intervene when my ‘purse clutching thoughts’ step forward. (You all know what I’m talking about? When you pass a group of black boys and you hold your purse a little tighter and walk a little faster? Yes. That).
I remember hearing one of my mentors and white privilege heroes, Tim Wise, speak. He said white privilege and racism are in the air we breath. Tim Wise, who has committed his life to teaching/writing/leading work on white privilege shared the story of walking down an airline ramp and noting his pilot was a black man. He said the very FIRST thought that came to him was, “I sure hope he knows how to fly this thing.” What a sick relief it was for me to hear that he too was a racist. Years and years and years of dedication to his work and still he inhaled this stuff, as did I. He said his job (and by extension, my job) was to spend my days getting in front of these thoughts and dismantling them with awareness and deliberate action.
I went on to get deeply involved in working on being an ally at the high school where I taught. I got more courageous. I spoke up. We had a terrible “racial incident” (that’s what people called it) in our high school. Many, many people at the high school were furious with me for speaking about racism the way I did. I recall one day in the staff lounge/lunchroom I was admitting (thoughtfully, really!) to my own racism. The conversation was friendly (ish?) and I said, with a smile, “We should put a white board in here and title it “Racist things I did or thought today.” Absolute stunned silence. But I could have filled that board. And I tried damn hard NOT to be above the fray — to be a part of the problem, not somehow enlightened enough to be ‘healed’ of my own white privilege and racism. But it reached my ears, “she thinks she is an expert now that she has black sons.” No, not an expert. Not even close. But filled with more courage, more earnestness, more humility to do this work. I am more like my white flawed peers than NOT like them.
I have tried to do the work well. I read a ton, have qualified and experienced mentors, take classes, make sure I have input and support from black local leaders. I learned, quickly, that even one mis-step in this work is costly. I have had a few mis-steps (who doesn’t?) in the work, and I did get called to the principal’s office. “You are taxing your leadership skills”, the principal told me, “some people are angry.” Some people = white colleagues offended by the words ‘racism’ and ‘racist.’ I try to do it well — following Jay Smooth’s advice on ‘how to tell people they sound racist’. But really, even if I shout my complicity in this, it sets white people off into defensive and hurt postures. There is NO amount of trying that will NOT end up with anger or tears. (In my husband’s case, there were tears). When I walked into one of my mentor’s offices, shut the door, and spoke this to him, he said, “This is the experience of we black people every single day. We are not believed. Now, as an ally, you know what it feels like to be doubted and your leadership questioned not because of your qualifications, but because you are an ally.”
I am not Trayvon Martin’s mom. I’m a mom to 5 kids. I am white. 2 of my kids are my black sons. I have a freakin’ lot of work to do. I’ll continue to do it. I hope you’ll respect that it’s a journey for me too. I don’t have answers. But I do have the most amazing small sons, who will grow up to be ‘scary black men’. I’m angry about that. I know that some of you, my white friends and family, are seeing my sons like I saw ‘Hank.’ I am angry that some of you are seeing my sons like George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin.
I’m am not Trayvon Martin’s mom, because I’m a racist white mom. That makes me incredibly uncomfortable to say. It makes me sick to my stomach. But I can’t heal it if i don’t own it. And for these glorious sons of mine, and for all the black children (and brown children), I MUST OWN IT and HEAL IT.
And hey, ‘Hank’….I love you man. Thank you.