June 6, 2020
Gone are the days where racism only falls into the category of those who HATE people of colour, who actively seek to dehumanize and slander others for having a different colour of skin. Gone are those days. Racism runs deeper than hate speech, racism runs deeper than violence, racism runs deeper than my personal actions or intentions. Racism runs deeper than I am even aware of. Racism runs implicitly in my veins, and as much as it pains me to use that word, to call myself a racist, it is high time I take responsibility for how my ignorance has furthered the degradation and oppression of people of colour.
Ibram X Kendi says, “Denial is the heart of racism. To be anti-racist is to admit when you ARE being racist”. What I have been learning over the last few years, is that my denial of being racist is what perpetuates the problem. Nothing can change in our systems of power until we take personal responsibility for how racism shows up within us as individuals. Therefore, I will call myself a racist and own the pain that I have caused and continue to cause, and own the pain that my ancestors caused, because if it doesn’t start with me, where does it start?
My maternal grandfather was, what most people would call without hesitation, a racist. He had horrible jokes and slurs to say about black people, in particular, and really any person of colour. I heard these things as a child and while there was a part of me that bristled inside when he said those things, no one in my family ever corrected him or stood up to him. When I asked about it, I learned that, “he just had some bad experiences with black people, that’s just your papa”. Kinda like the term “boys will be boys”, I internalized that we just let these things go. We let sexism go, we let racism go, because he’s not going to change, that’s just who he is. I stayed quiet, I let it go, and little did I know those comments were taking root inside of me.
I feel the shame and embarrassment even as I write this. How could I, could we, my family let this go? How could we not see that these comments contributed to perpetuate the actual DEHUMANIZATION of an entire people group. I was taught that there was an “US and THEM”; we were different; one had more value than the other, one deserved more respect than the other; one deserved life, the other didn’t. I feel how utterly disgusting this is. I don’t think my papa ever felt this disgust for his thoughts, comments and actions. He never let himself feel that shame. He was shameful and I am ashamed of those things, and so I choose to actively and intentionally change this cycle. I can only do that by feeling the intense disgust and discomfort of his actions and the ripple effect of that in my own life. I believe I am called right now to carry this shame. To feel it, to not be paralyzed by it or hate myself for it, but to feel the deep discomfort of it so that it can mobilize me to change this cycle once and for all.
This may surprise some of you as we at Repose are a community literally built on dismantling toxic shame and empowering through self-compassion. Let me clarify. Toxic shame is when I internalize self-hatred and question my own value. Healthy shame is naming what is wrong as wrong, feeling how horrible it is to have harmed someone, and using that feeling to repair and do something different. I don’t have to hate myself to hold myself accountable. But I do need to have a tolerance for discomfort and pain. It’s painful and uncomfortable to recognize how we feed into the wrong doings of our ancestors. I think that is why many of us don’t take the time to do it, because it is really painful. It hurts your heart, it can break your heart. Change requires heart break to precipitate it. We don’t change until the status quo becomes so uncomfortable that there is a necessity to change. Chaos and pain are necessary for change.
Though I feel the shame of my grandfather, this is an important part of my process, of my journey. I can’t pass it all off on him, or the system that he was a part of that built systemic racism. I need to own the ways in which I am and have been racist. I have most certainly been frightened when passing a black man on the street, I have judged black women for their rage. Just last week I was colouring with my daughter and asked her to pass me the “skin colour” (peach) pencil crayon. Racism implicitly runs through my veins in something as innocent as colouring with my daughter. This is not okay. This is not okay that I am indirectly teaching my daughter that peach is the primary, central, most important skin colour. This is part of the problem. I am part of the problem.
This is only one small example of how racism shows up in me. I could give many more. I use this example because I think it is the most relatable to many of our lived experiences.
I love the way Ibram X Kendi writes about how being a non-racist is not really anything; that term is not helpful as it signals denial. Rather, being anti-racist connotes a responsibility and an action to draw the racism out of you, as you would suck the poison out of your body from the bite of a venomous snake. Racism has poisoned us, and is continuing to poison us individually and as a white caucasian people group. It is poisoning us and our being poisoned is translating into the continuation of traumatizing all people of colour. Sure, we may have not been the humans that participated in slave trading, which was the original horrendous trauma; however, not recognizing that mine is NOT the only or most important skin colour is RETRAUMATIZING and DEHUMANIZING people of colour. It’s not okay, it’s not a little thing. I am part of the problem and I am committed to breaking this cycle of generational trauma within me, and around me.