Every few days, news outlets and social media expose another white person’s vexation with the presence of unarmed, non-violent, non-white people in public spaces. White adults tremble at the sight of black men and women at Starbucks or exercising at the gym, playing golf or checking out their Airbnb rental, napping in the common area of a Yale University dorm or redeeming a discount coupon at a local pharmacy.
More often than not, the alarmed white person calls the police, leading to harassment, arrest and even death of the non-white innocent. One black man drinking a soda in his own backyard was shot and killed by police, another man selling cigarettes on the street was choked to death. These random yet pervasive acts by white people lead to the inevitable reaffirmation of our unwritten, unspoken, yet codified law of the land: that race matters, and that whiteness is supreme.
Inspiring white folks to address, never mind acknowledge, such reactive and prejudicial behavior isn’t easy. I know; for the last year I’ve convened twice-monthly community conversations to talk about race here in West Marin. As a white man in his seventh decade of life, it’s a challenge to focus these conversations on the inner work of race with so many outer occurrences and individuals to critique instead.
Well-meaning, liberal and progressive white folks like myself frequently view race as a subsidiary issue, acceding to such adages as “Everyone (or every culture) is racist,” or, “We live in a colorblind society” or “We elected a black president, so….”
Yet the beat goes on, the tune remains the same and Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Jessica Hernandez, Tamir Rice, Jonathan Ferrell, Oscar Grant, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Samuel DuBose and Anastacio Hernandez-Rojas, along with many others, are now dead. Through our silence we are culpable in their murders.
One of many favorites in the white fragility toolbox is “Let’s fix it.” Let’s skip over our history and leap ahead to post-racial America. It sounds nice; it’s just not happening. Any number of memoirs by white Americans—Debby Irving’s “Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race” is one—attest to the painful and intimate journey inward that waking up to our role in white supremacy requires. Whiteness is a gilded cage that separates, denies and denigrates us all, some more quickly than others. Breaking out can be deadly.
Although some white folks believe we are beyond race, our first thoughts, our first spoken words and very definitely our behavior and choices belie such transcendentalism. Our rigorous training in othering—articulated by Lata Mani’s “Objects in the Mirror are Closer than You Think” and Toni Morrison’s “The Origin of Others”—condemns us to misunderstanding and conflict. The system isn’t broken; it was carefully constructed, one unwritten (or legislated) injustice to our collective humanity at a time.
How, then, to proceed? My response—born out of a childhood in Europe, four pivotal years, 1957 to 1961, in Montgomery, Ala., and a culturally inquisitive school-teacher mother who believed that conversation is a way to people’s souls—has been to talk about race.
Not as chitchat, Trump bashing or genteel confirmation of our basic goodness, but conversation as self-revelatory awakening, as voluntary unmasking of deception and a dawning embrace of wholeness. Humor is an ally in this journey, alongside patience and the understanding that denial and outrage don’t vanish on their own. It’s called “work” for good reason.
Such wokefulness doesn’t come easily, and it isn’t always welcome. Many of us prefer a lid on our shadows, prejudices swept under the rug. The trouble is, eventually we walk on that rug and cook on that stove where the pot has boiled over. Sooner or later, we must lance the painful boil of racism staring at us from the ends of our noses.
A number of helpful conversational guides are available. I like Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” and “Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice” by Paul Kivel. Here in the Bay Area, a number of organizations are engaged in the work, including Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), The UNtraining (UNtraining White Liberal Racism), and Beyond Separation (Beyond the Culture of Separation). Help is at hand for those willing to begin the pilgrimage home.
In West Marin, “Talking Race West Marin” resumes next month in the Dance Palace Church Space in Point Reyes Station. It begins on Aug. 2 at 6 p.m. and continues on the first and third Thursday of each month (with some exceptions) through December. The gatherings will focus on some of the books mentioned above, with time to share personal insights. Everyone is invited, the gatherings are free, and donations are warmly welcome to cover the $44 rent per event. If you would like to take part or support these conversations, visit “Talking Race West Marin” on Facebook or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inverness resident Marc Matheson moved to West Marin 2009 and has volunteered or worked for a number of local nonprofits.