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Schooled in disconnection: Waking up and struggling for racial justice
Note: I sat down to write a reflection piece on the White Privilege Conference, which I attended with other AFSC staff and board members and a number of Quakers in April, and I ended up exploring how I learned racism instead. This piece is dedicated to my teachers: Niyonu Spann, Vanessa Julye, Pamela Haines, Pat Jennings, kamillah fairchild, Rosa Silveira, Nancy Duncan, Frances Hoover, and so many others. – Lucy
“I think my own biggest fear about facing race was that the universe as I knew it would be utterly changed if I did so. And my place in the universe would be changed. And so it has been, but in a good way.” – Peggy McIntosh
I was born in a small town in Iowa and grew up in Omaha, Neb., a very segregated city. Spending most days primarily in the company of other white people, I assumed that living a segregated life was normal. I passed by people of color in stores and at restaurants, but for the most part, people of color did not appear in my circles of engagement. And like many white children, I was not taught to reach out and greet the people I passed by.
I learned racism by who wasn’t in my sphere of encounter, by who wasn’t named or included. I didn’t know I was being carefully taught to be blind, to close my heart to the pain and experience and joy of others, but that was the program of study. Though I reaped many unearned privileges by learning this curriculum, I studied it without consent, and my parents and teachers taught it to me mostly unconsciously.
There were occasionally more explicit lessons.
When we visited my grandmother in her big white house in Atlanta when I was 5, we were told not to interact with her African-American housekeeper. I find it disturbing that I can remember her presence, but not her name, and that I didn’t resist this lesson. My grandmother would spend most of her time watching television and drinking beer, so we didn’t interact with her much either, but the message to me was clear: stay out of the kitchen.
When I was in sixth grade, two girls from Vietnam started attending my class. I remember an awkward afternoon; some of the other girls and I tried, haltingly, to talk to them.
They spoke English well, but we didn’t know what to say. We learned that their journey to the United States was recent, that they came because of the war.
We didn’t talk long, and that was the only exchange I remember; the adults around us gave us no encouragement or tools for befriending these girls, and we saw ourselves as part of a different circle.
I feel sadness for not extending myself to make them welcome, for being one more white girl who rendered them invisible and did not see them as potential friends.
My blindness might have been pierced earlier if I had been able to reach out and connect, to learn about their experience, to see a little of the bubble I lived in through their eyes—to understand the impacts of war, and that the racism that I was acting out makes war possible. I don't remember talking with them again.
There were other occasions of trying to reach out and connect with people of color, but either I fumbled and didn’t know how to extend myself, or the connection became possible because the friend or acquaintance didn’t counter the white narrative we both inhabited.
This mostly unspoken, hidden, but very powerful curriculum was what I breathed in daily. My mother was engaged in efforts to pierce through the white bubble. She was committed to affirmative action at the children's theater she directed, and she worked for racial justice in other ways. Though she planted some seeds in me that sprouted later, she didn't talk with me much about racial justice, and her understanding and efforts didn’t counteract the pervasive atmosphere of white dominance.
Since then I've had many patient teachers that opened my eyes and countered the silent, dangerous lessons I had learned. I learned from the students I had at an underfunded school in California who told me stories of their experiences of racism; I learned from fellow teachers, white and African-American, who believed that their efforts to educate me might not be entirely in vain.
Still, though, I watched as other people went to anti-racism training and didn't understand how it related to me. I didn't understand that there was a whole level I wasn't apprehending.
I remember well the moment that really changed. I was at a Beyond Diversity 101 training, an intensive experience in uncovering racism, sexism, classism, and white privilege in order to reclaim human wholeness and connection.
I had been hearing stories of the deep daily impact of racism on people of color in the workshop. We had just finished an exercise in which we danced and moved in order to free up our understanding. Suddenly a floodgate opened in me. I realized then how deeply I had been schooled in disconnection. I sat on the floor, and memories and understanding flooded through me.
I remembered the moments from my childhood. I thought of how cold my grandmother was; when my mother was little, my grandmother subscribed to a popular parenting philosophy that recommended not touching your children. I thought of my father, a closeted gay man who was married to my mother for 33 years and couldn't acknowledge who he was. I remembered watching the movie “Nightjohn,” how the slaveholder had taught his son to abuse those they enslaved, and I felt, viscerally, that there had been such hardness in my family.
I realized that all the ways of disconnection from others that have been taught to white children for so long—that were taught to me—result not only in horrible, systematic consequences for people of color, but also lead to dehumanization in white families and between white people. I realized that the apartheid I had experienced, the lies I'd been told about being better than other people, resulted in a kind of constant anxiety, a sublimated awareness that the comfort I enjoyed was built out of the suffering of others.
That moment changed me.
The numbness, hidden curriculum, and cocoon of whiteness are persistent, and it's a challenge to stay awake.
I make mistakes and screw up and fall on my face all the time. I act out of my white privilege and internalized dominance. But I understand that my humanity and that of my son are bound up with the reclamation of everyone's humanity; that until all children are free, none are free.
I recognize that keeping my heart open, soft, and receptive requires that I hear and take in the stories of injustice of people of color without defensiveness and with a thick skin. It requires daily action fueled by these stories. Though I am often clumsy in these conversations, I talk often with my son, Simon, about inequity and justice so that the default curriculum of white dominance isn’t the only one he learns.
As my world has been upturned by this understanding, I have a sense that another world is possible, and that it is within this world.
Sometimes in racially mixed groups of people working for justice, the sense that we are one in Spirit—a community of love and resistance—becomes real, and I can taste the sweetness of what we are striving to create. That sweetness is like no other; it’s what gets me up in the morning willing to struggle and do the difficult work of seeing, being, and living for a world based on recognizing and nurturing humanity, a world that fully expresses the first motion, love.