09 January 2016

Planting Seeds

The new moon is around the corner (this evening, to be precise) which means it is a good time to plant seeds, or in the parlance of modern urbanites like myself, to start projects.

Let's just say, for the hell of it, that you're racial justice curious. Not ready to go to a protest or start a fight with your very conservative sister-in-law or put on a Black Lives Matter button.

That's ok. Now is still a good time to begin.

Let me offer my own story of beginning.

Somewhere over a year ago I took on a project: in a half-conscious way, I decided to make Facebook my racial justice platform. I had gradually lost interest in sharing pictures of my life. I realized that what I got most jazzed about posting were stories that highlighted racial intolerance. Likely this was a result of teaching college freshman around the time of Obama's election. Most had no idea of their white privilege, and many argued that racism was 'solved' now that a black president had been elected. I'd been trying to prove to them, and to my hazy idea of a general FB audience that racism is indeed alive, well, and dangerous. I became conscious of the value of my copious connections (all those "friends' real or no actually counted for something now), and resolved to intentionally raise awareness of white privilege and fight white supremacy. So I continued doing what I had been doing for some time, just with more resolve and consciousness.

Usually I got a small smattering of likes from the same handful of people (file this under 'preaching to the choir'.) I kept at it, unlike so many other projects I've abandoned, maybe because of a sense of moral imperative. I wasn't doing it for me, I was doing it because I felt like I had to.

Eventually I figured out that black people and people of color weren't my audience. They certainly knew more about race than I, a white person trained by my society at large to remain unconscious of race, to consider whiteness the "norm', and race a problem belonging to non-white people. Non-white people already knew much more about the troubles of race in America than I did. It became increasingly clear that I am best suited to speak to other white people about race.  I share their experience, their 'language', their frame of reference. They are (sadly) more likely to trust me over a person of color. And they are the ones that need to think about it, need to learn about it, need to do something about it.

At first, I was a little worried about alienating the white people in my circles. That fear didn't last long. We all know how easy it is easy to say things on social media you wouldn't say in person.  In all honesty, I was only brave on Facebook or Twitter, where I don't have to see people's facial reactions and endure the force of their feelings. (Despite all my bravado on FB, I still don't take up the issue of race with my family, unless they have made it clear that they see things somewhat similarly to me. That's an area I need to work on.)  I assumed those who disagreed with my points had unfriended me. Even more likely, I assumed, was that people just tuned me out, wrote me off as "the girl with the race bee in her bonnet", and ignored me.

I carried on anyway, impelled by a sense -- usually grief, or indignation -- that was too powerful to ignore.

And then something amazing happened. People began to reach out to me. One at a time, quietly, slowly. For some I was the only white person they knew who consistently spoke up about race. Typically, the only white people unapologetic and confident and LOUD when discussing race are the hard-core unabashed racists. Most of us avoid the uncomfortable awkwardness and the fear of getting it wrong by avoiding the topic. White people have few models of how to talk about race at all. Fortunately, something had impelled me to brand myself 'the anti-racism lady', which meant they had someone to go to with questions, with concerns, with their feelings. They told me how disgusted or broken-hearted they felt. They asked me what they could do, how they could help, where to get involved. I began to understand that people were taking in more than I knew, and thinking about the issues I'd assumed they'd ignored.

So I'm going to go on assuming some of you out there have been paying attention to my rantings all along even if you haven't said anything aloud in response. And I'm going to keep writing to you, even if you stay quiet. I'm going to keep the soil ready, and save seeds, and drop them in one at a time, and water them every time I can, because it happens. Things grow. The time passes and seeds grow into seedlings, then plants, and then they bear fruit. 


Let's say you are deeply disturbed by the growing awareness of racial injustice in our country.  Let's also say that you want to raise your kid to be tolerant, aware, and bent on justice. Let's say that you've been wondering how to initiate a more meaningful conversation about racial justice with your kid. Not knowing how to begin such a conversation myself last year (and wanting to do the best job possible), I asked my daughter's former teacher for an age-appropriate book from which we could start a conversation.  The teacher, for whom I had great respect and whose abilities, skills and training I had much confidence in, had not a single book recommendation, but assured me that we would "cover all that during Martin Luther King Jr. Day". I was sorely disappointed. Not ONE book? I was also  certain that they wouldn't, in face, get around to much beyond "MLK was a great guy and now racism is over HOORAY!" No mention of white privilege. No mention of the things I actually respect most about MLK, like his radical anti-war and anti-poverty stance. I was on my own.  And I still needed a book to help my daughter understand America's most intractable problem.

Hear that? America's most intractable problem.

Intractable: partly because most adults can't explain it, not even to themselves, not in any way that satisfactorily hews to their sense of how the world should work. Intractable also, it pains me to admit, because I'm somewhat unwilling to engage. I want to protect my kid from the f*cked-up-ness of  white supremacy. I want her to remain in the safe and rosy bubble of childhood innocence as long as possible. Lots of well-intentioned white people do. But when I consider that many black kids her age have already had The Talk and that black children are not free to move in the world the way white children are, what right do I have to shield her from my perceived mental danger? As soon as I remember that well-intentioned but silent white people who refuse to engage perpetuate white supremacy, I know I must act, even if I don't know exactly how.

Fortunately, eventually,  I found a resource. So today, I have one resource to share with you. Teaching for Change has an exhaustive list of anti-bias books for all ages. I'm not going to explain why reading such books is important -- the folks at Teaching for Change do a better job of that than I can. I will say that I immediately checked with my local library and found that most of the recommended books were available. I plan on making an event of it. I put about 10 of the books on hold and will bring my daughter with me to pick them up from the library. Most are lavishly illustrated, ensuring she will want to at least flip through the pages. I'll offer to read them to her, and needing to return them on time will ensure we work our way through the pile.

As her questions come up, as I know they will, I know for a fact I will need help dealing with my own emotional reactions. She will ask questions I won't know how to answer. Or even harder for me, she will lose interest. I know I will have to keep breathing, and keep working, and keep talking about it.  One story, one conversation, one seed at a time.


Here are some ideas of what to do with the recommended book list, even if you're not a parent:
buy a book for a child in your life
buy a book for your local school
check out a book and offer to read it to a kid in your life
request your local library add a book to their collection if it isn't there already
post about a book on FaceBook or Twitter or Instagram
read one yourself
share the list with parents you know
ask that these books be carried in your local bookstore

Fighting America's most intractable problem is not for the weak, and certainly can't be done in solitude. We need each other. Please know that you can reach out to me.

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