So much is happening and shifting in the United States right now that merely keeping up seems like a full-time job. Like countless others I am processing and trying to make sense. Not least to talk clearly and cogently to Minette about where we are coming from, what is going on, and where we are headed.
When it comes to understanding racism in this country my thinking is informed by my biracial marriage and by my immigrant status. My life only occasionally intersects American mainstream traditions, even though I am curious about them and I am learning more about them through my American daughter. I am a minority person in various ways. People close to me have been exposed to some forms of racism.
But I know my primary lens when I look at racism is my whiteness. I have not been personally exposed to racism myself and I have spent most of my life not understanding that, even as a well-meaning, reasonably aware white person, I am part of the problem. Because the society I grew up in and the society I live in are predicated on whiteness as the norm, I have internalized this notion and it permeates my actions and behavior whether or not I realize it.
The good news is, thanks to books, conversations, and the protests reaching a historical momentum after the killing of George Floyd, systemic racism and how white people feed it knowingly and unknowingly has become a far-reaching open debate. I believe some good will come out of it.
There are many ways to think and act about racism and I am not able to explore them all. One thing that I prioritize is improving my grasp of racism as it has been experienced, and is still experienced, by black people in this country. How can I do this? History and stories. There is so much I have to learn about the history of slavery and abolition, the Reconstruction, segregation, and the fight for civil rights. Books, documentaries, and podcasts are plenty, so it is my responsibility to absorb some of this material to educate myself.
Stories are at least as powerful. I have not read enough fiction revolving around the African American experience and I have undertaken to change that thanks to a book list brought up by a close friend of mine.
The one thing I have noticed though when it comes to grasping this experience is how little snippets of personal stories shared on various occasions have made their way to my mind and stayed with me. These snippets usually speak to “minor” racism, nothing life threatening, “just” the daily burden of being black in America. I have come to understand they speak to me because they feel much closer than more extreme stories.
A black senior physician explaining how her white male interns have a hard time asking for her opinion. The white mother of a black child at Minette’s school telling how she fears for her son’s safety as he is growing up and what kind of conversations she must have with him. A black scholar remembering how he and four black fellow college students were stopped by a traffic cop on their drive back home and all of them, not only the driver, were asked for their driver’s licenses and how they decided not to object to avoid further problems.
These stories give you a very real sense of how constrained black lives are in this and many other countries. The fact that they are not dramatic make them all the more relatable. I think that taking them in is a powerful way of stepping into other people’s shoes and actually grasping some of what they are living. Progress depends on more than one thing but I am quite sure it cannot happen without a willingness and ability, sustained by a deliberate practice, to step into another person’s shoes. So that’s definitely on my road map as a wife, a mother, a friend, a community member, a white person, and a human being trying to keep growing more aware.
3 Replies to “In Whose Shoes?”
Thank you for your thoughtful writing, Marianne. One challenge for me will be to continue to educate and change my behavior for the better, even when the headlines shift to something else. I look forward to your observations, part of the ‘deliberate practice’ you mention that I intend as well.
You may have already read something by James Baldwin, a writer I recommend. Also, Eric Foner is excellent on Reconstruction. He recently published a new book, The Second Founding, which I haven’t read yet, but you might want to start with an abridged version of his classic, titled, A Short History of Reconstruction which is a good starting point. (The unabridged version, Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution is a classic, if you’d rather read the longer version.)
Thank you for your recommendations, duly noted! Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction is now on top of my reading list.