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A Letter to My Fellow White Men: We ALL Have to Unlearn Racism
This article is probably going to be a bit rougher than my usual work. I’m currently sitting out on my back porch with a heavy heart, and I don’t know what else to do but write this. Normally, I’d let this sit for a night and then edit it before publishing, but I don’t think that’s appropriate in this case.
My name is Blake. I’m twenty-six, live in Kentucky, and work in tech. I’m a writer, a life coach, and a dog dad. I enjoy exercising and spending time outside.
I’m also a recovering racist.
It’s hard to say, but it’s true. Outwardly, and I suppose consciously, I’ve always been opposed to acts of race-based violence or hatred. In elementary school, I’d watch videos about Martin Luther King Jr., and I’d envision myself as one of the “white heroes” in the cartoons and documentaries we watched. I said to myself that if I were in that position, I’d stand up for African Americans. In my mind, that made me a good person– I felt like I was doing the right thing.
At the same time, I would hear slurs and jokes from my peers about words that sounded funny to me. I learned to laugh at those jokes as long as certain classmates weren’t around. From teachers and school administrators, I saw behavior modeled for me in a conflict involving a racist joke that said “he was wrong for getting upset and lashing out” rather than “that joke was inappropriate and entirely unacceptable.” I’d go to church for children’s’ choir and point and giggle as a peer squeezed and inspected the only Black girl’s hair when her back was turned. Again at the church Halloween party, without a single African American family represented, children turned up as “basketball players” in full blackface to the amusement of the parents and grandparents present.
Going into high school, I entered into an even whiter world. My middle school and high school was almost entirely Caucasian. Looking back, I can only think of one family of African American students who attended and were in classes with me. We were taught that racism was a thing of the past– that the vitriol toward President Obama being spewed by teachers and parents and students alike was only a byproduct of his policies even though the subtext of each criticism was that he was the wrong kind of person to be leading the country.
By the time I turned eighteen, I had been steeping in a stew of casual racism for so long that I assumed that it was normal. It was second nature to me to believe that as long as you weren’t using the N-word or being violent toward someone for the color of their skin, then you were in the clear.
I had no idea that the jokes I told and retold about the way people spoke, ate, or worshipped were rooted in Jim Crow minstrelsy.
I didn’t understand that joking about multiracial babies could devalue their Blackness and the realities of their experience.
I had faith in the narrative that anybody could get ahead in life through hard work because that’s what I saw for myself. Nobody had ever confronted me on the realities that people who aren’t born into upper-middle-class white families have different experiences and outlooks on life than I did.
It wasn’t until college that I started to open my eyes. One of my first friends at college, as well as one of my first professors, were both Black women. In wanting to impress them and gain their acceptance, I performed allyship. I parrotted and behaved how I thought I was supposed to, still not understanding the ways in which I actively benefitted from my whiteness, still holding onto beliefs and ideas about how everyone was the same on the inside and that that was enough to unify us.
While it’s true that we all bleed red regardless of the color of our skin, I’ve never bled for going on a run, helping a young man with learning disabilities, being terrified in my home when strangers with guns burst in unannounced, calling the police out of fear, walking home in a hoodie, selling cigarettes to an acquaintance, or being a kid with a toy gun.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to sit down and shut up when a Black person speaks about their experience, and the more I commit to this, the more I realize how often I’ve fucked up and how fucked up the ideas that I’ve internalized without thinking actually are. Sorry for the F-bomb, mom.
I’m learning to recognize when my appearance and my background give me an undue advantage. I’m learning what it means to be an ally and to use the privilege I have to give others a platform– to change the systems that have put me ahead so that we can be on equal footing.
I don’t write this for any sort of praise or kudos for growing. I write this to say that I’ve always considered myself to be a good person, but being a good person is not enough. When white folks with assault rifles can march on state buildings without issue but Black folks can’t gather in response to one of their own being killed without being tear-gassed, maced, and portrayed as criminals who destroy property, we– as white people– can’t continue on ignoring the ways in which race shapes the reality of other Americans.
We should be uncomfortable right now. We should squirm and cringe when we turn on the television or get online. Do you remember being a teenager and feeling your knees and legs ache with growing pains? Growth often isn’t easy or comfortable, but it is necessary. When you see protests or “looting” online, it’s easy to pass judgment and say that there has to be a better way, but my request for each white man who sees this is to instead listen. Lean into the discomfort you feel and stop trying to make sense of what you’re seeing through your own point of view. Listen to the voices that are crying out.
For most of us as white men, we’ve been raised in an environment in which we’ve internalized racism and race in ways that we don’t even recognize. I know that I am not alone in having grown up thinking I was a good person without ever challenging the underlying racism that framed so much of what I thought was normal. As it is, my normal is someone else’s discomfort, source of anger, or a death sentence.
Don’t fight the discomfort. Lean into it and learn from it.