The Education of a Middle-Aged White Lady
How a Middle-Aged White Lady Stopped Being Complicit in Upholding Racism: A Conversion Experience
Although I graduated in 1975 from the one high school in Portland, Oregon, with a significant black population, I did not care enough to think about or learn about racism in America until around 2010; in my 50s. I will not offer any excuses because there are none. I was like most white women who are unaware of their privilege and occasionally troubled by racial issues, but not enough to care.
When I got my Master of Social Work degree in 2001 I was still an “eye-roller” regarding diversity/equity issues. You know the type - a course or class on diversity is required, and the white lady rolls her eyes. Really? Again? Yep. That was me. And at required diversity trainings I was the white lady who talked a lot, of course bringing up the fact that I went to a high school in a black neighborhood which proved I wasn’t racist or some such.
Eventually I started talking less and began to listen. I listened to a black judge I respected telling stories of being tailed in department stores, and pulled over for driving while black, and about “the talk” he had to have with his young sons. I began to realize that I really had no inkling of the vast differences between a white and a black life in America. And I started to care - enough to learn more. I started looking for more educational opportunities, and stopped being an eye-roller. I went to hear Dr. Robin DiAngelo talk about “White Privilege” - a term I had not heard in 2007. This was a mind-expander for me. One of those moments that resets your world view. I needed to figure out how to sharpen this new perspective and see how it might reorder my priorities.
Soon after hearing Robin DiAngelo, I made a New Year’s resolution to - for that year - read books written by writers from cultures other than my own, and to especially load up on Black American writers. It has been several years now, and I have found that reading resolution to be so valuable that I have kept it as my basic plan. I occasionally read a white author, but it’s usually for book club (and I am thinking of starting a new book club that reads books by non-white writers). I read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”, Richard Wright’s “Native Son”, Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man”, James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”, Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Sons”, Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen”, Jewell Parker Rhodes’ “Ghost Boys”, Austin Channing Brown’s “I’m Still Here”, Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” and dozens more.
Once I started the reading plan my “conversion experience” really took root and I found myself getting fired up - caring. I have come to liken this change in my mind and heart to a religious conversion: “. . .Was blind but now I see”. I expanded the voices I heard to movies, TV, and podcasts by black artists and thinkers. If you want to keep the fires of your belief system burning, you read and listen to your prophets and your preachers and those who have been travelling the road all their lives. I read and watch, and listen to the prophets of anti-racist work. You also surround yourself with like-minded people - I get together with friends and family who are at various stages on this journey to build each other up, confess our weaknesses, and encourage each other in the “faith”.
You also study. Just as I was beginning to see this process as a conversion, I began to wonder if there was some sort of study guide that could take me deeper, and that was right when the miracle that is Layla Saad appeared in my twitter feed. If my reading, viewing, and listening led to my conversion, then Layla Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy Workbook” baptized me with fire and the spirit. This amazing black woman has generously created a workbook for white people to walk us through our own attitudes, beliefs, actions, words that make us complicit in keeping white supremacy firmly in place. It is a workbook to be used over and over, as I become aware of more problematic beliefs, actions, behaviors, words that crop up in my inner and outer life. This exercise made me aware that I was (we all are) born, raised, educated, acculturated, in an all-pervasive bath of racism. Like the fish becoming aware of water, I began to see that I lived and breathed and had my being in racism. Layla Saad’s workbook made me aware that I like to ignore racist thoughts that arise in my own mind - push them down quickly and pretend they weren’t there. That does no good, and fortifies the status quo. It is so much harder to look at those ugly thoughts straight on, think about where they come from, what I can do about them, and ask whether those beliefs, etc. have harmed a black person. If yes, then I need to acknowledge and apologize and change that behavior. It’s work, but as Layla Saad reminds us, it may be painful, but not even close to the pain my racist behaviors have caused black people.
After reading, studying, meeting together, confessing, and maybe meditating, converts then go out into the streets and do the work. What is that work? Because I am a relative baby in anti-racist work, I hesitate to give advice. I am still deep in the learning process. I have joined Tacoma Against Nazis and help when I can to make Tacoma uncomfortable and inhospitable to white supremacists. I am trying to get my hands on a list of black-owned businesses in Tacoma so that I can support them - it has been difficult, so if any of you have a current list, let me know. I keep my mouth shut more in learning spaces, and take note of how I constantly center white experience
It’s tiresome, but it’s something I just have to keep noticing and correcting in my head. I can’t do good work if I am blind to my own racist beliefs.
I am feeling that my greatest contribution might be in the area of “preaching” to other white women. White people are the problem, and it is our work to do what we can to change hearts, minds, beliefs, and actions, and to lead others to care. I know I have much work and learning to do and must redeem the lost time.
I am aware that I have the privilege of deciding every day whether I want to do the work. I don’t have to be involved in or care about dismantling racism because of my white skin. The system serves me. But I know too much now to turn back. If I believe I am a decent human, then I do have to care and be involved. A devoted practitioner of any belief system - Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity - does not get up every day and decide whether or not she is going to be a Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or Christian that day. No. It’s who you are - part of your identity. I am an anti-racist, anti-white supremacist (I would like to find a new term, by the way) pro-black community, black lives matter believer and I want to grow in that identity more and more every day. I make blunders and will continue to, but I hope to learn from them.
I am eternally grateful to Layla Saad and Austin Channing Brown.
I am happy to share my book and podcast lists.
Janice Bridges is a long-time Tacoma resident, proud mom of four fabulous adults, grandmother of three (soon to be four) boys, lover and frequenter of King’s Books, and The Harvester. She is a recently retired social worker and is sometimes known around town as “Mamz”.