Today I had a refreshing conversation with my old friend Jared Childress, who happens to be my first ever true Black friend (“Dang, I must not be racist now! …Or something”). We met 6 years ago in one of UC Irvine’s on-campus housing complexes. I remember how he originally struck me as lucid, exceptionally well-dressed, and handsome.
Our friendship wasn’t ever really steady; we only saw each other once in a while and didn’t get too many opportunities to get to know each other. I recall that in those days, I was just scratching the surface of race relations in the U.S. I didn’t understand structural and institutional racism as the root causes of racial injustice in the United States. I didn’t have a very deep grasp on the plight of Black America. And my understanding of my own whiteness and white privilege was pretty weak.
But man are times a-changin’. Having gone through a day-long racial justice training through Race Forward, several anti-oppression workshops, and now a course about whiteness & racism by and for white people, you could say I’m neck-deep in personal racial reconstruction (“Racial rehab?” She thought, though.). And damn, is it an arduous process: identifying and uprooting subconscious prejudices, coming to terms with ugly shit I’ve thought in the past, unlearning latent racism, and putting together a new set of lenses through which to see this truly beleaguered country. Since as white people we’re taught from birth that we’re normal, good, race-less individuals, the point at which we finally see ourselves as having a race – especially one with a history of violently oppressing, enslaving, and destroying other cultures (not to mention ecosystems) – can be, well (Hella easy to deal with! Not a bother! A cakewalk!) fucking painful to bear at times.
The course, not coincidentally titled Beyond the Culture of Separation, is made up of white people exclusively, from participants to facilitators. (The rationale: it’s not the job of people of color (POC) to educate white people on their shit. It’s our job to do our homework. An all-white space gives learners the opportunity to keep it totally real and honest without worrying about causing anymore anguish for POC with our confessions, etc.) A sort of racial justice-oriented group psychotherapy session, it’s been dynamic, thoroughly awkward and uncomfortable at times (as any course wherein white folks attempt to explore the terrifying history of white supremacy, domination and racism must be), and fulfilling. For me, there’s no better way to re-humanize white folx than to undergo such a course…
Fast forwarding several years, Jared and I have somehow resurrected our friendship after a long life-induced hiatus. I hold that as an accomplishment for a few reasons. First, we have a lot of potential as friends, and secondly as political allies. That much is for sure.
Among the many notable things about Jared, he is a highly educated Black man with a history of political engagement, from serving as Co-Chair of the Black Student Union at UC Irvine to majoring in African-American Studies. It’s cool because we’ve always had frank conversations about race; none more involved than the recent ones.
But anyhow, back to Jared and I. The candidness with which we speak about race gives me energy. It reminds me of what I’ve been reading recently, which is that interracial friendships are essential to healing this country. Even better are interracial friendships in which the white person listens to her/his/their friend of color with unconditional compassion, genuinely understands the issues, is unafraid to feel the inevitable discomfort of screwing up in conversations about race, and earnestly owns up to her/his/their mistakes.
I wanted to let you know, y’all, that I in fact made a race-related mistake tonight. Yes indeed.
I caught myself in the act of whitesplaining! Now, mind you: so much of the racist shit that white people say may not be intended to harm people of color, but by virtue of its impact does do harm. This is the difference between intent and impact. I can think of many times I’ve said or done something without intending to hurt someone, but hurt them anyway. In any case, the principle of intent and impact, I’m learning, goes for all situations in life, not just race relations. In any case, back to the whitesplaining part.
Jared was telling me about his trials and tribulations, and of course as his friend the natural impulse arose to offer some advice on his situation. But wait, the way I had worded it was thus: “Well I think you should do x.” Before I even finished the sentence, I stopped myself in disbelief – WHITE BOY FAIL! It turns out that POC are tired as hell of white people offering advice, trying to “help,” and generally meddling in their affairs. So, I retracted my comment, and gave way for Jared to continue telling his part of the story.
So there, I think by catching myself mid-sentence and owning up to my mistake to Jared, that I did the right thing. Just another day in “post-racial” ‘Murica… ha!
Post-racial, my ass.