Recently I had an issue arise in which the support of others would have been helpful. So I e-mailed a select few, briefly explained the situation and asked a few questions. I was hoping that a few of them would add their voices to my concerns.
The short list included people whom I know well enough to have had over to my house, including one white person who has been over numerous times.
I got one response. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but the response came from a Chinese American. Who incidentally is probably the person I know least well on the list.
The thing is, I knew when I was writing the e-mail that I was taking a risk. I talk to white people about being “kicked out of the club.” It’s the moment that they realize that speaking up about race or racism distances them from other white people. It’s when they find out that other white people won’t necessarily support them when they raise issues of racism. I have tried to be empathic with them as they struggle with the perceived loss they suffer when doing what’s right means being ostracized.
I try to have compassion because the Now Me knows how the Then Me felt. The Then Me often didn’t speak up. The Then Me was somewhat passive aggressive. The Then Me would quit a job rather than deal with repeated acts of racism, even when those acts weren’t directly aimed at me.
Then Me realized this was suicide.
Then Me knew that typically nobody would speak up if I didn’t. And Then Me knew that I couldn’t live a lie.
So what are the risks and rewards of being anti-racist? I feel funny writing “risks” (I was “taking a risk”), just as I wrote “perceived loss” a few paragraphs ago. I wrote that white people suffer a “perceived loss” when they are ostracized by other white people, because I would like to believe that it’s not a loss when you find out who other people truly are. Or when you find out who you are yourself.
Then Me was a silent person. Now Me has a voice.
I realize that this voice means that sometimes I will not Win Friends and Influence People. Recently I was introduced by a MTALF (more than an acquaintance, less than a friend) to a white person who talked on and on about how people in her community invest in their children and are involved in their education. The implicit, unspoken message was about Those People who are not. I waited while she talked about how great it was that parents volunteered and they showed up at school performances.
And I said, “It’s a function of wealth.” I added a couple of quick, short sentences about working in the public schools in poor communities. (One of the schools had a nearly empty library. A beautiful space with only about a quarter of the shelves filled. A print encyclopedia from 1957.)
Well, that was a conversation-stopper if I ever saw one. It obviously made the white people in the group distinctly uncomfortable. And then the subject was abruptly changed.
Now Me thought, “Ha ha ha ha ha!” afterwards.
Okay, I admit it. Sometimes I just feel so relieved to speak my truth that I could care less about how it is received. And I know that if people are put off by discussions of race and racism, I probably didn’t want to be their friends anyway.
It’s a little more difficult if you have already begun establishing that friendship.
A friend and I once discussed how sometimes you can be in the company of a white person whose company you enjoy. And the subject of race comes up. And you’re frantically thinking, “Oh please, don’t say something stupid! Don’t say something stupid!” Which kind of belies the notion that people of color are always looking for racism.
It is perhaps easier to float a little social fantasy in which the white people you encounter share your anti-racist views. That little fantasy can exist only until the subject comes up. And then you know.
The reality is that I was never in the club to begin with.
And now I have a better idea of who my friends really are.
So why do I feel like a part of me would rather not know?