I’ve been reading books lately that shed some light on the experiences of people of color. For a long time I’ve realized that I was brought up protected and in a very white world.
In 2012, when Travon Martin was killed, and there began to be stories on the news about parents having ‘that talk’ with their black children, particularly sons, about how to interact with police, I was stunned. I’d never heard of that kind of talk and I was more than half a century old back then. And as event after racial profiling event unfolded I became more uncomfortable with being so unaware.
So after George Floyd was killed I started looking for things to read. I’ve read “Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond, a study of how landlords profit renting to those in poverty, “How We Fight for Our Lives,” by Saeed Jones, the memoir of a gay black man growing up in Texas, and “I’m Still Here, Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” by Austin Channing Brown.
All three are very readable and each is enlightening in a different way, but that’s not to say I am educated now. In fact it’s possible I am more confused.
Channing’s book is based on her experiences as a black woman leader in her church and at work. It was difficult to read because it made me uncomfortable as she described so many ways that white people put her and other people of color in a subservient place. The little things that are done, perhaps innocently, that hurt, that keep people from reaching the next level on the job or in life.
I wondered, as I read, if I had ever done anything that felt that way to those people, mostly women, of color that had worked in departments I managed. I’d like to think I hadn’t. But I don’t know.
I had just finished her book, and had all sorts of questions running through my head, mostly about how black women can rise into places of power, when I went out to the mailbox yesterday afternoon. There I found two election fliers and one in particular caught my attention.
“Two Democrats are running for County Executive – but which one lives up to our values?” screamed the headline. And next to that headline was a black woman smiling up at me. “Good news,” I thought. “A black woman is running for County Executive!” The flier added, “Turn over to compare the candidates” and I excitedly did.
I was disappointed and confused to realize that the two Democrats running for our county’s highest office were both white men.
I don’t know what the reasoning was to put a strong black female face on the front of the flyer. I know that I felt ticked off at being fooled, though I know that wasn’t the intention. And I’m confused about why I feel irritated. Am I irritated because I felt like a black woman was used? Or am I irritated that the idea of a black woman County Executive is so foreign here?
I’m definitely not finished trying to understand the dynamics of all of this. It’s obvious that there’s a lot more going on then I ever knew, more than I know now. I still live in a world that is very white. I’ve thought about the fact that I don’t have any friends of color here, no one to talk to about this.
And then I remember that one of the themes of Channing’s book is that she resents being the ‘teacher’ to all of the white people in her life. As a student she was often one of a few students of color and every time race issues were brought up she was expected to explain her side of the issue, as education for the others. She’s tired of being the only one of color in meetings at work and looked to for the endless ‘diversity’ discussion. She says that whites use dialogue to stall, to make themselves feel like they’ve done something, when in reality action is the only thing that matters.
She says that having to listen to whites confess to her, after her speaking engagements, all the things they had done wrong in their relations with people of color, made them feel better but transferred the guilt to her shoulders and didn’t resolve anything. Now she turns it back to them, asking them what they are going to do going forward.
So maybe talking to a friend of color isn’t the way to go either.
The reality is, after reading these three books, I don’t know what’s right, exactly, for me to do going forward. An audience member once told Channing that ‘you make me feel guilty for being white.” But that wasn’t what Channing wanted either, to make us feel guilty. I think what she wants is for us to use our power to bring other people along.
She says she won’t see full equality in her lifetime, but that can’t stop her from speaking and trying. She says it’s impossible to expect people in power to hand that power over to people in the margins. I agree. But it’s not impossible to expect people in power to lead in conjunction with those currently in the margins.
I’m not in a place of power anymore. I don’t have the ability to promote someone, or recommend them for a raise. But I can vote. I can vote for people that don’t look like me but who have powerful brains and good hearts and the intellect to lead us toward a more equitable country.
And that’s what I’m going to do going forward. How about you?