I feel like I am late to the game with this post, but I sincerely hope that the timing has not made it irrelevant. It is only being posted now because this has been a difficult piece for me to write. The learning process I have been through and the stark realisations that I have come to over the weeks since the murder of George Floyd and the intense discussions and actions that have taken place since then have been difficult for me acknowledge and to accept. I have felt angry. I have felt silly, agitated, helpless, thoughtless, selfish and underlying all those things, I have felt deep shame.
I grew up in a small, WASP town. Racist ‘jokes’ were regular entertainment. I ran away from that town when I was 19, to travel, see the world and meet different people from different backgrounds because as I grew older, something about the attitudes I grew up with didn’t feel right to me. What I experienced on the road truly was a heavy hood being lifted from my eyes and I met hundreds of people from all backgrounds, with all skin colours, speaking different languages and wearing different types of clothes and eating different foods and celebrating with each other in ways that were totally foreign to me. And I loved it.
When I returned home, I struggled to fit back in. In the end, my father and I had an argument about racism that would be a stake in the ground of our relationship for the following decade. We saw and spoke to each other little, unable to find anywhere in the middle to meet, until time finally wore down a smooth spot where we could land together.
Later, I moved to the Caribbean, where I would spend the following twenty-three years. I was a minority, not just in the colour of my skin and my gender but also because I was not born here, and neither were my parents or grandparents. I live here, but I am not FROM here and in reality, that is a big difference. Although this is a welcoming country and I have best friends here, there is still an underlying truth that I am ‘other’. That has had its many moments of extreme discomfort and frustration, to be fair. But it has never made me feel afraid for my life or that of my family and that is a key point here.
With that as my background of understanding, when the #BlackLivesMatter movement erupted again after George Floyd’s murder, I thought I got it. I thought that I understood what it was like to feel different, to feel less than. I thought I could relate. I tried to extend my personal experiences as a white woman onto the issue of racism and prejudice. Looking back, just those few short weeks ago, I can see so obviously the foolishness and insensitivity of that view. I remember feeling the rush of passion and anger during a conversation with a friend, who has a multi-racial parentage and very light skin, telling me that her black friends were telling her that she needed to listen and see if she could possibly understand what it was like to experience life as a black woman. At the time, I felt her friends were so unjust. I couldn’t understand why they put her on the outside of this issue, why they excluded her. I told her to not let anyone diminish her or her experiences, that she was worthy. And, with so much more wisdom than I, she responded to me by saying: “I have discovered that what I really need to do right now is just listen”.
I thought about that conversation for a long time after we hung up the phone. One of Steven Covey’s principles is ‘seek first to understand, then be understood’, meaning, shut up for a while, stop having an opinion on something you really know diddly about and most importantly, stop trying to put your feet in someone else’s shoes. Everyone on the planet has a set of experiences that are as unique as their fingerprints. It is impossible to understand exactly how another person has experienced a situation because a person’s reaction to anything is based on a culmination of thousands of other unique experiences and memories.
I cannot experience life any other way than what I am – a white woman – and because of that, I need to stop trying to label someone else’s experience under the guise of empathy.
It isn’t empathy. It’s obnoxious.
It isn’t empathy because it pigeonholes, categorises and labels things I couldn’t possibly know the first thing about. Is that labelling process what we, as humans, think we need to do to understand something? Or is it something we need to do to make ourselves look smart, worldly, observant, experienced? Because the hard truth is, it is easy to take that road: the one where we get to pretend we know. What is really difficult is to sit, listen and be, when conversations get difficult and awkward. It is easy to come blasting in with a point of view. It is hard to be in all the muck and hurt and pain and just say “yes, this sucks. This is hard. I may not understand right now, but I see you. I hear you. I love you”.
Not so long ago, I supported the idea that ‘all lives matter’ because, on the face of it, that statement is absolutely true. All lives do matter. But in my effort to be inclusive, colour-blind, non-racist or whatever you want to call it, I was avoiding the difficult truth. Because ‘all lives’ are not what this issue is about. This is about taking responsibility for my position of white privilege and accepting that I do not understand what it is like to experience life as a black person because everything we have ever experienced is different. I can't understand the experience of a black man with a white cop’s knee to his throat, knowing he was going to die because he was black. I can empathise and I can sit in all the disgust of it, but I haven’t experienced it. I can’t experience it.
But, I can still feel sick by the injustice of it. And I can learn.
I first started to understand the difference between #BlackLivesMatter and ‘all lives matter’ from Brené Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness, The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage To Stand Alone, where she clearly explains the difference between the two like this: “I believe Black Lives Matter is a movement to rehumanize black citizens. All lives matter, but not all lives need to be pulled back into moral inclusion. Not all people were subjected to the psychological process of demonizing and being made less than human so we could justify the inhumane practice of slavery.”
The dehumanisation that originated from the atrocities of slavery carries through generations, as parents unconsciously pass on their values, beliefs, fears and hurts to their children, the same way as racism is passed on to children. These thought patterns then instruct the system/policies, that are, consciously or unconsciously, created to be more advantageous to white people than they are to black people and have put black people in constant danger.
I have felt helpless in this discussion. I haven’t known what to say or do. I don’t want to cause unintended pain by saying the wrong thing. I don’t want to get into heated debates with people I barely know or complete strangers online. I also don’t want to stand idly by and let some people (white and black) think that because they have made good in their lives, through sheer determination, positive thinking, hard work and perhaps some good luck that all black people should also be able to enjoy the same success if they just worked a little harder, conformed a little more, climbed higher and overcame more. Because the truth is, the odds have been stacked against them and those odds are built into the law, the Constitution and generations of bias. The inequities those systems have produced are so well backed-up.
Illustration by Andrew Dat Tran
The reality is, it is impossible to overlook what is blatantly before our eyes. Black and brown people have been choked and restrained by systemic racism since they were first brought to the US and Caribbean on slave ships. It is not acceptable anymore for anyone to pretend that it does not exist. We have been denying it for too long, pointing the finger at another group. It is time to take responsibility, sit with the discomfort that it brings, acknowledge it and then use that feeling to do good work to counter it.
Brené Brown continually talks about having the courage to let awkward things be awkward. It is okay to be sitting in difficult conversations and we don’t always have to get it right. Not only do we not ‘have’ to be comfortable, we don’t ‘get’ to be comfortable. White people need to change their point of view from ‘I am not racist’ to being ‘anti-racist’ and support black and brown people in their special circumstances and the injustices they face.
I am still unsure of what to say, what to do. I want to do the right thing. I want to be considerate and polite. My entire will rebels against being uncomfortable and therefore I talk to fill the silence, when what I really need to do is stop talking and listen.
I begin, I guess, by laying my heart bare on this page, knowing that I am likely saying this badly and knowing that while it might not be my place to speak, I am tormented by staying silent, too. So, I will put on my big girl’s blouse and accept my own blundering.
I hope you will too.
If you took the time to read this blog, I urge you to keep learning. This list is a sample of materials I am making my way through, and it is by no means exhaustive. Approach each resource with an open mind, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable or defensive. To quote Angela Davis: “This moment holds possibilities for change we have never before experienced”. But first, we have a lot to learn.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
- White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism – Robin DiAngelo
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
- How to be an Anti-Racist – Ibram X. Kendi
- How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change – Barack Obama, Medium
- What Exactly Does it Mean to Defund the Police? – Amanda Arnold, The Cut
- The 1619 Project – New York Times
- Life of Privilege Explained in a $100 Race
- Angela Davis on Violence and Revolution
- Why “I’m Not Racist” is Only Half the Story
- Why We Need to Talk About White Feminism
- Dear White People – Justin Simien
- When They See Us – Ava Duvernay
- 13th – Ava Duvernay
- The Innocence FIles
- See You Yesterday – Stefon Bristol
- American Son – Kenny Leon
- 8:46 Dave Chappelle
LinkedIn Learning Courses [free]
- It’s Time to Talk about Racism in Cayman
- Compass Community Roundtable: Race, nationality and identity in Cayman
- Cayman Against Racism