I‘m good, right? — Some thoughts on white fragility

I have been wanting to write this post for some time. I went to a lecture by scholar Robin DiAngelo on February 26th about something she calls white fragility, or the difficulty white people have when confronted with the topic of racism. She wrote a best-selling book on the topic, as well as other related works. You can find out more about her work here: https://robindiangelo.com. I had a lot of feelings as a result of this lecture, but for some reason, my thoughts have been pretty slow as I process the material.

DiAngelo has a lot to say. I guess she has spent a couple decades studying the topic of racism, so I cannot say she has one point to make, but the most persistent message of that particular lecture was that we (including her; she is white) are uncomfortable talking about racism, and our desire to retreat from this discomfort does a great deal of harm.

I went into this lecture thinking: I’m good, right? I mean, if you talked to me for a while and got to know me a little bit, you would probably give me at least a passing grade on this topic. The intentions of my heart are kind, even open, even humble. So…I’m good, right?

Eh…

I would like to put one thing she said at the end of her lecture at the top of my discussion of it. She briefly mentioned guilt – she said she does not feel guilty. Guilt is not useful. However, she believes she is responsible for challenging the socialization she talked to us about. I found that helpful.

Anyway. This socialization she worked hard to make us see is one of white privilege and systemic racism – both terms that can make some people roll their eyes and feel skeptical about. It is worth entertaining the idea that those things are real, though. If there is a claim that a group of people are being hurt by something we are a part of, should we not at least take a second to hear the claim?

One of the most powerful things I took from her lecture was her critique of the common, perhaps-not-said-out-loud, definition of racism: an individual who consciously does not like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them. I think when I am asked how I define it I use slightly more grown-up words, but my definition is usually kind of similar to that. Diangelo said this definition actually protects the system of racism.

I thought that was interesting. So, my definition of racism is part of the problem?

Racism is a system, not an event. It is not a matter of if I am racist as an individual, but how I am standing here in this world that gives me a host of advantages and how this came about and how I perhaps unconsciously or even consciously work to keep it that way. Not a matter of if – but how. She defined systemic racism as collective group (racial) prejudice backed by legal authority and institutional control.

As a white person, I enjoy a healthy representation in the halls of power. Most of my elected officials are white. As a white person, I am looked at differently by institutions like law and education. These are aspects of the privilege I live in. It is interesting to me how some people hear statements like that and roll their eyes. This is not the days of slavery…everybody has the right to education and due process and the right to climb political ladders of success.

I just want to challenge that for a second. Human nature is…kind of habitual, both in action and thought. And human nature is particularly attached to the experience of power (actually, I do not know much about the animal kingdom, but I imagine this is true for more than just humans). So one social group at one point found it advantageous to exploit another and use it for unpaid labor. Which means one social group was very decidedly positioned above another. Years went by, and one day, after a long struggle, someone decided the unjustness of this needed to be corrected, and the slavery was outlawed.

But the truth is, one social group was used to thinking they were above another social group. And no matter what the law says, any social group that experiences power is going to be hesitant (to say the least) to relinquish that. So what these people in the more powerful social group told themselves and their children for generations still had this message behind it: we are on top. We are on top. Maybe there is a virtuous message now: We should not be on top. Or we should treat the people who are not on top the same as we treat each other. Or some version of those things. But all that still says it: we are on top.

And no matter how wonderful the painful, blood-won victory of emancipation was, we were on top and we really still are. It is in the way we think about ourselves, and it is in the way our institutions think about us, because those institutions are made of people like us. So it just makes sense, in light of what we know about human nature, that unjust realities did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation or even the Civil Rights Movement or even the election of Barack Obama. Yay for those things, yay for progress, but we are still on top, and we still like it that way. I do not think personally that anyone should go around wishing he or she were on the bottom in some way, but I think if we find out we are unconsciously but actively keeping others back, or turning a blind eye to people who do (which results in a lot of pain and even death for people), well, then, maybe we should do something about it.

I went online and looked for some facts about systemic racism, because specificity is important. I found a good article from the respected US News & World Report (https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/at-the-edge/2015/05/06/institutional-racism-is-our-way-of-life). A few facts to consider are:

-Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults in the court system than white children.

-One study found that people with black-sounding names had to send out 50% more resumes before they got a call back.

-A black man is three times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop, and six times more likely to go to jail.

-A black person who kills a white person is twice as likely to get the death penalty than a white person who kills a black person.

-Black people stay in prison up to 20% longer than white people convicted of the same crimes.

That is just a handful of the stats in one article on the subject…

DiAngelo asked the audience (primarily white people like myself) how our race has shaped us over the years. She did a thing in general during this talk which I like to think of as zooming out – she challenged us to take a break from thinking of ourselves as unique individuals and rather contemplate the power of belonging to a social group. Here are some ways she suggested race has shaped us:

-A general sense of belonging from birth to death. This might not seem like it is that important, but the more she talked about it the more I realized it is very important. She put some pictures up of classrooms and weddings, and everybody was white in the pictures. I thought about my own wedding pictures. Most people – almost everybody – were white. No black people for sure. I reflected on how interesting that was. Because really for most of my life, I have not had to feel the discomfort of being in environments where most people looked and spoke differently from me. That does give me a deep sense of belonging. It is odd how something that seems so superficial actually runs so deep.

-Representation in the halls of power — she pointed out that even though Congress is more diverse than it has been in the past, it is still primarily white. Most presidents have been white – one exception! – and all VPs have been white.

DiAngelo defined white fragility as the inability to tolerate racial stress. Racial stress is triggered when our positions, perspectives, or advantages, are challenged.

She said that racism hurts – even kills – people 24/7. And it is worth feeling uncomfortable to do something about that.

A friend who does anti-racism work just sent me an article that I found helpful in answering the inevitable what-do-I-do question. You can find the article here: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/ne95dm/how-to-be-a-white-ally-to-people-of-color

A few takeaways from this article about 100 ways white people can make life less frustrating for people color:

-Do not assume or guess the race of a person.

-Do not assume that a person of color knows everything about their country of heritage. We do not know everything about America, Germany, Sweden, etc…we should not assume others are walking encyclopedias. They are more than that.

-Regard people of color as autonomous, unique individuals, not as representatives of their race.

-Do not endlessly complain about how terrible white people are.

-Never try to tell a person of color what is or is not racist.

-Share articles relating to the everyday experiences of race and racism written by people of color.

-Support small businesses owned by people of color.

-Do not ask Black women if it is their real hair (I have done this).

-Confront your colleagues who say racist things at work.

-Commission people of color to make work about race.

-Commission people of color to make work that has nothing to do with race.

-Be cognizant of how your whiteness could be weaponized against Black people i.e. white women, do not play into stereotypes about Black men being inherently threatening to you. It gets Black men killed.

-Remember: Being an ally is a verb, not a noun. You cannot just magically be an ally to people of color because you say you are one, it is something you must continually work on.

You can find a lot more in that article. DiAngelo said one good thing white people can do is talk to other white people about racism. Maybe that is an easy takeaway…maybe it will prove harder than I thought.

So….now that I have written this post, I’m good, right?

I think this is a world that is more complicated than I used to think it is. It requires more of me than just thinking about important things once and leaving it at that. I think it is difficult in this modern world to know which things to value, which ideas to care about. After spending just a moment thinking about racism, it seems that it is an important enough topic for me to keep it open. Rather than close the book and put it on my shelf so people can see I have read at least some of it.


P e t a l s

**I wrote this in October, when sunflowers were in season. Scott likes it better than anything else I’ve written.**

Petals

“Cut the sunflower a little lower – there!”

Jenny listens to her manager and snips the thick stalk

She nestles the bloom into a bed of seeded eucalyptus

Then picks up a stem of pale green hydrangea

And works it in, working, working, as fast as she can

The delivery driver waiting, watching, tapping his fingers on the counter

Trying not to think about the homework

He needs to do when he gets home tonight

Jenny’s hands are flying now, bringing in solidago, spiral eucalyptus,

And rust-colored mums

And she keeps moving the sunflower, which doesn’t seem to want

To stay in the right place

And she tries not to bruise the golden petals

Like the worker on the California farm

Who made the first assault

When she took her knife to the base of the stem

And swept up the bloom to

Add it to her growing bounty of gold

Her name is Ana and she makes less

Than Jenny’s supermarket wage of $9 an hour

When Ana made that first cut,

She was thinking about the milk in her breasts

That needed to be pumped before the day was through

And she was thinking about the sleep she didn’t get

When baby Anita cried all night long

And she was thinking about the petals

Bright, garish, and oppressive in their ubiquity

And yet relentlessly beautiful

And she was careful not to bruise them

As was the bundler in the packaging room

Whose name is Betty and whose wrists were tired

They are always tired

Vern, the Ameri-Cal Floral driver, knew that day 

That he had a long night ahead

The road was not his friend, but it was

Always his companion

And he was not thinking about the petals

Of the sunflower, now wrapped and bundled in a long box

Vern was thinking of his favorite radio show,

“Night Figures,” a speculative show about aliens

That was just about to start

When he revved up the engine

And he was thinking about his next cig,

Which was nestled carefully in its soft box in his left pocket

Vern handed the flower box off to Josie at Floral Distributors, Incorporated

At 3 a.m. this morning,

And Josie, frazzled but hardened in her overnight shift

Handed it off to Steve, the driver, who didn’t like talk radio

But preferred top 40 hits instead

Steve was thinking about how he wanted to maybe go back to school

He was still young, he thought, and maybe he

Could make it in business

Maybe

Steve was thinking about that when he handed the box of sunflowers off

To Jenny at 7 a.m., who smiled

And in her brown eyes he thought he saw the tiredness he felt

And he made a joke about coffee

And she laughed

But it wasn’t funny

And he knew it

The piece is finished now, the sunflower is set

“Just one moment, Alex,” Jenny says,

“And you’ll be on your way.”

She scrawls “You are my baby forever, hope this makes you smile”

On a tiny square of paper

And writes a name and address on a tiny envelope

Amanda, a tired mother of three, opens her door twenty minutes later

She emerges from a cacophony of childish noises

And brushes a blonde curl away from her green eyes

And she blinks at the sunflower

And the hydrangea, and the seeded eucalyptus,

And the rust-colored mums

And the tiny envelope

And she knows that the fight they had last night

Is over now

And she takes the vase

Careful not to bruise the petals

Of the flower she has always thought

To be a little garish, maybe a little too bright

But he can’t be expected

To know that

remember


remember this when you are grown
the feel of mommy’s cheek
the blue, the pink, the golden hues
the simple way you speak

i can whisper this to you
the words will disappear
but still i pray you’ll feel it when
you’re staring down that beer

maybe i can’t hold you then
when they have pushed you down
maybe i’ll be dust and earth
and it feels good to drown

i know that there are wolves out there
that daily life can drag you
i know the screens can numb your mind
i know the boss can nag you

i also know though — as do you —
in this tiny moment
the breeze, the freshness of the clouds
this life
— and power to own it

remembering is nothing more
than my whole heart in yours
i cannot fight your battles, son,
but love can push your wars


Red and pink nothings, and something more

You know, for a while, Valentine’s Day was my favorite holiday. I was single during this time, and I think I liked the fantasy inherent in the holiday. I loved the hearts, pink sweaters, flowers, and overall effervescence of the day.

One year, the idea of romance soured for me and the holiday lost its charm. That’s a long story, and I don’t want to get into the details, but I mention that because I know that is true for a LOT of people. I feel ya.

Then I met my husband Scott and the idea of romance became not just a fantasy but something real, in the flesh. Now it is a comfortable romance. A groove we have settled in…so Valentine’s Day isn’t a fantasy anymore because I don’t feel the need for fantasy anymore. The holiday doesn’t affect me emotionally anymore, really (except for the fact that it makes work — at a flower shop — a nonstop crazy train).

I know a lot of people feel bad on this holiday, which is targeted mostly at couples but shoots painful darts at people who just feel fucking lonely. I think…you should know some things if you are single and the displays of flowers in the grocery store and ubiquitous ads for sweets and roses and restaurants cast a shadow on your heart:

❤️You should know that you are valuable. That you are loved…I don’t always feel my faith or know it for sure, and sometimes it feels like I have more questions than answers, but over the years my heart has had reason to believe that your Creator loves you so much that He gave his life for you. You are valuable. You are loved.❤️

Your breath, your sight, your thoughts, your body – they all occupy amazing space in this universe, uniquely carved out of this crazy life for you. You should know that that is enough. That you do not need someone to have sex with or take selfies with to be somebody special. You are enough. Just you.

You should know that your longing for closeness is okay. You should know that we all feel that.

And you should know that loneliness is real for a LOT of people. I have experienced it. So cry if you need to. It’s okay. But feel empathy and solidarity for the billions of people who have this feeling of loneliness.

Know that loneliness is not a permanent thing.

Know that love in friendship and family is love too.

And know, if it helps, that romantic love is a real thing and a possibility. Don’t give up hope. It can be real, and good. Deeper than Instagram…not without its share of pain and work…real. Deeper than romcoms, deeper than Tinder or Bumble or whatever. You don’t have to look like a Kardashian or Jennifer Lawrence or some plastic fantasy to find true friendship and tenderness. It’s out there.

❤️Most of all, know you are valuable and you are loved.❤️

Maybe we all need to know that.

…tiny creative acts of kindness: workplace gifts

The other night, I created 11 tiny drawings for my coworkers at the floral shop. I stuck them inside their aprons yesterday morning (since they were so small, I didn’t want anyone to miss them, so I told them all to check their pockets when they got there. Everyone always steals everyone else’s tools, so I think — judging by most of their expressions — they may have thought I was wondering if they took something of mine! But they smiled when they realized the gifts).

I stayed up until 4 am making them, and I had spent some time on them the previous night as well, working a total of 14 hours or so on this offshoot of the larger “creative acts of kindness” project.

This one was my favorite. McKenzie, my coworker, actually did check her pockets right away and thought someone had stuffed candy wrappers in there. She was pissed for a moment!

“Creative Acts of Kindness”

Let the making begin…

I recently decided to embark on a project. Not sure how long it will go on. Maybe a few more months. Maybe a year…maybe the rest of my life?

Gee, that would be cool. I hadn’t thought of that. The rest of my life. Hmmm. Well, I won’t commit to that, but I will tell you about this idea I have. It’s pretty simple, really:

I am making little things (little enough to fit in an envelope), and I am sending them to people. I am choosing the people. They can’t ask to be included. It has to be a purely from-me, me-initiated sort of thing. Not that it’s all about me, but it will always start with me. Otherwise, I think I’ll get worn out pretty quickly. I’m going to see how long this pulse of creativity will radiate from my heart toward the world.

(I know a whimsical lady who will smile at this sweet ballerina…it has a tie-thingy so it can hang up wherever she wants to put it. I don’t know why she is closing her eyes. Maybe real ballerinas don’t do that, or they would run into stuff. Oh well. She’s not real, so there!)
(I have an odd hobby of making paper dolls. I get to pretend I can design gorgeous clothing. Paper dolls fit in envelopes, so they qualify for this project.)

So far, I have created 10 pieces of creativity to send in the mail. I haven’t sent them yet. When I get through the list of names and addresses I currently have written down for this project, I will take them to the post office and send them off. Just to make people happy.

Because, why not??

(Beads are one ingredient to the Creative Acts of Kindness project.)

As a special offshoot of this project, tonight I am putting together tiny drawings for my coworkers. I work at a flower shop, and this is the time of year (Valentine’s Day!) when the floral world goes full-on crazy, delivering flowers to all besotted heroes who want to woo their loves.

Anyway, I am probably projecting somewhat here, but we are all getting more and more stressed in preparation for this madness, so I thought I would sprinkle a tiny bit of goodwill around the shop. Tiny drawings…nothing much. But a hell of a lot of fun to make (why do I love little things so much?!). And maybe it will make them smile. We’ll see. 🙂

(Here are the tiny drawings. Each one is based on a conversation or two I had with the person who is receiving it. I have an idea of which flowers or plants most of my coworkers like most, but I did have to guess for some of them.)

I initially wanted to send out ten “Creative Acts of Kindness,” but then I had the wonderful realization that I don’t have to stop there. I am just going to keep going until it isn’t fun anymore. So far drawings, poetry, paper dolls, and necklaces have materialized with a specific person in mind for each one.

We’ll see where it goes………..