(ORIGINAL PUBLISH DATE: June 12th through my newsletter)
Growing up in Northern Vermont in the 1980’s, ethnic diversity was practically nonexistent.
I saw people of color on Sesame Street, and I was a big fan of LeVar Burton on Reading Rainbow. But I mainly just knew ‘other’ ethnicities through the TV screen.
I distinctly recall the first time I saw an African American person in real life.
I was five years old, on an errand with my dad in downtown Burlington. We were outside Woolworth’s department store and a tall black man strode across Church Street.
It was an amazing sight – to my young mind people that looked like him could magically transport themselves into the imaginary worlds of books and had singing muppets for friends.
When I entered first grade, there were two biracial children in my elementary school. Their skin colors were ‘different’ from mine, but they did not seem that different otherwise. Similar socioeconomic status, parent vibes, etc.
The kids that were shunned were the poor white kids, dubbed “scutters” by the children with more robust means.
Because of the complete lack of diversity in my home state, it took several more years for me to be overtly exposed to the inequality, injustice and segregation that exists in this country. But even then, I didn’t get the real story.
In middle school we were taught “African American History,” which started with slavery in the US. I cannot recall any education about the history of African people before slavery.
Furthermore, it was presented as though racism ended with Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream” speech in 1963.
Sure, there were some hiccups in racial relations since then, but nothing presented by my teachers as notable. It was framed as though it was all on the up and up! The version of ‘black history’ I learned could certainly be deemed whitewashed.
When I was ten or eleven years old my school did an exchange program with an inner city school in Philadelphia. An African American girl came and stayed with my family in the big old farmhouse where I lived. She seemed very different from me.
We were both polite, and did our best to play together. But we clearly had totally different ways of talking/playing/being.
At the end of the visit, all the kids doing the exchange program got together for a daylong outing on some Vermont farmland. As the afternoon wore on, the adults were up on the hill chatting and snacking from big bowls on collapsible tables.
Us kids were down playing at the end of a field, at the edge of the woods. Our game slowly morphed into an us-vs-them battlefield, with the white and the black kids pitted against each other, trying to “get” and “escape from” one another.
The game didn’t feel like it had animosity or maliciousness. We were just naturally dividing and play-acting the roles society had cast us in.
I never went to Philadelphia to stay in my exchange students’ home. Why, I wonder? Why didn’t I go? I can’t remember how that decision was made. It certainly could have been money or logistics, or perhaps the fact that the girl and I didn’t really hit it off. But what other fears or unconscious discrimination might have been embedded in that choice?
And how might the facilitators of the exchange program have better prepared us to process and enjoy our differences? Instead of shy away?
I recall the first time I went to New York City. I was 12 years old and got to ride the subway. As I looked around and saw the rainbow of ethnicities, I was thrilled. Where on earth did all these people come from? It felt so right to be amidst that vast array of humans.
At 18 years old I moved to New York City to go to Tisch School of the Arts. For the first time I experienced genuine ethnic diversity in my day-to-day life.
I recall the fist time I kissed a black man. We lived in the same dorm. He was sooo handsome and we’d held lingering gazes quite a few times in the dining hall. One evening we were riding up the elevator to our dorm rooms and impulsively started smooching, then pulled apart when the elevator “dinged.”
Since then, thankfully, throughout my adult life my connections with people of color have become so numerous that they no longer stand out as in my first 18 years.
However, integrating with a more diverse community has not meant there isn’t awkwardness, unintended offense, and ongoing revelation of my own unconscious prejudice.
Before living in diverse communities, I had a hodgepodge of incomplete, objectified and inaccurate representations of African American people. I’ve smacked myself on numerous occasions throughout adulthood, realizing I could have handled a situation with more grace, or shaped my words better.
And really, it has only been through the choice to self-educate by reading books like The New Jim Crow or attending talks delving into the reality of white privilege that I’ve begun to fathom the depth and breadth of racism that drives many seemingly unrelated aspects of our society. Only begun.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had many open, candid conversations with the people in my life about racism. We’ve talked about how to move forward with the new wave of information and energy spurned by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmad Arbery.
Amidst my white/privileged friends, there is an urgency to “do something more” paired with this old question that has been implanted so deeply in the unconscious of the privileged: But is it really my job to try to solve this? Is it really my business? I believe in equality, I’ll vote for the best candidates that’ll support measures to better serve people of color! Isn’t that enough?
I was pondering this question last week while peacefully washing dishes in this lovely Joshua Tree hotel room I’m posted up in.
I was feeling the sweetness of my life, and how far away the protests were… how far away other peoples’ ‘problems’ were.
Then I involuntarily looked down, and envisioned myself standing on a mountain of bodies. The bodies of the indigenous people of the land that became the “United States,” who were slaughtered by colonizers. The bodies of African slaves whose labor made it possible for white people to thrive and build this “society.”
My privilege isn’t just represented in how easy it is to smile my way out of a sticky situation with a cop, or slide into a position of power in an organization.
My privilege has also given me the option to NOT LOOK DOWN and witness the gruesome foundation that all the loveliness of my life has been built upon.
But is this really privilege?
The privilege to remain ignorant and immobile…?
Last weekend I went to LA and got to participate in one of the Black Lives Matters protests in Hollywood. It was so powerful. So beautiful.
As the march got moving, there were people hanging out of slow-moving cars handing out free water and snacks. A young black man smiled widely at me and offered me “free water or sunblock.” He was holding a spray can of sunscreen.
The sun was beating down hard and I hadn’t put any sunscreen on that morning. I said, “yes I’d love some.” I leaned in toward him.
He said, “okay close your eyes.” I did, and he sprayed down my face, around my mask.
I thanked him and turned to walk away, then he said “wait, I gotta get the back of your neck too! Lift up your hair.” I did, and he sprayed down my pale neck.
Then he gave me another big smile, full of care and kindness, as we parted ways.
I’ve been pondering what I feel called to do that will make for greater waves and deeper change for the lives of people of color in this country. I keep coming back to this one thought – Ariel, you gotta host an anti-racist reading & action group.
When I’m educated with the facts, I cannot help but take action. When I’m well informed, I know how to respond intelligently in situations where racism is apparent. I am able to use my voice for the betterment of society, instead of feeling silenced by my ignorance.
Furthermore, participating in a group provides a supportive space for both honesty and accountability to not just steadily learn, but take strategic action as well.
It is up to each of us to honestly feel into how we are called to respond to this movement, and this moment. But if you are interested in taking part in this anti-racist reading group I’m organizing, please reach out to me through the contact form.
I have hired a consultant who is devoted to her own path of self-education and action, and she helped me shape the list and structure for the group. (I say “hired” but the “fee” she requested was a donation to the Trans Women of Color Collective.)
I’m calling it UnCentered, because it is about un-centering oneself from the dominant white narrative. All ethnicities/ages/genders are welcome.
Perhaps it would be nice to take a few moments now to feel your seat, feel your feet, feel your breath…
And feel into this brand new day…
Ps. If you want to receive notes and news and join upcoming free online classes from me, be sure you’re subscribed to Ariel’s List