Saturday, July 9, 2016

To My Non-White Friends, Can We Talk?

I have 478 Facebook friends that include individuals from my childhood and college, my high school and university teaching, my family, and my current community.

38 of them are not White.  Another 5 are raising children who are not White.

I just spent time going through my friends' profile pictures, making visual judgments about their race and ethnicity.  In many cases I easily categorized based on skin, last name, and my personal knowledge.  In some cases I was surprised.  I tagged individuals as non-White based on their skin tone and last name when I had never thought of them this way before.  This was an eye-opening exercise for me.

Over 90% of my friends enjoy white privilege, just as I do.  This does not surprise me as I grew up in and currently live in areas that are very homogenous in terms of race and ethnicity.  I've met the majority of my non-white friends in college and professional settings, but as I looked at each of them - REALLY looked at each of them - I had a realization.

I have only had one conversation with any of my non-white friends about prejudice and what it means to live in a world of white privilege.  Though I have thought about them in the context of race and inequality, I have not asked them about their personal experiences or struggles.

My social media feeds are filled this week with calls for change.  Somehow the recent violence has created a deeper divide - one that makes anyone (like me) who supports the notion that #BlackLivesMatter automatically anti-police and/or anti-White. Ultimately, at the heart of the violence - whether against unarmed black men or police who are protecting their citizens - is racism.

I have posted blogs, videos, and thoughts about this issue as my response to the violence, and I've collected some texts worthy of reading here.
How to Mess Up Your Kids' Understanding of Race - "Teaching colorblindness is racism’s friend, not it’s opposite." 
"It's Not Us Vs. Them" - A police chief in Minnesota has a solution to violence 
Why #AllLivesMatter is not a good response to #BlackLivesMatter - a nice analogy that may help you to understand the movement a bit better 
On Mothering White Sons to Know #BlackLivesMatter - an important read for my white friends, as we can make a change through our children 
Not just us? Using classrooms to get (White) people to talk about race - written by my colleague David Kirkland, who is brilliant and passionate and teaches me daily 
This American Life, Cops See it Differently, Part I and Part II - some great examples that will make you think about the current issues in a larger context - from both sides 
Trevor Noah breaks it down on The Daily Show - The first step is to admit there is a problem. An American problem. 
Operation Breaking Stereotypes - I did some work with this organization a few years ago, and it amazed me.  We need more projects like this one.

My reading over the last few days has convinced me that I need to do more.  As I posted on Facebook,
I am always amazed by the courage of the Freedom Riders and other civil rights protestors. I don't know if my generation has that courage. We've never seen a draft, and many have only see violence through their screens. Somehow we need to find the courage it takes to put our own lives, and the lives of our children, in danger. Action, not just posts on social media, needs to happen. What is the action that we need to finally realize that ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬?
Like many, I am at a loss for what I can do, but I think I need to start with conversations.

As a white girl from a rural area, I had little understanding of the complexities of race in society.  My college professor, Meenakshi Ponnuswami, changed my world.  In the first article she assigned to me my freshman year, she invited me to consider that "Christopher Columbus conquered America."  Her course asked me to view history and the world through the eyes of others, not the edited version of white privilege.  After that class, I enrolled in every course I could that would help me to understand the history of Blacks in America.  I became pretty book smart about the topic, but I never had the courage to talk to my black friends on campus about their experiences.

But I really got schooled in graduate school during a workshop where I was the only white person in the room.  As the black women surrounding me talked about issues of race, I couldn't contribute.  I had no experience and no perspective, and in that moment, I realized I needed to do more as a teacher for my own students.  I opened conversations in my predominantly white classrooms about other voices.  My students and I read literature written by minority writers alongside the required canonical texts written mostly by white men.  I tried to have the conversations, but I didn't have the courage to ask my few non-white students about their experiences as individuals.

I've learned that we, as a society, need to have more conversations about issues of racism and prejudice.  We cannot go "colorblind." As a teacher I have tried to open conversations, but I have not done so as a friend.  I am hoping to do that now.

So, to my non-white friends (and the parents raising non-white children), I would like to have these seemingly hard conversations.  I would like to know about your experiences with prejudice and what it means to be non-White, and I would like to share those stories with my own children so that I can have these important conversations with them.  If you are willing to share publicly, please do so that my white friends can learn from you.  Otherwise, help me to start this conversation between us, either through messages or over a drink the next time we see each other.

To my white friends, I encourage you to do the exercise that I just did, read the texts above, and start conversations with your non-white friends, as well as with your children.

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