It is easier for me to develop a theory about racism than it is to keep bringing my behavior into alignment with my values even as my understanding grows about race in my own head and in the world around me.
Last March, Donna Britt (author of Brothers (and me)) and I brought our memoirs to Washington, DC’s Busboys and Poets monthly A Continuing Talk On Race gathering. The question posed to the room full of people was, “ How does telling our personal ‘race stories’ advance a community discussion?”
One of my significant awakenings about race happened when Cynthia Renfro told a story about her mother, Pat, set in 1965 in Dallas, Texas. Hearing about Pat’s encounter with a “White’s Only” sign in a Laundromat jumbled all I had previously believed was true about my home state as a Texas 5th grader in 1965. I’d never noticed any signs. Where they there, but I hadn’t notice? What else hadn’t I seen?
I’d rarely thought about race as a child, nor noticed signs of inequality.
When I made that comment at Busboys and Poets, Donna reported that she’d been conscious about race every day of her life. Clearly my experience as a white girl was different than the experiences of Donna, Pat and Cynthia as black girls/women.
For all of my teen and adult life, I have held enlightened, progressive beliefs about skin color and justice. That is good. But that was only a first step.
Woven into the birthing of this nation, racism is entrenched within national values, institutions, education, religion and passed on to us from the moment we were born. Our official versions of history are white-washed. It has been easy for white people like me to make assumptions about how race has influenced life in this country based on our own experience and education. Unfortunately, my opinions have often been wrong and led to division rather than equity and justice.
It all comes back to personal stories. Looking again at what I noticed and didn’t notice as a child. Exploring a diversity of historical stories to gain a broader, and more accurate, understanding of history. Noticing those quiet murmurings inside my head, or those exaggerated reactions that seem to come from left field, to see where and how racism has lodged in my body despite my more enlightened values. And listening closely to people with all colors of skin, trying to understand what life has been like for each of us.
We are all complex and paradoxical. Compassion is needed as we uncover the diversity of stories within ourselves and our culture.
The divisions that still scar our world today are too serious for trivial navel gazing. Sharing story, however, isn’t trivial. Awakening to, then transparently sharing, the truth of our lives and experiences is critical to our joint effort of building a more equitable world.
What stories are you willing to share now that will be a gift to those born seven generations in the future?
This is the final in the blog series exploring the diversity of memoirs held in Big Topics at Midnight: A Texas Girl Wakes Up to Race, Class Gender and Herself.