On becoming less racist in real time

Updated: Jul 25

Last Monday evening, I sat in a virtual workshop with the Brethren church. I’m not Brethren - I’m not really anything, actually - but I’ve known this small group of churchgoers since I was a young kid. We’re brethren in that sense, I guess.


The topic of the workshop was this: “If black lives matter to white people, what should white people do about it?”


The first thing that caught my eye was the title. It was provocative. So you say black lives matter to you, eh?


Yes, I silently responded. I have been saying that. What the heck do I mean?


The second thing that caught my eye about this workshop was the facilitator. Jonathan is a storyteller, and I’ve loved him for as long as I can remember him. Part of me wanted to attend because, even at 26, I wanted Jonathan to like me.


Here’s a spoiler: by the end of the meeting, I wasn’t even sure if I liked me.

The workshop was co-facilitated by a pastor in the Brethren church, who began by sharing her church’s own anti-racism work. Part of me admired her, and a deeper part of me was distracted by guilt. Why haven’t I been doing any of that?


When it was his turn, Jonathan gave a history on topics like redlining, white flight, and homelessness. He told us that a black child is six times more likely to be homeless than someone with a serious mental illness.


As I listened to Jonathan, an increasingly familiar tightness began to encroach. I was forgetting to breathe again. I was simultaneously afraid to keep listening, and afraid to stop listening.


Pre-contemplation

(The addict has no intention of changing behavior)


I’m one of those progressives who somehow managed to call herself “progressive” without really paying attention to race. In fact, I didn’t really start paying attention until the killing of George Floyd. At that point, the widespread coverage of protests made it hard to ignore.


“The police are using pepper spray,” my partner told me. And then, her tone changed. She actually laughed: “Apparently looters stormed the Nordstrom downtown. They threw perfume out the windows.”


I didn’t laugh. “Looting is a really bad look,” I told her, as if she was the one hurling Chanel N°5 through broken glass. “It’s ineffective. What’s looting going to fix?”


About two weeks later, I went to a Black Lives Matter rally in downtown Seattle. It wasn’t because I had made up my mind. In fact, part of the reason I wanted to go was simply to collect information: How did it feel to be there? Did it seem legitimate? Momentous? And even though going was inconvenient, reading the right books sounded even harder than finding parking in downtown Seattle.


No sooner did I arrive than I felt profoundly uncomfortable. It started with the rally, with the part where we were meant to repeat whatever was said through a megaphone. I couldn’t hear the speaker, and I couldn’t find the courage to move closer to the stage. That would feel like committing.


Once we began to march, I could hear clearly what we were meant to say. "Say his name." "Say her name." At these chants, I was surprised to find myself tearing up and shouting along. It felt undeniably right to be chanting the names of those who were murdered.


But then, there was this: "No justice, no peace for racist police." "Defund SPD." My mask was its own literal echo chamber. I could hear the waver in my own voice as I tentatively chanted along with statements like “defund the police.”


What does that even mean? I thought. Defund the police? I had no idea the implications nor the feasibility of what I was saying.


I realized then, with a sinking conscience, that I didn't belong there. I was at a protest without knowing why. I felt at once sickeningly white and sickeningly millennial. I had once again skirted the hard work of becoming anti-racist.


That was the bottom.


Contemplation

(The addict is aware that a problem exists)


There’s an old saying in AA: “Bottoming out is when the fear of change is less than the fear of staying the same.”


After the rally, staying the same felt untenable.


But then, there’s another saying in AA: your bottom is just “where you stop digging.” And anyone who has ever tried to recover from alcoholism will tell you that it’s one thing to stop, and it’s another thing entirely to stay stopped. You can always pick up the shovel again.


Case in point: A few weeks after the protest, I still hadn’t read a book. I still hadn’t watched the documentaries. And while I had listened to more podcasts featuring black perspectives, that was largely by accident. I tentatively patted myself on the back for becoming more educated, despite my apparent best efforts to remain in the dark.


“If black lives matter to white people, what should white people do about it?” As I sat in Monday’s workshop, the guilt seemed to echo like my own voice in a face mask.


Preparation

(The addict prepares to take action.)


I have to hand it to myself: normally when I’m spiraling in guilt, I like to stay there. I’m not much for outdoor recreation, but when it comes to guilt I set up camp.


This time was different. This time, I spoke up. Perhaps it was Kathy, who said, “We need compassion and grace for people in different places." Perhaps it was Reba, who private messaged me on Zoom to ask my perspective as a former therapist. Perhaps it was the nudging of the pastor Bonnie, or my longstanding childhood crush on Jonathan.


For whatever reason, I said something.


I told them about hearing myself in the face mask. I told them about defund the police. I told them that I’m not sure what’s stopping me - is it laziness? Fear? Depression? Am I afraid that, if I learn more about being black in the United States, my life will never go back to normal?

Am I afraid that, if I learn more about being black in the United States, my life will never go back to normal?

I told my brethren that I am at my bottom, and I don’t want to stay here.


After I finished speaking, many people messaged me on the Zoom chat. They thanked me for my honesty, told me they loved me, and offered alternative ways of thinking. They were kind.


After I logged off, I wondered: How ignorant did I sound? Are they talking behind my back? Am I now the racist Jolliff kid? Will they tell my parents?


Action

(The addict actively modifies behavior)


Just in time, another thought broke through. Anna, the reason you think they hate you is because you are feeling hate for yourself. I quickly took a moment to issue myself a formal apology. “I’m sorry, Anna. That was a little much. You did your best.”


And then, something else occurred - something I still believe nearly a week later. (These days, that's a long time for me.) And that was this: It has to be okay to be the ignorant one. It has to be okay to be the one who speaks up, only to say something wrong. If it’s not okay to be ignorant, and if it’s not okay to be wrong, I will almost certainly stay that way.

If it’s not okay to be ignorant, and if it’s not okay to be wrong, I will almost certainly stay that way.

It's one thing to be the person in the room who offers forgiveness. It’s another thing entirely to be the person who asks to be forgiven.


It’s important to be that first type of person. If you are a white person who considers yourself fairly far along in your own anti-racism work, perhaps your job is to offer compassion. Forgiveness. To offer correction, and to stay as far as possible from turning this into ego work.


And if, like me, you are the type of person fielding uncomfortable and contradictory thoughts, changing daily, and asking to be forgiven - well then, welcome aboard. We are going to be transformed.


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