I was talking with my partner a couple of weeks ago about how I look up to a shared friend, and how I wish I could be like her in pursuing my passions. I mentioned how I had accomplished a goal because I repeated a mantra to “Be like __(my friend’s name)” until I had reached that goal. I said how impressed I am by her tenacity and follow-through, and she’s only half- but I stopped, catching myself. I was going to say, “And she’s only half black.” Just before that, I had said something to the effect of feeling disappointed that I didn’t always believe that motivation of wanting to be like her could apply to me because she is black and I am white.
I pondered this. My initial response was to want to shut down the thought and push it away; being a privileged white girl, my previous disposition was to not have an opinion or express my opinions about race because I felt like I didn’t have the right to. But I have attended multiple Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon, and I’ve learned a lot from attending and listening to black people. Some of the things I learned are:
1) Racism is still running rampant and is much MUCH worse than I ever thought.
2) White voices and other non-black voices are important to the discussion of race because we can use our privilege to work within the current system and/or reach folks that might not be open to hearing from people of a different race.
3) Everyone has racist thoughts and biases.
4) There are many ways to be an ally, but one of the most important things to do is to recognize the racist thoughts and biases we have in ourselves and challenge them, understand their roots, and educate ourselves to transform those biases.
I learned more things, but these are the most relevant for this example.
Instead of ignoring and disowning the thought, I went deeper into it. I asked myself why I thought my friend’s blackness was a fundamental element to her success and I arrived at the belief that black people are better at pretty much everything, especially hard work. When I felt the sensations that accompanied this thought, I realized it originated in my childhood; from an underdeveloped understanding of evolution. I thought that her enslaved ancestors evolved/passed down genes of being mentally, emotionally, and physically stronger, just to be able to survive the horrific ravages of slavery. This was back when my concept of evolution was “the more a trait is used, the more it is passed down,” which is incorrect.
Once I recognized this was where my belief originated, it was easy for me to recognize the flaws and fallacies within the belief; and I didn’t feel ashamed for it. I felt guilty that it had influenced my perspective, but I didn’t feel like I was an inherently hateful person for having this bias. When I recognized this root, I was able to dissolve the racist belief by applying my current, better educated, understanding of evolution.
Furthermore, I had a subsequent realization that my previously held belief undervalued and invalidated the conscious effort my friend has put into creating her life and pursuing her passions. It undervalued and invalidated much of the struggles and triumphs she lived through based on her merits and her strength as an individual, not only as a black woman. I did feel guilty for not seeing the depth and breadth and height of excellence she has demonstrated, but I also felt amazed when I did finally see a more accurate reflection of her character.
My friend is truly phenomenal. She has achieved so much and lives an abundant life full of passion, enthusiasm, grace, connection, beauty, understanding, and growth. Her life isn’t perfect, but nobody’s life is. I’ve seen her intentionally choose how to handle difficult situations based on her values and respond in an authentic manner. I’ve seen her demonstrate living a lifestyle that I want to emulate; and when I motivate myself to do/be better, I tell myself I can be like my friend if I continue to put in the effort to pursue what I want. I genuinely believe I can be like my friend because her success is not dependent on her ancestry; it is dependent on her dedication, creativity, and discernment.
By acknowledging a racist thought I had, I was able to change it by understanding the ignorance it was created from, and compassionately educating that ignorance. I feel better about myself for resolving that racist bias within myself. I feel more capable of being able to continue resolving biases within myself as they arise, and I also feel better able to communicate with others to understand their biases and compassionately educate them so they will hopefully resolve their racist biases as well. (And maybe even create a ripple effect that they might start to compassionately educate others, too!) By resolving this racist thought I had, I am able to see my friend more for who they are, and less of a preconceived notion of who I think they should/would be.
I still have racist thoughts. I still have racist biases. I still put conscious effort into doing/being better every day; and so can you.