sitting with the uncomfortable truth of systemic racism

I am not here to teach anyone anything about racism, just to get that out of the way up front. I’m still learning a lot about myself when it comes to this subject, and I’m consciously, actively pursuing this learning. I know enough now to know that I have a long way to go, and while I will share some resources I’ve been using to do this learning, I have not researched extensively enough to know if they are the best or most thorough or accurate resources. Still, I share in case others are looking for a place to start.

I am posting from inside that place of discomfort, where there is a tension between, “I am not the right person to talk about this,” and “I must not be silent about this.” By not being silent, I am not trying to be an ally on a performative level, only speaking out to paint a rosy picture of myself and all the wonderful things I am doing for the cause. For show. Words without actions. I am saying something about striving to become a better anti-racist, because saying nothing makes me complicit in this moment in time when the world is paying attention to exactly how alive racism is in this country, in our communities, and in ourselves. We are either racist, or we are anti-racist.

I do not want to simply re-share others’ words without making it clear that I personally am saying these words. I am outraged by injustices that continue to occur to Black Americans based on race. Also, at the same time and as another source of tension, my words are irrelevant in this conversation, and amplifying the voices of Black Americans is one thing that is needed, so we can hear about the effects of racism from the voices of Black Americans themselves. Using my own voice is helpful only so long as it does not drown out the voices who matter on this subject: voices of people of color. And even so, I am hearing calls for both silence and non-silence by the Black voices I am turning up in my feed, and I have felt paralyzed about how to show up and show my support without making it about me, without being performative, without diluting Black voices, but also without being silent.

In an extremely low-risk setting, (minus the coronavirus concerns), Quinn and I marched in a local protest, where we had no real fear of violence or retaliation by law enforcement to our chants, from behind our masks, of “Black lives matter.” I want to be careful not to believe now that I’ve done this one action, that I have now done my part to end racism. Anti-racism is going to be a lifelong practice, and most of it will go on behind the scenes, in my own insides, where I have to find a way to stay in this zone of discomfort, knowing I can’t fix it, knowing it’s in me even though I reject it, knowing that I have benefited from it and finding a way to get curious about what racism still looks like in my own heart. My place in the conversation is primarily one of listening. Noticing when I feel defensive, taking that as a signal of where my garden has some weeds I need to pull. Digging in deeper. (Also, signing petitions for justice, emailing people in positions of power, showing up in my community, donating to organizations helping people of color.)

I have believed my whole life that I was not racist. Growing up, it was because we attended school with a Black family, The Walkers. My brothers and I each shared a classroom with one of the Walker boys, and their Dad was the baseball coach. We were definitely not racist because they were our friends.

I remember learning that the church I grew up in, the Free Methodist church, was founded in 1860 (and named “Free”) because their breakaway sect from the Methodist denomination was anti-slavery, and because they refused to charge a fee for sitting in pews, as this would exclude the poor. Despite this inclusive beginning, among the congregation I belonged to over a century later I heard many overtly racist attitudes verbalized, when such matters as interracial marriage arose, say, because someone’s daughter or son-in-law was Black. I heard how someone, “had no problem with Black people,” just so long as they didn’t mix in marriage with whites. It took a long time before I thought about how being anti-slavery as a denomination didn’t necessarily mean our church was welcoming to Black members, or actively fighting racism. I had learned about slavery in school, and knew it was wrong, and being on the right side of that issue was comfortable.

I nodded my head in agreement in 1992 when En Vogue played on the radio, “free your mind, and the rest will follow, be color blind, don’t be so shallow.” The next year Michael W. Smith, my favorite contemporary Christian musician, really got me on board with being color blind:

There’s not a world of difference

Out in the world tonight

Between this world of people

Red, Yellow, Black and White

But instead of riding a rainbow of love

We still are fighting with prejudice gloves

Of anger

With something to claim

But nothing to gain so

Why can’t we be color blind

You know we should

Be living together

And we’d find a reason and rhyme

I know we would

Cause we could see better

If we could be color blind

Being color blind was comfortable, because it meant that we were unable to see differences like skin color. The problem is, if we can’t see them, we can’t celebrate them, nor can we recognize how they are used as an excuse to oppress. There is no shortcut to erasing four centuries of oppression.

In college, I had friends and housemates with brown and black skin, and they were my friends. I was definitely not racist. I was a little miffed that some of them had been admitted to college on scholarships because of their skin color, because I had actually had to earn my scholarship through academic achievement. I wasn’t sure I liked Affirmative Action, because I felt the playing field should really be level and have nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Wasn’t it just racism in reverse, if someone like me with good grades could be bumped out of a position by someone with grades not as good, who happened to be Black? I did not like to think my generation needed to pay the price for previous generations of white people who committed grievous acts like owning slaves. At that time I did not recognize how I started off life on second base simply by being born white, when my Black peers were trying to make it on base at all, just based on the difference in our skin color. I did not know that reverse racism cannot exist, because racism is prejudice plus power, and can only exist in one direction – coming from the people with the embedded power from a long history as a racial majority, aka white people.

I attended my friend’s graduation from University of Delaware, where Ben Carson delivered the commencement address, and I felt the surge of pride and hopefulness that a Black man could be so successful, could do groundbreaking conjoined-twins brain surgery and achieve so much. We really had come a long way since the olden days, a long, long time ago, when racism had been a thing. I did not realize that pointing at the token successes of a few wildly successful Black people such as Oprah and Obama and black ball players is just one of the many forms of covert racism, one of the many ways to stay comfortable in white supremacy.

(Source) Scaffolded racism resources – I really like this resource and the way it presents an easy grid to find your stage in confronting racism and access resources to help you move past it.

In graduate school I encountered for the first time the poisonous line of research known as eugenics, in which race inferiority was the a priori conclusion motivating a whole branch of “scientific” inquiry. I only discovered this because I was studying whale conservation genetics and looking at the concept of fitness in behavioral ecology. Until then, I had had no idea that science had been misused to justify slavery, segregation, the denial of voting rights. Luckily, that type of belief being underpinned by false scientific conclusions was a thing of the past. (I thought.) I did not know that the horrifying legacy of abuses of people of color in the name of “research” still pervades contemporary science and medicine.

I became a parent, and consciously included toys and books representing people with different skin colors in my son’s life, wanting to make sure he didn’t end up with any unconscious biases based on race. I think this is when I finally started to realize I, too, had biases to overcome, when I started to realize that actually, racism might not be totally in the past, that maybe some of my beliefs might have some evolving to do.

In kindergarten, Quinn had three teachers: a white lesbian, a Hispanic woman, and a Black woman, and I felt so great about providing such a diverse learning environment for him. Long time readers will remember Quinn spent exactly two weeks in kindergarten, but that was still plenty of time for me to realize my clumsiness in this area in which I had just gotten done congratulating myself about my enlightenment. The day Quinn described his teacher’s skin as chocolate, my post was entitled “diversity”. I’ll never delete this part of my process, though it is a tiny bit painful to read now. This post, in which I committed many of the faux-pas I am now learning to be aware of, such as “I’m so ashamed,” claims that I do not have a race bias, and the urge to “fix” anything to do with awkward feelings around the uncomfortable topic of race, depicts where I was truly at, and looking at it is uncomfortable because I kept going in the process and did not stop there. It is an insightful mile-marker for me to look back on. I’m starting to be able to see where those “I’m ashamed of my whiteness” thought patterns just center the conversation back around my white self, rather than keeping the spotlight on the very real, atrocious experiences of Black people. I’m uncomfortably aware that this current post centers very much around my own white process, and my goal is to show up and be accountable, not to make the story about me, but to hopefully highlight how everyone is at a different place in the process. I have been at a lot of different places in the process, too. I am 100% sure I am saying something now that in my ignorance I will look back on and wish I had known to say differently. Nevertheless…

Right now where I am in the process is a place that is not nearly as comfortable as some of the other places leading up to this one. The more aware I become, the more uncomfortable the truth of the issues becomes, and the more unlearning I realize I have to do. My goal right now is to stay in that place of discomfort. I think that is how I will know if I am going in the right direction, because the more I know, the more I realize I should not be comfortable with anything to do with systemic racism in America. I should not work at becoming comfortable that a system that was established to catch slaves (the police) is committing violence against Black and Brown bodies every day. Even when they are not literally deprived of breath, they have to walk in fear, as described poignantly in a passage I stumbled across by Shola Richards about how he only walks his dog with one of his daughters along, never as a lone Black man, and his follow up post describing how everyday life events white people take for granted, for him, present a relentless stream of challenges; “death by a thousand papercuts.” My place in the conversation is as a listener. The links in this post are an effort to amplify a few black voices who have gotten through to me in some way. I am committed to continue listening. When I hear, “racism work is NOT a self improvement space for white people. If protecting bodies & empowering Black lives aren’t at the center of your work then you’re not here for Black people – you’re simply going through motions to make your white self feel better,” from a voice (Rachel Elizabeth Cargle) I am listening to, I am committed to noticing how uncomfortable that makes me feel, and pressing against that discomfort to be able to hear the truth in her words. And keep going to figure out how to protect bodies and empower Black lives in my community.

The framework of DARVO from which Rachel Elizabeth Cargle presents anti-racism work parallels something that I experienced in a domestic violence context. I’m saying that not to make this about me, but to say that her words turned on a light for me. DARVO stands for “Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim/Offender.”

“White supremacy is being the ex boyfriend who somehow always came out of the argument as the one who was hurt.” ~ Rachel Elizabeth Cargle

Reconciliation is only possible when the abuser can get to a point where they can listen to the person they’ve hurt define the hurts they’ve delivered. Many of us never receive this from our abusers, even if the abuse stops. Even if the abuser has completed a searching and fearless moral inventory and enumerated for themselves the ways they think they abused us, it falls short.

When I hear, “all lives matter,” it sounds to me like a refusal to listen to the victims of abuse say in their own words how they have been abused. There are a million examples on the internet you can google of how this feels just like replying to your spouse asking if you love them with, “I love everybody,” or sharing about the loss of a loved one and being told, “all people die.” To say all lives matter in response to Black lives matter is a refusal to listen to someone who is in very real pain. I don’t get to tell them about the hurts I think I’ve delivered. They get to tell me. I’m listening.

The uncomfortable truth about systemic racism is that it’s inside me. Wanting to maintain comfort is a white supremacist yearning.


If that thought makes you squirm, find a way to enter the conversation as a listener. Do it as a sports fan. A history buff. A scientist. A Christian. Stay uncomfortable. Sit with it. Keep listening.

The truth of systemic racism is uncomfortable, but I’m not going to die from it; many, many Black people are dying from it. I am committed to staying awkward and vulnerable, and uncomfortable, because it’s the best indication I have that I’m going in the right direction, towards justice for their lives. I don’t want to get comfortable with this ever again. I appreciated the sign of one of the teens at the protest that read, “Don’t Look Away.”

3 comments to sitting with the uncomfortable truth of systemic racism

  • Lau

    I applaud you and I love this post. It is so often uncomfortable to have the difficult conversations…even with ourselves…being open to continuously learn and evolve is necessary for all of us.
    Black lives matter. They MATTER. A simple concept.
    This country is so racist it is horrifying to witness people being treated inhumanely. It is horrendous the way a country can watch people be murdered and those responsible not arrested, or arrested weeks later due to viral videos on social media. So many still have no justice to meaningless innocent lives lost.
    I know I have a lot to learn. I know I will keep fighting, donating, speaking up, and signing petitions, writing letters (thanks for sharing your info w me babe) and having the difficult conversations.
    No Justice No Peace
    ✌ ☮

    • I appreciate the info you’re sending me as well, the Neil deGrasse Tyson article you sent me is linked in this post, I feel like reading in his own words what it is like to be a black man in America is so important. Something new for me from what he wrote, was that when Rodney King was beaten on camera by police, it was assumed justice would be served and for months all was peaceful. It was 13 months later when ACTUAL EVIDENCE ON CAMERA was disregarded and the cops were acquitted that the riots occurred. All I’ve got to contribute is how it feels to be white mb in this country, so I’ll give what I got, and we’ll keep learning and growing together.

  • lau

    Cheers to learning and growing together ❤

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