Examining My Own Racism

Today in Houston a group of urban riders on horseback joined the Black Lives Matter protest there. They were fifteen or twenty black people mounted on beautiful horses. (I love horses. They’re all beautiful.) When I watched the clip I had a moment of surprise at seeing black people on horseback. This is racism in my brain: that moment of surprise before I self corrected and told myself that of course black people ride horses. Why shouldn’t they? Yet that pause in my comprehension shows that I have stereotypes in my head. We all do. It is the work of a lifetime to discover them and counter them. After that moment of surprise I did a bit of reading and learned about the history of black cowboys which has been erased from public awareness because they were not included in popular media and cowboy mythos. This is racism: where a people’s contribution to the history of this country is erased by hundreds and thousands of individual decisions not to include them.

Racism lives in all our heads. I do my best to catch mine and correct it before anyone else sees it or is affected by it. However, I’m not perfect. No one is. So there may come a day when someone calls me racist. In that moment I want to have the personal courage and humbleness to not react defensively. A person crying racist is like a person shouting “Ow!” when I step on their foot. I hurt them and it doesn’t matter if I meant to or not. My job is to apologize and step back, then learn better where to put my feet. It is possible that the person I hurt will not believe my corrections are sincere or sufficient. It is my job to not get defensive about that either. Instead I should take an additional step back and get some neutral opinions on whether there are further reparations I need to make for the damage done. “Neutral opinions” is not me going to my friends for reassurance that I’m an okay person. It is me finding perspective, which includes an evaluation of boundaries to protect myself as well as repair the damage done.

Social media and the news is very noisy about racism this week with the ongoing Black Lives Matter / George Floyd protests. We saw similar protests on a much smaller scale in 2014. I’m encouraged that the news reporting of these protests is far more nuanced. I’m encouraged that more white people are learning how to explain and understand racism. I’m hopeful that the two months of practice we’ve had thinking collectively because of the pandemic will transfer to the systemic racism in my country. The “All in this together” slogans should not just apply to quarantine and pandemic. The only way to stave off another great depression is to make sure that we take care of the economically disadvantaged and remove the obstacles that keep them poor. Racism has to be addressed as part of that because it is a silent and pervasive obstacle in our country.

Years ago I watched a friend at a convention telling people that he had a terminal illness with only about five years left. Over and over he would speak the news and then have to feel the person’s emotional reaction to that news. Over and over he comforted his friends about his own impending death. Because the experience was dramatic it stuck with me, but the same holds true on a less dramatic scale. Everywhere those black horse riders go, they likely encounter people like me: white folks who are surprised that they exist. Time after time they have to be patient while white people work through that surprise. This is a very common way that racism impacts people. I, as a white person, can go ride a horse and no one will question me. I can just enjoy my ride. The black horse rider likely ends up having conversations about their existence with random white people instead of just getting to ride. (Note: I’ve not actually talked to a black horseback rider about their experiences and because of what I’ve just pictured in my head, I probably never will get to because I don’t want to accost some random horse rider and contribute to the problem. If I have a friend who is black and who I discover likes to ride horses, then during a conversation where they choose volunteer information, I might get to hear about their experiences.)

I’m afraid I’ve rambled a bit in this post. It doesn’t have a cohesive thesis nor a firm call to action. My college English professor would send it back for a re-write. But I’m going to leave the ramble, because the work of confronting our own racism is messy and confusing. We will feel contradictory things. We will have dozens of thoughts. I know I’ve revised and re-revised my understanding of racism a lot in the past few years. I did a pile more thinking and revision in the past week. This week is extra challenging because my emotional bandwidth was already impacted because of Howard’s health and the pandemic. It is less important for me to do a pile of advocacy and reading all at once than it is for me to commit to spending time learning and advocating in small pieces, as I can, over the long haul. Racism will not go away when the protests subside, not unless people actively work to make it go away. Bit by bit, year after year.