Combating Racism – What I Have Learned

95 WEEKS

That’s the number of weeks that I have been writing a blog post and sending a weekly newsletter devoted to combating racism.

My goals have been: to educate myself and others to much of America’s history of racism, to learn about and try to understand the Black experience in America, to learn how I and others can help combat the terrible disease of racism, and to acknowledge the many significant contributions Black Americans have made to our lives. I’ve tried to raise awareness of the extent of racism in our country and the degree to which it impacts our fellow Americans today. Frequently I have suggested action steps each of us can take to begin to eradicate systemic and interpersonal racism.

In my newsletter and blog post of January 3, 2021, I wrote about the two types of racism: systemic racism and interpersonal racism.

Systemic racism exists across a society and within its institutions and organizations. Examples include housing discrimination, social segregation, racial profiling, predatory banking, lack of access to quality healthcare, hiring/promotion practices, criminal justice inequities, educational disparities, etc.

Interpersonal racism occurs between individuals and is based on the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals. These beliefs or behaviors stem from unconscious and conscious biases. In many cases, this form of racism, which includes microaggressions, can be subtle such as telling a racist joke or crossing the street to avoid passing a Black man.

Each of us as individuals can take specific actions to stem the tide of both forms of racism.

97 WEEKS

The number of weeks since George Floyd was murdered (and add 6 days).

Before George Floyd was killed, I was one of the people who claimed, “I’m not a racist.” But after his death, I realized that wasn’t enough. Saying “I am not a racist” implies that racism is not my problem. This absolved me from taking action against racism. It elicited no change, no work, no real thought. I didn’t have to care to understand racism. In fact, I didn’t much think about it. But after I witnessed Darnella Frazier’s 10-minute video, I remembered a graduate school professor once said, “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.”

George Floyd’s murder inspired me to think about what I, as a privileged White woman, could do to combat racism. Given that the pandemic was raging, I felt uncomfortable attending rallies. But I wanted to do something to combat this plague. So I made a commitment to take responsibility for my own anti-racism education. I watched TED Talks, videos and films; I read books and articles; I attended workshops and online classes.

And I wrote—I used the power of words to convey what I was learning. You’ve read the results of much of my probing in my various newsletters and blog posts over these 95 weeks.

WHAT 95 WEEKS HAVE MEANT TO ME

In a recent webinar, a participant suggested that my audience wants to hear my voice—not just information, but my personal interaction with it. I was inspired by her suggestion. It’s hard to think about all I’ve learned in the past 95 weeks, but this post is my effort, however feeble, to capture what these weeks have meant to me.

When I set out to research and write about racism, I never imagined that I would be able to write a blog/newsletters every week for 95 consecutive weeks. Some weeks I struggled, “What will I write about this week?” Sometimes events in the current news cycle stimulated my thinking. Other times, I followed my own curiosity and hoped that you would find my writing interesting.

One thing became clear: I was constantly struck by how little I knew. Like many of you, my understanding was informed by the lack of education and exposure in my world.

Sure, I’d read a few books over the years – The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, among others. But I hadn’t really internalized the issues at hand. I set out to rectify that.

OPENING UP TO BEING TAUGHT

Engaging

I enrolled with A Long Talk About the Uncomfortable Truth, an anti-racist activation experience. In that program, I completed a pre-work multimedia experience devoted to the history of racism in the United States and the impact it continues to have on our society today. The pre-work was followed by three days of virtual conferences in which participants listened, viewed, and responded in real time in large and small group settings to these learning targets:

  • Day 1, making connections between our shared American history and our current reality.
  • Day 2, using specific protocols to challenge racist comments and beliefs.
  • Day 3, identifying and overcoming internal and external challenges which may hinder me from activism.

And over the weeks, I shared many of the insights I gained from that amazing experience.

For more information about this program, or to enroll, you can go here.

Reading

I began to read, and read, and read . . .a lot. Many of the books I’ve read have been listed in the various newsletters I’ve published in these 95 weeks. Fortunately, the breadth of non-fiction literature about racism and the history of Blacks in America has increased in recent years and writers like Isabel Wilkerson, Ibram X. Kendi, and Richard Rothstein, to name just a few, have excelled at in-depth portrayals of the history of our country.

I read the New York Times magazine issue dated August 18, 2019 about The 1619 Project authored by Nikole Hannah-Jones. The magazine contained 17 essays, each written by a contemporary Black writer, on different aspects of contemporary American life that have their roots in slavery and its aftermath.  And on June 13, 2021, I shared much of the controversy surrounding the project and its study of the nation's past. To re-read that newsletter, click here. And to read more about the project itself, click here.

Researching

I researched organizations that are committed to erasing racism and sent lists of them to those of you who read my posts. I have joined several of them and made donations; and I’ve learned that some of you have also made donations to the work of these organization. To see the list again, click here (from my newsletter of July 12, 2020) or here (newsletter of October 11, 2020).

Lobbying

I have written many emails to my Senators and Congressman, and those from other states, asking them to take action on various bills in Congress and commending them for their stances. I have lobbied my local and state legislators to pass bills in my jurisdiction and my state that will eliminate racist policies and policies that disadvantage minorities. And while the results have been discouraging, emailing makes my voice heard. I urge you to do the same.

I am again sharing the links to access each of your Senators and Congresspersons in the hopes that you will reach out directly to them to pass legislation that will reverse racist policies of the past and provide access to health care, affordable housing, and voting rights to disadvantaged Americans.

Watching

I have watched countless hours of movies, videos, TED talks, and YouTube videos.

The movie that had the greatest impact on me was Accidental Courtesy. It’s the story of Darryl Davis, a Black musician, who became friends with and attended rallies of the Ku Klux Klan with one goal: to find out why people hated him when they didn’t even know him. Davis spent years opening a dialogue with people he called his “adversaries.” Over time, several KKK members relinquished their membership in the organization as a result of their relationship with Davis.

Watching the movie reminded me of a Racism class I took as a graduate student. The professor gave us a semester-long assignment to learn more about a group that we feared, disliked, or felt resistant to. We were to pick a group that we didn’t understand. We were to record our experiences, our reactions, and our insights. I chose Jews for Jesus, since the very name seemed incongruous to me. I spent the entire semester attending their events, talking with their members, and asking lots of questions. What I discovered: I became less reactive and less judgmental. My experience didn’t take the same courage, or involve the same risks to my physical well-being as that of Darryl Davis. But I remember his message—that if we respect each other’s points of view, we can learn about those who are different.

Question: What organizations could you reach out to in order to learn more?

To watch Davis’ TED talk, click here.

Communicating

In July 2020, I wrote about ways that we can engage in potentially uncomfortable conversations with people unlike ourselves. In these past 95 weeks I’ve initiated a number of cross-racial conversations which have opened my eyes to the micro-aggressions that Blacks and other minorities encounter every day. To see examples of such microagressions, refer to my newsletter and blog post of August 23, 2020.

I became less afraid to speak my voice. Early on in my writings I shared a conversation I overheard on a bus when two men were making anti-Semitic comments. Back then I was afraid to stand up and speak up. I cowered in my seat, a behavior I’m not proud of. But in these past 95 weeks, I have found courage; I now speak up when I hear anyone disparaging another person, for any reason. I refuse to listen to or engage with anyone who tells racist jokes or jokes that disparage any other group or person.

One day, while I was taking my morning walk, I was about to pass two Black gentlemen who were seated in a park near my home. One was wearing a t-shirt that said, “I am not an angry Black man.” I stopped and asked him if he’d be willing to talk about the message on the t-shirt and he acted only too happy to engage in a conversation. We had a lengthy chat about what it has been for him to be a Black man in America and what it means to me to be a White woman of privilege. I learned that two very different people could enjoy each other’s company and share their personal experiences without judgment. I wish I’d taken his contact information, but I walked away without it. And I’ve looked for him again, many times on my morning walks. I have never seen him again.

For guidance on how to initiate a potentially uncomfortable conversation, see my newsletters of July 26, 2020 and August 30, 2020.

Donating

I have learned the importance of donating to organizations that work to eradicate racism and support those struggle from its impacts. I have researched many of these organizations and encourage you to donate to them and their work. Your dollars can make a difference. You can find lists of these organizations in my newsletters of July 12, 2020 and October 11, 2020.

I have become an advocate for cash bail reform and have donated to the Bail Project, a group which pays bail for people who can’t afford it. As this is a political election year, I have already asked several candidates to tell me their positions on reforming the current cash bail system. I invite you to do the same.

UNDERSTANDING HISTORY

One way that we become more attuned to racism and its impacts is by understanding our history. This knowledge helps us to make sense of our current world and present-day issues. I set out to learn as much as I could, and to share those learnings.

What I discovered about the extent of racial violence in our country in the 19th and 20th centuries shocked me. Only as an adult did I learn about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. But I had never learned of the many other similar race riots and massacres in the many cities across our country: Cincinnatti, (OH), Five Points, (NY), Philadelphia (PA), Detroit (MI), Memphis (TN), Camilla and Opelousas (GA), Colfax, (LA), Meridian and Carrollton (MS), Hamburg (SC), Wilmington (NC), Atlanta (GA), Slocum (TX) Springfield and East St. Louis (IL), Charleston (SC), Chicago (IL), Elaine (ARK), Ocoee, (FL), Rosewood (FL), Beaumont (TX), Columbia (TN), Peekskill (NY), and Washington, D.C.

Nor had I known the extent of lynchings which I wrote about in three parts in November (22 and 29) and December 2020. And as gruesome as the images were to me, especially given how much I detest violence, I assumed that if I had never seen anything like these images, many of you never had either. I was horrified to learn that lynchings were treated as festive gatherings, with people bringing their children to watch the horror and photograph it.

Learning about the origins of the Jim Crow laws, and about the extent of discriminatory federal legislation infuriated me. Why had I never learned this before? When I discovered how the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Acts of 1935 and the National Housing Act of 1934 discriminated against racial minorities, I was outraged.

Maybe you think I shouldn’t have been. But when I was in school, Franklin Roosevelt was portrayed as a hero. My parents had voted for him and spoke of him as a great man. No one ever pointed out the ways his laws under the New Deal were tantamount to a deliberate system of segregation that has contributed to today’s housing, health, wealth, and educational disparities.

PROGRESS?

A number of significant events have given me hope in the past 95 weeks:

Kamala Harris became the first woman of color to be sworn in as Vice President of the United States. According to a Civiqs poll, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has increased since George Floyd’s murder. This month, President Biden nominated, and the Congress confirmed, Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the next Supreme Court justice. She is the first Black female to become a Supreme Court justice.

Confederate monuments and symbols have been brought down across the country, including in states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. And the Robert E. Lee statue has been removed from the U.S. Capitol. It is scheduled to be replaced with a statue of Barbara Johns, a pioneering leader in the American civil rights movement.

Juneteenth has been recognized as a federal holiday; businesses have begun to consider their role in sustaining inequalities and “Chief Diversity Officer” has become the fastest-growing role among C-suite positions. Many companies are renaming or retiring products with racist names. The NFL is renaming several of its professional football teams and eliminating the race-norming practices I wrote about on June 27, 2021.

The criminal justice system has begun to take action against racist murders. Derek Chauvin was convicted of second-and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd and three other police officers who were with him at the time were convicted of violating George Floyd’s civil rights. The three White men who chased and murdered 25-year-old Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in south Georgia were sentenced to life in prison with two having no chance of parole.

The convictions of innocent Black men are being rectified by having their convictions exonerated for crimes they did not commit.

While these are indications of change, there is still much to do.

COURAGE

I’ve written much about little known Black men and women—lawyers, scientists, inventors, doctors, civil rights activists, and others—to show how sometimes a courageous act by one person can set in motion a series of events that bring justice to an entire nation. It only takes courage.

Ask yourself these questions:

What frightens me about standing up against racism and discrimination?

How did I muster my courage at a time when I was fearful? How can I recapture that same courage?

Courage is not the absence of fear. Rather, it is looking fear in the face and refusing to be intimidated. Today, we all need courage to:

  • Stand up in a county council or city council meeting
  • Stand up against racist remarks from friends, colleagues and family members
  • Initiate a conversation with a Black man or woman you do not know
  • Listen with an open mind to his/her experiences—without judgment
  • Stand up against a justice system that favors White people
  • Question political candidates to determine their positions and seek anti-racist answers
  • Commend those journalists who report accurately on what they see
  • Face the reality that 250 years after signing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, systemic racism still exists in our country
  • Accept that saying “I am not a racist” is no longer enough

With courage, each of us can take steps to eradicate the hate and fear that lies behind much of today’s racism. Specific steps were outlined in my January 24, 2021 newsletter. You can find them here.

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NEXT STEPS

As I turn my focus to other writing, I hope that I have made a contribution, however small, to the eliminating racism in our country. I would like to believe that my writings have impacted you.

Raising awareness of the ways we have perpetuated systemic racism is everyone’s job. Combating racism requires aggressive action to address structures, policies, and practices that contribute to the wealth gap, to health disparities, and to inequalities in educational access, outcomes, and beyond.

I firmly believe that ordinary people can remake our society until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals and we can thereby “create a more perfect union.” And while I won’t be writing weekly about combating racism any longer, my commitment to doing everything that I can on my individual level will continue. I invite you to join with me.

When I think of my grandchildren’s generation, I want the world they live in to be one in which every life is seen to have inherent value.

“The prevalence, and pervasiveness, of racial discrimination might make the situation look hopeless, but we remain hopeful. Let us expose the racism and racial discrimination endemic to every society, around the globe. Let us press forward, to root out that discrimination and remove the rot from our foundations. And . . . let us leave our children a less hateful, more hopeful world.”

— U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield
March 21, 2021

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I'm excited to share the news: my memoir, A Daughter's Kaddish: My Year of Grief, Devotion, and Healing will be published this fall by Wonderwell Publishing. Watch for more information to come.

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