Friday, May 29, 2020

Unbitten Tongue

"I'm not racist, but those guys were a bunch of n*ggers!"  ~Dude from college describing some black students at a pick-up basketball game (who were far better at basketball).

"Ugh, why are we listening to this Martin Luther King music?" ~Girl from college upon hearing a group of us listening to rap music.

"Hey, check this out! N*gger lips!!" ~Multiple kids in grades K-12 curling their lower lip and resting their tongue on their upper lip as a joke.

"Black people are just dumber than white people, my dad told me." ~Girl from 7th grade in front of a black boy... who stared straight ahead and said nothing.

"It's not a racist thing, but I just don't find black people attractive." ~Co-worker reacting to a discussion about hot celebrities, commenting specifically on LL Cool J.

"I'm sorry, but I won't be coming to you anymore... it's getting too "dark" around here." ~Client of my mother's who stopped going to the salon where she worked because of the increase of black patrons at the mall.

"Well, you know, all these black people came out of the woodwork and started voting all of a sudden!" ~Appalled family member reacting to Barak Obama's victory in 2008.

"If he would have just listened to those police officers he wouldn't have gotten the shit beat out of him, serves him right!" ~Father of my friend watching footage of the 1991 Rodney King beating.


I am not a confrontational person. It's one of my personality traits that I think has helped and hindered my life in equal measure. While it has helped me to not overreact in many situations, it's also prevented me from saying many things that have needed to be said.

I bite my tongue when I don't want to offend or upset another person. There are so many occasions where I've chosen to keep my mouth shut in order to keep the peace, occasions where I have been personally offended by something, but opted to "not go there" because it won't be pretty. In essence, protecting the offender while my night has been ruined from some offhand comment.

George Floyd is the latest black man to be murdered by excessive force at the hands of police. I watched the footage and once again felt the absolutely nauseating heartache I do whenever these stories emerge. I wonder how the hell this is still happening. I marvel that these cops see people filming and yet continue abusing a non-violent, unarmed black person because they're aware of the historic lack of consequences. I get enraged, and I'm ashamed to say... I haven't done much beyond that. That is going to change.

Check Your Empathy
In reading articles by black journalists and authors, I've gleaned so many helpful insights into the appropriate ways to address these horrific stories with sensitivity to the black community. The biggest lesson is to not make it about you. This isn't about you. Rather than focusing on the emotions that YOU are feeling, express your sympathy for your black friends. Saying 'I'm so sorry this has happened again' or 'I see you' and lending an ear goes much further than expressing how the event has made YOU feel. Again, if you aren't part of the targeted marginalized community, do not make it about you.

Part of me thinks, "I can't win! Even if I express my own shame or disgust, I'm in the wrong!" That statement proves the point. I should focus on re-directing my feelings outwardly and make it about the feelings of those in the community. I'm still coming from a place of honesty; it's still the same sentiment that my heart is broken about what happened, but instead of saying how it affects me, I am recognizing that it affects the black community in a way that I cannot comprehend.

I'm guilty of being that woman who posts my reaction on Facebook and thinks I'm really doing something. I'd feel better since I expressed my disgust and heartache in a wordy diatribe. Again, I made it about me and how I felt. "Oh, people will know where I stand and that I hate when these incidents happen, good for me!" Even though I was being sincere in my words, my lack of action always left me feeling very inauthentic, because it WAS inauthentic. I'd say, "THIS MUST CHANGE!" but without the courage to actually participate in the change. My fear of putting myself in the fight has gone on too long.

If I truly care about these issues of racial injustice and want to be part of the solution, I must educate myself. I will join/donate to organizations that focus on serving people of color, I will read books and attend workshops about how to be an ally. I won't rely on my black friends to educate me, I will do my own work. I can get up on my soapbox all I want and say all the right things, but this is about DOING the right things.

My Lips Are Unsealed
In a previous post, I wrote about how I was always one to speak up against racist comments at school or other situations with co-workers or acquaintances. I didn't let that shit slide. However, when the racist person is my father-in-law, it hasn't been so easy to openly chastise him. Let's just say he and I couldn't be more opposite about many things, but specifically racism.

I'll be honest, it's been a real challenge to endure his racist comments in the almost 19 years of knowing him. My body tenses up and my heart pounds in my chest when he flippantly says things that make my blood boil. I internally try to calm myself with reminders that he has been a father figure to Paul and a great husband to my mother-in-law after a tumultuous first marriage to Paul's biological dad. While his opinions about black people are gross, I cannot deny that he provided a much needed support system for the man I love since his formative years.

One Thanksgiving, years into my relationship with Paul, I couldn't take it any longer and we had it out. It got heated. It wasn't pleasant. There were tears on both sides of the table. I needed my father-in-law to have the decency to recognize that his racist beliefs cannot be on display around me. After so many years of biting my tongue, I was glad to express how his words had affected me, but I was afraid that I may have splintered the relationship between Paul and his parents. As anyone who has racists family members, the feelings are very complicated. You love them but absolutely abhor a big chunk of who they are.

Since that night, we've tried to avoid hot-button issues that could spark a racist tirade. He and I don't have the closest of relationships, but we can be civil. More recently though, he's had the tendency to slip and say offensive things and I bite my tongue. "It's not worth it" I tell myself. "You're never going to change his mind, so what's the use?" I say. "We're only here for a short amount of time, let's not turn this into an argument," my mind screams.

I recently started examining those situations and the position my silence puts me in:
  • My father-in-law says something racist 
  • I choose to let it go because I don't want to cause tension 
  • He has no idea that he upset me
  • I hold in my anger and it causes me stress
  • He moves on completely at peace
  • I'm on edge and exhausted from putting on a happy face to protect his feelings 
It's really f*cked up. He's the one who said something awful, yet I put an incredible amount of energy to not upset a man who inflicted all of these feelings of anger and hurt. He continues his ignorance while I have to expend so much mental energy to figure out how to reform my attitude towards him and remember "he's good in other ways."

Those days are gone. Now, I don't want to turn everything into a heated argument, but a simple, "that is a racist thing to say," can be effective enough. I know I cannot change his mind and it's not even about that. I've always known that wasn't possible, but I cannot stand by any longer and let him say things that are blatantly prejudiced and let him think it is okay. I'm tired of making excuses for him.

And to echo the point I made earlier, this isn't about me. Sure, my own personal emotions get affected, but this is about speaking up for every black person who has had to suffer from ignorant prejudice. My father-in-law epitomizes the attitude that holds back progress for the black community, and as an ally, I will make sure he knows that. They aren't the problem... he is.

Passing It On
Racism is learned, so I'm not teaching it.

Once during a Facebook thread about the Trayvon Martin murder, a black friend of mine thanked me for my sentiments and then said something that I wasn't quite prepared for. She thanked me for "raising kids who won't see her son as an enemy because he's black." I hadn't even thought of that as something notable, I mean, I'm just raising my kids to be good and decent people. But to her, I was taking part in forming a new generation with less racism. As she went on to explain, she had seen the prevalence of black oppression through generations of her own family. From slavery to the civil rights movement, she could track how her own ancestors had been affected by each era. I was so inspired by her hope, even in the midst of such brutal violence on the black community by law enforcement (amongst so many other racial viral stories), she still holds onto hope.

Her words have never escaped my psyche. It is my duty to teach my children to see everyone as equal and further educate them on what has occurred throughout history and what is still happening today. When they see me enraged watching or reading the news, they often ask what it is about. I'm open and honest with them about these issues. And when I don't know something, we look it up together and learn together. I apply this to all marginalized groups. Sure, it's about being an ally... but it's also about doing what is right as part of the human race.

I'm aware to not to pat myself on the back too much with raising good kids... because as I've already stated it is not enough. Beyond talking about it, I need them to see me put those words into real action.


Click below for a comprehensive list of resources for those who want to be an ally to the black community.

Anti-Racism Resources

"In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” — Angela Davis

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