Getting woke is not a trend. Awakening happens when empathy illuminates ignorance.
I knew it was wrong to be racist towards black people from a young age. We learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. in elementary school, and he was a hero of mine. Although I lived in a small town in the South, I didn’t witness a lot of white-black incidents because there were virtually no black people there. There were only three black people in my high school, and, yes, they were all related.
So, I grew up thinking that the Civil Rights movement was a victory, and I lived in a mostly post-racism world.
Do you feel differently about these two photos? If so, why?
I also believed myself to not be racist. I read books about Native Americans and African Americans my junior year for US History and stared at my white-skinned hand in dismay. I learned about the evolution of our political parties and--to the horror of my classmates--declared myself a Democrat.
Meanwhile, twenty percent of my high school was Hispanic. TWENTY PERCENT, people--and I was friends with exactly zero of them. In my mind, they were a foreign and separate student body that happened to share the same school building. I assumed the majority of them spoke Spanish, and were Catholic, and were just so different than the rest of “us” that they were happy to just hang out with each other. I don’t know if any of those assumptions were remotely accurate, because I never asked.
This was all completely subconscious. I spent four years in a virtually segregated school and never noticed.
All four years, I spent my extra time working on the newspaper and yearbook in the journalism classroom. It was located directly across the hall from the ESL classroom, which was a hub for the Hispanic students. We were the only two classrooms at the end of this out-of-the-way hall, and still, I never spoke to any of those students.
One day, a fight erupted in the hall. We rushed out, as bright young reporters do when they smell blood. It turned out a white student had called a Hispanic student a “wetback.” One of the bigger guys from journalism (white guy) helped break it up. Then we all went back to class, and life went on as usual.
My hometown is in the BUCKLE of the Bible Belt. Nearly “everyone” (except of course the large, invisible Hispanic population) was white. The most diversity I was accustomed to was different denominations of Protestant Christianity. The Baptists were the mainstream crowd. We Methodists thought of ourselves as the quirky underdogs. Anyone else--like those Church of God people--well, they seemed really strange.
Like many small-towners, it wasn’t until I went away to college that I experienced real diversity and learned to see racism.
A Jewish girl, a black girl, a Vietnamese Buddhist, a white Catholic, and a white Protestant sat in a room.
This isn’t the lead in to a joke. It was my dorm room, freshman year, hanging out with my nearest neighbors from the hall. We were swapping stories, and we realized all the sudden what a strange assortment we were. We marveled at our differences.
Unfortunately, most of my rapid awakening came from less lovely experiences. Many students at my college came from nearby Midwestern cities, especially Saint Louis, and the race relations came right along with them.
The first question other freshmen asked me was not “Where are you from?” but “What high school did you go to?”
As someone from a small town in another state, I felt confused--why would they care? But I soon learned that many white kids in Saint Louis try to get into private high schools to avoid going to inner-city public schools, and they have a hierarchy.
When I dated a white boy who went to a certain Saint Louis high school, other students literally congratulated me. When I dated a black boy from Saint Louis, I was asked how my “jungle fever” was going.
There were constant racial tensions and conflicts. For example, there was an area of the student commons where mostly black students gathered, and there was controversy about people calling it “The Black Hole.”
In my tiny-town ignorance, I full-on stepped in it.
A gregarious black girl lived across the hall from me and often had lots of friends over who would banter and laugh and sing. A bunch of us mostly white students called them “Cramer BET” (the name of our dorm + Black Entertainment Television). They complained, and I was honestly surprised--I didn’t know it was racist.
Even after I declared a double major in anthropology and enthusiastically joined Adelante, a newsmagazine for Latinos, I still had major blind spots. My editor called me in to discuss an article I wrote. It was profiling a local beauty pageant where the contestants competed to raise the most funds for their community, often by selling food.
I had begun the whole article, “When you think of beauty pageants, you probably don’t think of tacos…” My editor said, “YOU don’t think of tacos. This is a normal event in their community.” Then she asked me if they were really selling tacos, and I had to admit, no, the contestant in question was selling pupusas. Instead of writing for mid-Missouri’s Latino population, I unconsciously had written for an audience like myself--white and ignorant.
I stumbled through my attempts to be empathetic.
Reflecting on my high school experience, I decided to write an in-depth article at the local high school chronicling the tension between the ESL population and the white students. However, when I pitched the story idea to the ESL teacher and students at that school, they told me my assumptions were wrong and that the ESL students were well-liked.
I ended up following an ESL student through her day. At 19, she was older than most of her peers, but she had immigrated from Mexico to have a better life. She was determined to be educated, even though the classes were taught in a language she was just learning. She worked nights and lived with her boyfriend. Her American classmates seemed vapid by comparison.
The semester I fell for the aforementioned black boy from Saint Louis was the first time I deeply engaged with someone from another race. We were close on campus, but he wouldn’t hold my hand at the mall for fear of repercussions. I didn’t even know that was a concern.
In the single semester we dated, this popular, high achieving student was called in for questioning by the campus police five times--FIVE TIMES--for “fitting the description” of someone who had committed a crime.
I ranted indignantly, and he would just laugh and shake his head at me. I was baffled by his reaction. I didn’t get that as a 6’5” black man, he had already well learned he could not afford to harbor anger.
I happened to be enrolled in a sociology course at the time called Social Inequalities. I learned about the “white savior complex” and self-diagnosed.
When I went home on school break, I saw everything differently.
I noticed when people lumped all Latinos together as “Mexicans,” and I heard the tone that implied “dirty” even if it wasn’t said. I saw the Latino-owned stores that white people didn’t go in. I saw the white people eat the Mexican food but not really see their waiters. I heard the comments about black people and brown people and immigrants.
My dad’s work got raided by ICE. They stormed in with literal buckets of chains and started capturing brown people indiscriminately. My dad’s colleague got released when he yelled, “I’m freakin’ Cherokee, man!”
More than a decade later, I am still running into my blind spots.
Every time I unearth a prejudice or confront my ignorance or see something in the news or watch a pointed movie (damn, Spike Lee!), I feel shame. I feel shame that I am not doing more. I feel ashamed of my white-person shame. I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the historical and on-going trauma. I feel confused.
And my reaction to that shame is supremely unhelpful paralysis. I feel afraid of getting involved, only to reveal my ignorance and accidentally cause more trauma.
It is my choice to fight against this shame and keep waking up.
It is a struggle I cannot in good conscious put down. I must risk being wrong, stepping in it, and getting called out. It’s only a risk to my ego. The risk to my soul from not trying is far greater.
I have to examine my own motivations for writing and sharing this essay. Is it a self-congratulatory story of personal white-woman transformation that does little to actually change the structures of racism? Probably.
But I hope that it is also a piece of vulnerable accountability that helps other white people take their heads out of the shame-sand and see the work to be done.
So, to my white readers, what can we actually do?
Here is what I have been doing. It’s not meant to be impressive (it’s not). I am sharing because it is what I have to share.
I have been subscribed to the Indivisible Austin newsletter since Trump’s election, which gives me concrete political actions to take each week. From their links, I often learn more about other organizations who are fighting social inequality and donate to those when I can. Indivisible has chapters all over the country.
Last night, I attended an intersectional feminist event through Boss Babes ATX and learned about The Rabble podcast, which is “Texas politics for the unruly mob.” The producers encouraged us to “Stop flipping out and start flipping legislative seats!” I think it will be a great, empowering, uplifting source of political education.
All readers, I ask: what else?
Where did I step in it? What do you think? What do you want others to know? What have you been doing? Where is the next place we can level up in our commitment to a more equitable world?
It’s time to get in the ring.