When my colleagues and I started our 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©, we watched this poem by Norma Johnson—”A Poem for my White Friends: I Didn’t Tell You.” I wanted to return to it to see how it struck me after three weeks of reflection and learning.
The thing I hear most in Johnson’s voice is her exhaustion, the sense of knowing there is no way her White friends can truly understand and empathize with her. This post on Buzzfeed with photographs of people holding up signs of microaggressions they often hear is a good example of the kind of tired Norma Johnson is talking about. It makes me sad. It makes me want to be a better friend. It makes me want to be a better ally, accomplice, and co-conspirator.
Part of what makes it difficult to talk to White people about racism is that they are not affected by it, certainly not in the same way as BIPOC. Racism definitely harms White people in many ways (honestly Google how racism hurts White people and look at a few things), but it can be hard for many White people to acknowledge and understand there is a system at work because many White people feel like they worked hard and maybe didn’t have certain advantages, so everyone should just be able to do it (whatever “it” is). Honestly, this is an opinion I held in the past because I did have a hard time. I didn’t have a hard time because of my race, though. That’s the difference.
As I have said recently, I believe the path to becoming antiracist is like an asymptote. I will strive toward it for the rest of my life (understanding that I will never be fully antiracist) because I think that kind of love for myself and for my fellow human beings is worth striving for. People are not perfect, but we still strive to be better and to do great work. Since I started working on unlearning racism several years back, I am so much happier. I have deep, rich relationships with wonderful people that I might have missed out on due to fear or prejudice. I am so much less afraid. I feel a greater understanding—not only of the society I live in, but also of my role in it. I’m also frustrated a lot of the time because I know the pain people cling to because of racism. As James Baldwin says in his phenomenal book The Fire Next Time: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” I think Baldwin is right that deep pain lies underneath hatred. We don’t have to live with that hatred, and we don’t have to live with that pain.
If you are interested in learning more about equity and justice, I encourage you to try the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©. The only things you have to lose are ignorance, pain, and fear.