November 28, 2016

5 ways we can own America’s Racism without letting it Define Us.

I was sitting in my colleague’s family living room in Cameroon, West Africa shortly after Obama was elected when BBC footage of a KKK rally appeared on the television.

We’d been drinking beer and watching music videos, so it took me a second to recognize that the white-sheet-clad people I was watching weren’t part of some surreal dream.

When I did, I recoiled.

I turned to face the dozen brown-skinned African men and women in the room.

“What the f*ck is that?” I exclaimed, in my characteristic socially awkward bumble.

A few people smiled, exonerating me. Others just stared. I was embarrassed.

At that moment, it was completely irrelevant that I wasn’t raised that way. It didn’t matter that technically I was a Jewish woman so would never have been allowed into that buffoonish Klan marching club in the first place. I was exactly what I represented there, in West Africa: a white American wealthy enough to travel abroad.

Over the course of a month in Cameroon, I hadn’t encountered anyone who resembled me. It was humbling to be judged, first, by my skin color.

I thought about saying something more, to explain that the people on the screen were an anomaly and most Americans didn’t think that way.

It occurred to me that I no longer knew whether that was true.


Today, many of us are embarrassed to be part of a country where it has become alarmingly obvious that many people think this way.

Preparing for whatever comes next requires we delve deeper into our personal reactions.

We must honestly own our racial realities.

And so I offer five ways we can own America’s racism, without wallowing in it, or letting it define us:

1. Embrace our inner WTF.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune to interact with a true sociopath (whether a lover, a parent, or a serial killer) you probably struggled to understand what makes that person “like that.” Grappling for explanation probably drove you bananas.

If you are one of the millions of Americans who had an internal WTF reaction to Trump’s rants, do yourself a favor and don’t try to figure him out. It’s impossible. Embrace your inability to spiritually, emotionally or psychologically understand that level of hatred. Be grateful that isn’t in you.

2. Acknowledge our naivité.

Those of us who haven’t dealt with regular overt racism and immediate threats to our freedom are privileged. Cellphone cameras and changing media perspective has made us cognizant of issues like police brutality and a criminal justice system targeting brown skinned people. Peripheral awareness has already begun seeping in to our consciousness.

Whilst those pointy white hatted marching buffoons may still seem surreal, we’re now aware they’ve been haunting our country all along.

3. Disarm ourselves.

Entering this reality can be tricky, particularly if this is the first time we’ve stepped up to contribute. Righteous indignation can serve a real purpose. Fighting blindly is dangerous.

Don’t let preconceived notions or fear fool you. It’s human to feel vulnerable now. It’s human to misinterpret the discomfort, anger, or fear strangers exhibit as personal.

Remember, we aren’t mind readers. Most people aren’t entirely present every moment of the day. We may seethe because someone appears to be a racist reacting to our skin color, or someone appears to be perceiving us to be the racist. Yet, in reality, that individual may have an issue with crowds or social anxiety, indigestion or the inability to pay their rent. Even now, it’s possible to assume that most strangers are inherently good.

We have a rare opportunity to support each other elementally. Some of this will happen naturally enough. We are aligned in this largely because Trump has managed to degrade and alienate so many different people on such a primal level.

His speeches discredit everyone’s suffering and healing. Women who have been sexually assaulted, gay and lesbian people whose parents reject them; heck even veterans with PTSD have been taunted. He has irked women who believe they are unattractive and those who have been objectified because of their physical beauty. He has made fun of disabled people.

Assaulting the most vulnerable parts of our lives is a deliberate tactic dictators and garden variety abusers have always used. We should be mindful of how we react to it.

We can be grateful if it makes us indignant—enraged. That is its own form of resistance. Resist wisely. Don’t panic. Try your best to live in the moment. Grace has its own power.

When it comes to defending the rights of minority populations and immigrants, people who are being overtly targeted specifically based on race, many of us are already there. We can draw on that connection and do what we can.

Attend protests. Organize. Sit next to a person on the subway being taunted, or stand up to defend her. Look everyone in the eye with kindness. Acknowledge our shared humanity. We are already in this together.

This year may seem about choosing sides, but it’s also about shifting consciousness. That shift starts with individuals.

4. Acknowledge our ancestors’ racism.

Many of us freaked when we learned family members, neighbors or friends supported Trump, and/or were closet racists.

Internal revulsion is a sane reaction to ignorance. However, we must acknowledge these individuals are also part of our own histories.

Some of our ancestors owned slaves. Others are immigrants who arrived sometime after the Civil War. My Jewish great grandparents emigrated from Russia to the Bronx around 1920. They never discussed their life in Russia.  My grandmother also had a habit of dissociating emotionally; perhaps from guilt over surviving seven young siblings who died from disease.

Non-articulated family traumas can scar us.

My grandmother believed hate was a dirty word. You said “I don’t care for” this or him, whether referring to borscht or a person, never “I hate…” Three generations of my family lived in the Bronx for over 60 years. They were part of an insular Jewish community alongside insular Puerto Rican communities and insular African American communities. They worked together and joked with each other and for the most part got along.

They also spoke smack about each other.

Although Nana didn’t believe in saying hate, she used otherwise derogatory terms such as “chink” when referring to the people who cooked her lo mein every December 25th; and whispered outmoded, even comical words like “goy.”

My mother was revolted by these terms. She never used them. Yet odds are she inadvertently absorbed some of that sentiment. She had close African American, Latina and Asian friends throughout her life. When she was young, she worked as a temp in ethnically diverse neighborhoods throughout the city, had good relationships with her co-workers and never thought anything of it.

However, she later absorbed trauma over 25 years of teaching in inner city public schools. She was physically assaulted.

While grappling with her own demons at home, she was wounded by her student’s pain. The NYC Board of Education bureaucracy straight-jacketed teachers. Classroom problems escalated as more children grew up with parents in prison or parents addicted to crack.

My mother lacked real context to understand why these families were capsizing. She’d never been shown the veined labyrinthine map of US race throughout history and couldn’t completely fathom exactly how street drugs, poverty, violence and incarceration may have impacted her student’s parents. She also felt powerless to help.

Accordingly, occasionally, a less than compassionate phrase comes out of her mouth to describe some of the people she worked around. I cringe listening. I acknowledge that and try to let it go.

Let’s quash the guilt. It’s perpetuating the problem. We need to stop blaming each other.

We all have flawed histories. Some of us may have grown up as army brats, on hippie communes or to mixed race families in accepting communities and may never have been slipped a real dose of prejudice. That is not the norm. I have plenty of friends from different cultures who have absorbed very different yet equally prejudicial ideas throughout their lives.

It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, Latino, Muslim or Asian. Collectively, we’re a fragmented, wounded society perpetually double-dutching over old trauma. This includes ancestral and incendiary trauma, the results of simply living in this wonky, complicated society. Nobody is immune.

5. Celebrate this decade.

It is only when our freedoms are threatened that we learn how precious they are. We’re blessed to be part of a country where an African American man was president for eight years, where gay couples can marry and a woman won the popular vote.

This election has struck visceral chords ranging from indignation to compassion in action.

It has woken us up.

Although it may appear to have divided us, on a human level, it has also brought many of us closer to our authentic selves and to our shared humanity.

That is our silver lining.


Author: Danielle Wolffe

Image: @elephantjournal on Instagram

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren

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