Who me, a racist?
Virginia Blackburn was a powerful and beautiful black African American woman working as a social worker at a women’s centre in a poor inner-city neighbourhood in the Midwest. She was a close friend and wise mentor for me in my early twenties. She invited me to different workshops on themes such as overcoming racism, classism, sexism and other types of isms. I was shocked to discover how these barriers had limited my ability to feel close and connected to others. I considered myself a liberal, open minded person. I had grown up in a multi-ethnic highschool and most of my best friends were non-whites – Korean, Chinese, Indian. I had even gone to a formal dance with a black friend as my date, and had to cringingly endure the loud and embarrassing comments of my somewhat deaf French-Canadian grandfather like “Oh he is good looking for a black guy!” I was a good person and I was dedicated to principles of equality for all. I certainly didn’t see myself as a racist and would never consciously participate in hurting anyone because of their identity.
And yet, in the workshops I discovered the extent to which I had still internalised racism and other isms. Though it wasn’t expressing itself in the open forms of hatred and discrimination that we most often associate with the ugly word racism – it was present in the isolation and fears I felt around connecting to my African American brothers and sisters. I admired them, and yet felt distant. I wanted to connect, yet felt awkward and clumsy and feared ridicule and rejection.
Close enough to ask
My relationship with Viriginia was one of the first in which I felt close and comfortable enough to find out about her experiences of how the double burdens of racism and sexism had hurt her, as well as to explore and overcome these barriers formed by my own timidity and ungrounded fears. It was such an enormous relief to be able to discuss these things openly – and to find out what she really thought and felt. It turned out to be extremely easy to feel close and connected to Virginia, and that relationship gave me confidence to reach out to more minority people and become a better friend and ally. Up until that point, though most of my best friends were from Asian minorities, they were already well integrated into the suburban intellectual elites that I was a part of, whereas the African American kids were not only a different ethnicity – but often part of a different socio-economic class which doubled the distance.
First step – recognizing and accepting
Virginia taught me some fundamental truths for overcoming the barriers that racism and classism form unconsciously between people. First of all, to recognise and accept that all over the world, the patterns that create barriers between human beings are recorded very early in life, and so we have all been influenced by racism and other isms in their many forms. It is not our fault. We were little and growing up in a racist, classist, sexist world. Our innate sense of humanity resisted the best we could – but in the face of the powerful influences of the adult world, we internalised messages about who is important and who is not, who is like me and who is not. As children, our natural, spontaneous connection to everyone around us was limited by different forms of fear.
Fear creates distance
The good news is that we are more than these patterns, and we can work to become aware of them and overcome their hold on us. But in the meantime, until we are completely free of those patterns – how should we act? How should we approach people who are different than us? How to act with people with disabilities, from other ethnicities, other social classes, other religions? Maybe we will say the wrong things, maybe we will accidentally insult them, maybe they will reject our awkward attempts, maybe they will laugh at us… Maybe. These fears are all direct results of the conditioning that holds these very isms in place by keeping us distant from each other.
Virginia’s advice was disarmingly simple: “If are busy being loving, you won’t have time to be racist.”
Get busy being loving
Authentic human relationships are a vital key to overcoming barriers. There is no replacement for friendships. We may even be activists, work for human rights or think of ourselves as fair and balanced people. But until we have close, warm, open friendships – we are probably still unconsciously allowing those barriers to continue to operate.
When we really care about another human being, we may make mistakes, we may say the wrong things, but we can talk about it. We can talk about our fears, our clumsiness – we can ask for help, we can find out what the other person really thinks, what their experience is like. We don’t have to guess anymore. We don’t have to try and pretend that we don’t have barriers and fears – but we can be determined to go beyond them, together. This becomes a shared journey, an exploration, a discovery that is always unique, human and enriching.
Is racism an American thing?
Perhaps some of you may be thinking that my story is an interesting one, but that it only applies to Americans. Often the very word racism has become associated with the terrible things that we white Americans have done to African Americans throughout history – the slavery, the hate crimes and terrible persecution.
However, the insights that Virginia shared with me – and the closeness that was created in our relationship is something that helped me to feel closer to people across all sorts of cultural divides. I think it is why I can claim Romania as my home, and why I feel honoured to have close relationships with people from so many different cultural backgrounds – whether Romanian, Roma, Hungarian, Indian, Finnish or Dutch.
Grim Communist Russian meets Fat American Capitalist
I remember many years ago, applying this principle when meeting a Russian sister who I instantly connected with – her warm sense of humour made me feel as if I had known her for years within the first days that I met her. We had both grown up during the Cold War period – and soon we were close enough to be able to share and laugh about the different demonised stereotypes we had grown up with – me imagining all Communist Russians as wearing grey and looking grim and serious, she imagining all Capitalist Americans to be fat, irresponsible, overindulgent and greedy. At the same time, it was fascinating to explore what was actually beyond those stereotypes – the authentic stories of our childhood memories.
Encountering Anti-tiganism in Romania
Naturally, different forms of isms creep into every culture – whether as a dominant culture or an oppressed culture and are transmitted in early childhood. Of course, the ways that this happens, and the culture background is unique in each country or subculture. Yet, many elements of oppressions and isms are remarkably similar. When I first came to Romania and became aware of the Roma population – it was something completely new for me, as I had never realised that words “Gypsy” referred to a real ethnicity – I naively thought it was just referring to a particular type of free lifestyle. Yet soon, I recognised many of the same characteristics of any oppressed group. The internalised sense of hopelessness and marginalisation – expressing itself in so many familiar forms and behaviours.
I was so surprised to find that even people I considered to be well-educated, liberal and open minded, made statements about how socially deviant behaviours such as stealing, trickery (schmekeria) or begging are “genetic” in the Roma. Or similar comments referring to their “genetic” increased sexual drive and consequent fears of Roma overpopulation.
Having the advantage of having not been raised in a culture that had any particular stereotypes or assumptions about the Roma – it was relatively easy for me to see past these expressions of racism and to form a close relationship with Iulia, a Roma woman I had hired into the organisation. Listening to her personal experience of the racism she had endured confirmed my observation, that indeed, the patterns were very similar to those Virginia and other minority friends experienced. What many Romanians considered to be characteristic of the Roma, were in fact, the characteristics of any marginalized, oppressed minority culture.
Stepping out of the comfort zone
We may feel overwhelmed and guilty when we first become aware of the extent to which racism is affecting our whole culture. Yet reaching out across barriers, and having the courage to step outside of your own comfort zone, is an essential step. Fears will certainly come up “But how should I talk with “them”? “ “What if they tell me I should get out of their neighbourhood?” etc. Like any fear, the minute that you challenge it – it often dissipates – just as darkness disappears when we switch on the light.
In reality, the moment in which we manage to overcome artificially constructed barriers and create a human connection – most people will be delighted and readily reciprocate our extension of friendship, attention, respect and caring. If we do meet with suspicion, distrust or coolness then we shouldn’t be surprised and it is important to be able to continue to stay relaxed, flexible and empathetic.
We shouldn’t expect that all members of any group that has been historically oppressed for generations by our ancestors to be without some scars from this experience. But if we are committed enough to being loving – to overcoming such barriers – we won’t get confused – we can expect that and not take it personally.
So what does it mean to “get busy being loving”?
First of all – question yourself honestly – do you have any close friends that are from a minority? Not just superficial working acquaintances – but real, equal, open relationships where you feel close and connected. If not – find some! A relationship starts to get deeper when we show genuine interest in listening to a person’s story. Invite them to tell you about their life.
To “get busy being loving” means to challenge all of those barriers that keep us on just the surface level – anything that gets in the way of us feeling 100% comfortable and knowing that our friend feels 100% comfortable with us. It means to have the courage to talk about it – you are not being racist because you expose the racist conditioning that you have. It doesn’t go away or look less obvious only because we are not talking about it. If a person talks about the way racism has hurt them – they are not accusing you. Rather – bringing these issues into the open helps to demonstrate that your honesty and integrity and makes you more trustworthy. It gives space in the relationship for your friend to be able to safely express what it is like trying all the time to adjust to a dominant culture and be accepted on the dominant cultures terms. Any time that we give supportive, unconditional positive listening – we are helping that person and ourselves to be able to think more clearly, more rationally. It doesn’t mean that our whole relationship is about the fact that the person is part of a minority. Naturally, you will see your friend as a human being, not as a representative of a category. That is positive! But it is important also not to try to erase differences that make us feel uncomfortable. Real friends shouldn’t have to feel that they have to act, talk and think “like us” to be able to be close. Friendship shouldn’t be on “our terms” even in unconscious ways. Allowing those differences to exist and recognising them, being curious about them in respectful, interested ways, on the other hand enrich our experience.
Be an ally
Getting busy being loving also means to commit to being an ally to all minority people. Remaining quiet when they have to endure racist comments means we are colluding with the racism ourselves. Even if we get mis-interpreted as over reactive or if others ridicule us etc – it is more important that our friends know we are not going to abandon them to face racism alone. It is better to be known as being intolerant of racism than to risk accidentally participating in it. It makes our friends feel safe with us. We also can invite them to share with us how they felt and what we can do better in the future to support them.
Another aspect of being an ally, once you know more about what it is like on the inside for someone you are close to feel isolated or vulnerable, you can be more confident in assuming that others probably feel similarly. Takes steps to notice when you are in a social group – whether at a meeting or in the workplace- are there any minorities that are isolating themselves either in a smaller group or all alone? Go and socialise with them and ensure that they are included. Be proactive.
As Neohumanist teachers, we want to be able to transmit a healthy acceptance of diversity to the children we work with. We know that Neohumanist education is based on teaching through personal example. So we must start with our own personal experiences and connections to a diversity of people. Authentic friendships are the best way to break down barriers. Be curious and interested to find out more about the human beings in your world, especially those in minority situations. Once those relationships are in place, it will become easier and more intuitive to know the “right ways” to act so that we are not reinforcing, but rather undoing the bondages of isms. We become more and more free, fearless and loving as a result and thus able to transmit the same to the children that we work with.