There’s a lot of good journalism out there right now on the January 6th domestic terrorist attack against the United States Capitol. Most of it talks about what the Democrats must do, what the Republicans must do, what the courts must do, the journalists and so on. But do you know what no one is talking about? What we must do. You and I. As individuals.
And I think unless and until individual action part of the conversation, we’re not going to get anywhere. Nothing is going to change.
Because, see, the rage that propelled those domestic terrorists to the steps of the United States Capitol does not just live in our laws and our ballot boxes and our justice system and our police departments and our textbooks.
It lives in us.
Each of us.
How could it not? That rage has permeated the air of this country since before it was founded. For more than four hundred years, we have never breathed an air that was clear of violence against the “other” (by the way, if you want to be honest, the same can be said of all civilization for we humans are addicted to power). How could that darkness not be inside us?
All of us.
I think that is partly why so many of us rush to say, “Well Congress better do this” and “The courts must do that.” Because we want someone else to act on what dwells inside us.
To borrow the words of a wise friend of mine, we don’t want to do the work.
We don’t want to sit in our own truths of how we…you and I…hold and see and treat differences.
Because that would mean we’re not perfect. And how do you put that up on Facebook?
So, how do we do the work? Well, here I want to talk only to white Americans because that’s the group to which I belong and, as such, the one I know personally. For white Americans, I think we each need to consider committing to a personal practice of learning about the ashes…and the embers…of racism that live within each of us. I want to take that sentence apart a bit because the words are very intentional:
- I said “consider committing” because you can’t make someone commit to a practice. You can’t make someone change. If you could, Reconstruction would not have turned into Destruction, Dr. King may only have died a few years ago instead of a half-century ago and Breonna and Ahmaud and George and Trayvon and Emmett and so many others would still be here with us.
- I said “practice” because I think in order to change the rage within us, we have to make looking at it, acknowledging it and healing it part of of our regular routine. This past summer, a number of white Americans took to the streets for the first time to protest systemic racism. Some built on that one act by getting their churches involved or registering voters this fall. That is great and important. Now, what all of us who stood up this summer, who worked this fall, might do next is explore how to turn those singular acts into an on-going practice. To make taking action to end systemic racism as much a part of our routine as going to church or going to gym. And, to develop a practice where, each and every time, we demand that institutions change or “you” change, we pause, look in the mirror and ask, “How am I going to change?”
- I also said “learning.” A lot of people seem to think that, when they shine a spotlight on their own racist ways, they can sweep that stuff out the door. I don’t think it works that way. Not for a country that has held racism as a core practice since before its inception. Not for humans who are conditioned by generations of ancestors to abide by systemic racism. Not for individuals who are hard-wired for bias. As all of us are. You can’t de-racist a white person. But you can learn to shine a light on your own biases, you can learn about their origins and their history, and you can change how you respond to them. In doing so, you will change how you respond to others, but more on that in a minute.
- Last, I talked about embers and ashes. If you have raging flames of racism, well you’re probably not reading this and I’m definitely not talking to you. Because there are efforts, for hundreds of years there have been efforts, to put out the damage your flames do on society. I’m talking embers because it’s those small, subtle but forever smoldering embers that keep those raging flames going (which is part of why I say the rage we saw on the Capitol lives in us…see, we feed it with each and every tiny ember). But I also talk about ashes because you cannot under the fire, you cannot understand the embers, you cannot understand the rage unless you look at the ashes. And learn the history.
OK now, say you commit to learn about the embers and ashes within you. What now? What does that practice look like? To be honest, as we say in public health, I don’t think there’s any wrong front door. There’s so much work to do here—on ourselves–that I think any practice, be it daily, weekly or monthly, is a good one. Because, if you in fact do practice, it will lead you forward (and then backwards and then forward again). For me, my personal practice which first began soon after moving to New Orleans in 2010, is rooted in reading, in writing and in working in community mental health. Wherever that practice takes me, I try to follow a few fundamentals I try to follow. I share them here in case they help you develop and grow your own practice:
- I leave perfection at the door. My yoga teacher used to tell me that. It works for Ashtanga yoga and it works for racism. I do not approach this work to get it right or be praised or be the best. I’m human. I don’t think I can ever be perfectly unbiased and, frankly, whenever I find myself thinking such thoughts, I now take that as a clue that I’m way off-track. What I do think I can be, by practicing, is a better person. Not best, not perfect, but better. Which might mean, maybe, that others can live better lives.
- I try to keep a “tell me more” mindset. Social media (and a host of other things) has turned us into a society of experts and that has diminished our ability to remember that we don’t know everything, even about things we are passionate about. A consulting colleague of mine makes a habit of always asking clients “tell me more.” Even when something seems obvious (“especially when” I can hear her correcting me!). I’ve been around this work professionally since the 90s and have had my own practice for ten years. There’s a lot that I do know, but still, when I hear a Black friend or any “other” friend tell me about their experience, rather than go to what I do know, I try to say, first, “tell me more.” Because the change I’m looking for, within myself and within society, lives in what I don’t know.
- I no longer get surprised when something I thought was true turns out to not be true. I’m not even going to list examples here because, honestly, I would not know where to begin. I remember when I first moved to New Orleans and friends would unpeel that lie, story by story, history book by history book, on my stoop. It would literally take my breath away. There were times when all those lies made me really angry and I felt so stupid for believing them. But now I just know that the only way you can keep systemic racism alive is to lie about it. Because it’s that destructive…to our fellow human beings. And I practice because the only way to kill those lies is to shine a light on them. The ones that live within me.
- I take being uncomfortable and impatient as a clue. When I’m feeling good about my practice or that I’ve “got it”, that’s when I start to wonder what I’m not seeing, where I’m lying to myself. But when I feel uncomfortable or get impatient or wonder why other people are so stupid or whatever, now that’s when I know I’m onto something. Because, you see, when it comes to this type of work, when it comes to uncovering and exploring and learning from parts of yourself that may not be social media-friendly, being uncomfortable is a sign that you’re actually doing the work. Of being honest. About yourself.
- I refuse to be sentimental. I’ve been a student of history my entire life. I also am a student of consciousness. Both remind me that all of us who are alive today are living on the same thread as all of those who came before…and will come after. And that thread changes very little over time, not when you step out of the narrow lens of your own individual experience (a lens made even more narrow by some of the social media algorithms). Over the past ten months, whenever I’d think I was living through the worse of times, I’d read the words of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. I’d think of Emmett Till or those first fellow humans who were brought over to Jamestown. And I’d remember the flames lapping at our democracy are older than the democracy today and that the sparks from the first flames live on as embers inside me…and you…today. As the saying goes, “same song, different verse.”
- I try to be compassionate with others. So, I’m a pretty opinionated guy. And I lose my patience. Not as much as I used to, but still a lot. Sometimes I lose my patience soon after I’ve discovered something. Take Reconstruction. I had totally forgotten about Reconstruction until I moved to New Orleans and I didn’t really study it until this past summer when the terrors that Black Americans live with every day were again on our front pages so white folks could remember, too. And, wouldn’t you know, just as soon as I dug deep into Reconstruction, I started wondering what the hell was wrong with everyone else. Why they didn’t know what I know. So I caught myself, as a friend says. And I looked at all I didn’t know, still don’t know. I thought of all the complete f-ups I’ve made and continue to make. And I reminded myself that we are not going to fix all this, we are not going to expel the flames and the embers and the ash of four-plus centuries in a week or a month or a year or a lifetime. Especially if we judge each other instead of support each other. As humans. For it is compassion that distinguishes us as human and, really now, if this isn’t about being human, then what is it about?
- I believe most people are good. Now, I have friends and colleagues and clients that, when I talk or write like this, say, “Wow, you have a pretty low view of people, huh?” or “Good grief, is everything bad to you?” I try to be compassionate with such folks, though sometimes the compassion is blocked by a clenched jaw or takes a few deep breaths, chants or gin and tonics to reveal itself. And some folks ask those questions without wanting or sticking around or staying present long enough for an answer. They are verbal and written ways to close the door. But for those that do stick around, for those times when I can be compassionate, I explain that I wouldn’t be doing any of this if I didn’t believe most people were good. And, far from a low view of people, I have a high one. And it is because of that high view that I think we are fully capable of saying, “Yes, in fact, there is a lot of good. About ourselves. About our country. But you know what, there’s a lot of bad, too. And, just like that good, that bad is not only out there. It’s also in here. Inside us. Each of us.”
Which is why I practice.
White Guy Talks Race is a blog series about personal practices to dismantle systemic racism.