Have you heard that phrase?
I was hit with it when I’d claim I was too full to finish my dinner, or if I’d refuse to eat my veggies. This was when I was young, of course. Maybe 8 or 9.
A couple decades later and I’m contemplating what kind of a message I received and internalized from these dinner table conversations.
They would go something like this:
“Michael, finish your dinner or you can’t have dessert.”
“But I’m already full.”
“Come on, eat your food. There are starving children in Africa. They don’t get food like this.”
“So why don’t we send it to them?”
“Well, we can’t do that because…” and then some reason about food preservation, regulations that prohibit mailing food, etc. Stuff my simple 9 year old brain didn’t comprehend.
Instead, the message I got was:
You have it better than kids in Africa, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Don’t bother asking why either. Just be a good boy and eat your food, if you don’t, then you’re a bad, selfish person.
This is what was internalized.
Was this my parents intention? Of course not! They love me and want the best for me. However, seems to me that recent discussions around this subject are gravitating towards impact and away from intent.
Impact is real. Impact is what’s felt in the real world by other real people regardless of the actor’s intentions. Intent, while real, is only tangible to the person it belongs to.
If this post impacts you in any way, I invite you to tell me how. You don’t have to, but if you do I will see it as an opportunity to learn and challenge my belief system… not a threat to it that requires defense.
My parents are inherently good people. They have nothing but good intentions for me and my siblings. Yet the impact of conversations like these are what shape my worldview, not their intent.
How does this show up for me now?
Regarding my view of African-Americans? Helplessness and impotence tend to top the list for me. And the person inside, you know, the one with good intentions… feels ashamed that he can’t do anything.
But I’m not helpless.
When I hear calls to “do the work,” or “this is where white people have work to do,” this is what I’m talking about. Getting myself out from underneath that helplessness.
Notice what you feel surrounding the topic of racism in America. We can think our way in circles about these issues. (do I hear police reform? election reform? Reform, reform, reform) Enough of what you think… When you remember George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, what do you feel?
If the cops that killed Breonna Taylor do ever get arrested, would those feelings of guilt, helplessness, or anger go away? Sure, justice would be served, but would that make you feel any better about being white?
Sharing memes about arresting those cops, liking & sharing Elijiah McClain’s story, spending money at black-owned businesses… all of this is helpful, no doubt.
However, if those actions come from a place of shame or guilt in an effort to uphold your self-image and bypass those emotions, then you’ve still got work to do. So what does that look like?
Look for ways in which you yourself can change your behavior. Do you want to see changes in the world that will dismantle systemic racism? Then understand your own behavior, and the emotions driving it.
Back to the question: what do you feel?
I feel helpless in the face of racism and ashamed that I can’t help.
Ok, good start. Keep asking.
Why do I feel helpless?
Why do I feel as though there’s nothing I can do?
This is where persistent effort is required. These answers are likely not readily available, and don’t expect them to be… you’re challenging a deeply rooted belief system that keeps you blind to what you do not know.
This is where “the work” happens. Internally.
It’s easy to get triggered by a racist tweet or a comment by a family member. It’s easy to just react from a place of [insert powerful emotion here] and then carry on with your self-righteous life, leaving actual issues unresolved.
What’s much more challenging, and fruitful, is the internal work. Changing those reactions. Looking yourself in the mirror deliberately, knowing very well you might not like what you see.
Fighting racism goes way deeper than just helping out a black friend. It requires a willingness to let go of deeply rooted beliefs. The deepest of which make up my identity. And that can literally feel like dying sometimes…
But for real change to happen, existing beliefs need to die.
This post was previously published on Equality Includes You and is republished here with permission from the author.
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