My son Finlay is a year and a half. He’s not color blind, and yet when he sees a person of color, he just sees the person. He doesn’t judge. The distinctions between white people and people of color are lost on him. For now, I can’t protect my son from all the societal messages he’ll receive about race, starting with how he’ll inevitably witness white kids on the playground treating other kids of color differently. I can, however, educate him about why skin color matters to so many people and why it shouldn’t.
The unfortunate truth is that it never should have mattered. Black and white and everything in between was never meant to be. It’s a farce. The whole damn thing was a lie that began hundreds of years ago. I learned all about this at a workshop called Undoing Racism, which is the flagship program of an organization called the Peoples’ Institute for Survival and Beyond.
I discovered by the end of the first day of the workshop that I am in fact racist. And why? Because the color of my skin is white and, as such, I am therefore complicit in a system that is inherently unfair and oppressive.
Workshop seems too simple a term for what I went through. It was more of a life-changing experience that everyone should be required to take part in. (As one trainer puts it: “Undoing Racism is not a two-day workshop, it is a way of life.”)
My manager, Alan, suggested I attend. Real Change has recently embraced racial equity as part of its vision statment and is investing the resources to ensure that all of its staff and board have access to anti-racism training.
I thought Undoing Racism would be a straightforward course on how to interact with all people of color and various socio-economic backgrounds; how to be sure that what comes out of my mouth doesn’t offend someone; how to watch for certain catchphrases or slurs that could creep into our newspaper inadvertently; how to, you know, treat everyone equally.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Over the course of two days, the moderators of the workshop slowly and eloquently peeled away the layers of the onion that is racism. They talked about racism not as discrimination between individuals, but in terms of systems of privilege and power that consciously and deliberately prevent social equity.
Never, in a million years, would I have considered myself racist. I was raised by a fairly liberal single working mother who was struggling to make ends meet so that my sister and I had food on the table. As a result, we lived in apartments in several lower-income neighborhoods. I had black friends, white friends, yellow friends and brown friends. Color wasn’t an issue for me. I voted for Obama, one of my ex-boyfriends is black. My grandmother was Iroquois, which means I am a little as well. Me, racist? Never.
I drove home at the end of the first day desperately dodging the bullets of knowledge that had penetrated my world. The traffic whizzed and blurred, and I felt dizzy and confused, yet my existence had never been more clear.
The driveway to my house felt longer than normal. I wanted to run through the door and tell my family the new knowledge that I had so that we’d all be enlightened and aware; that oh-my-god-now-it-all-makes-sense-and-you-have-to-hear-this-but-holy-fuck-we-are-white-and-everything-is-all-our-fault moment flashed through my brain. I fumbled with my keys, gathered myself together and went in to hug my son. I held him tight. I said nothing.
Later that night the walls came tumbling down. I lay next to my son after I put him to sleep and I. Just. Cried. At first I wasn’t sure why I was crying. I mean, I felt sad. I felt anger. I felt betrayed. Then it hit me, on top of all that, I felt guilty for even feeling those emotions — like I had no right or reason to feel pain that couldn’t even scratch the surface of the pain so many people of color have been forced to feel on a daily basis.
I went back the next morning for day two. I was different. Something had changed inside me — deep inside. Others in our group talked of a similar pain they experienced that night before. I was not alone. People cried as they shared. I cried listening to people cry. All of our insides were turned out as our thoughts and feelings became interwoven into a beautiful chorus of pure humanity.
And for one, brief moment, we were all the same color.
This profound experience has motivated me to use Real Change as a force for racial equity. Undoing Racism exists on the premise that “just like racism was constructed, it can be undone.” But that can only begin with an honest and deep awareness about what it is, how it came to be and why it remains in place. Real Change can be a tool that helps spread that awareness.
And you can too.
The next Undoing Racism life-changing event takes place in Seattle, July 16 - 17. For more information, go to pinwseattle.org.