I was the only white and blonde girl in my 3rd grade class when I did a report a Rosa Parks (today is her birthday) for Black History Month. At the time I went to school on a military base in Germany and it was a stark contrast to the rest of my experience where I mostly looked just like everyone else with blond hair and blue eyes.
I remember feeling excited and special at my uniqueness. Despite me being a minority in the class, I still had the privilege of my skin color. I noticed the teacher called on me often and I was definitely a teacher's pet.
When I think about racism I find it impossible that it could exist in me given my growing up with such diversity surrounding me at such a young age. I was Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Facilitator in college for student council and an outspoken advocate for examining white privilege. I would go off on angry diatribes if anyone ever suggested that there was such thing as "reverse discrimination."
Despite all of this, I am still racist.
I didn’t understand or know the collective wound of racism was alive in me until a few years ago. Racism, like misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of suppression, it is often so unconscious you iften can’t know it is there without someone else showing you (usually in a very uncomfortable way). It’s hard to see by yourself without entirely changing your perspective. And then it becomes so obvious it can no longer be ignored. Racism is a major societal blind spot (take an interesting blind spot test from Harvard about race here).
In order to be an honest ally I have to first acknowledge my faults. Racism is a major wound of our current culture and in order to heal it we have to first understand our unconscious participation in it.
However, as wonderful C.G. Jung says, "Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate." That's exactly what happened on the bus a few months ago...fate brought me a man to reflect the pain of racism that all of us feel:
“Hey blondie, you know you were born the wrong color?” the man from the back of the bus yells at me. I have that familiar feeling of wishing I could disappear and that I had taken a Lyft instead. I sit down and he comes over.
“You aren’t welcome here, get off the bus,” he screams. I’m scared and I glance around and pray to be saved by someone--my usual habit out of feeling unempowered and small. No one comes to my rescue and I start mumbling about how I can see he is angry and I’m not sure how to help. I don’t understand what is going on… other than I know he can sense my weakness today just as I can feel his pain.
I can smell the alcohol on his breath as he yells in my face, but more than ever I’m aware of a dynamic at play. I don’t need him to say it because we both know it, he is angry and he wants me to have the experience he feels everyday.
I glance at his bag of bottles and I stare at my iPhone to avoid looking up. I want to tell him that I know my privilege and have plenty of guilt and shame around it. I’m sorry for the unconscious racism that pervades our justice system. I’m sorry for it taking me so long to wake up to my own racism. I'm sorry so many people are still unwilling to look at theirs. And I’m so, so sorry that I feel paralyzed by my helplessness. That I am doing my best to heal my unconscious racism wounds, but instead all I can do is say I’m sorry and cry.
After several minutes he got off the bus and I got off at the next stop to cry. It was the same tears I cried several years earlier, in my therapist’s office when I realized I was racist. My therapist (a woman of color) asked politely to step out of her therapist mode for a moment and ever so cautiously pointed out an underlying assumption about race that was expressed in something I said. It took me a moment and then my eyes welled up with tears realizing the implications of holding that unconscious belief.
I cried for hours that afternoon remembering the time on the bus when I screamed at some black teenagers for being too loud and realizing I probably wouldn't have done the same if they were white.
I remembered the time I saw a black man attempt to steal an iPhone from a woman next to me on the bus and how I found myself clutching my iPhone for weeks when someone of color got on the bus near me. I thought of the time I saw a man in a hood coming toward me and I crossed the street out of fear.
I don't know if there is racism left in me still, but I vow to pay attention to myself and others. To have conversations and participate in the movement of racism awareness. As the racism wound continues to be uncovered, privilege isn’t going away, but I vow to transform my tears of guilt into bringing the unconscious to light. And today on what would have been Rosa Parks' 102nd birthday, I sat in the back of the bus feeling grateful for the man who spoke his pain.