The deep dive into my own racism began last summer when my dear black friend, Ronita Johnson challenged a group of us to look, with courage, at our own racism. She invited a collection of black and white women to dive deep in dialogue.
When I accepted the invitation, I felt that I was not racist. I arrived with proof of this because in the late 1960s I was one of two white teachers in an all-black school in Alabama during a time when George Wallace (the racist former governor of Alabama) was running for president and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. This alone, I thought, gave me the seal of approval that I was not racist.
I now know and realize, with no small amount of embarrassment, that even though I was immersed in black company, it barely scratched the surface of my own naivete about what it means to be black in a racist society.
What I am now learning is that as long as I see black and brown people as “other,” I will continue to feel separated from our common humanity. There are all sorts of ways both subtle and overt in which I separate myself from people of color. This is all deep seated stuff and the uncovering of my own personal fears and unconscious racism is taking me far beyond my comfort zone. Nevertheless, I understand that my discomfort cannot compare with the hardships and suffering and the deeper dynamics of a hostile environment for people of color living in America. This uncovering of my own prejudice, in my opinion, is my contribution to making the world and the web of the human community whole.
I must admit that part of me wants to continue to live in my cocoon of white privilege. However, I’m reminded of the words of philosopher and poet Kahlil Gibran who wrote: “Comfort comes into our house first as a guest then as a host, then finally as the master.” In my job as host of the New Dimensions Radio series, I recently spoke with Hersch Wilson, author of Firefighter Zen: A Field Guide to Thriving in Tough Times. He writes: “The quest for comfort shrinks our lives. We make choices to avoid what is uncomfortable. But discomfort defines the brave path, and it is the only path to growth.… Doing uncomfortable things, stuff that is a little scary, is the only path to becoming who we are meant to be.”
As the world is erupting in extremism and violence and the underbelly of the white supremacy movement is showing up in explicit ways, such as the storming of the Capital and the murder of blacks by law enforcement as revealed so vividly with the murder of George Floyd, it is beholden on me to do my part in healing this travesty of injustice and inequality.
Understanding my own part in the continuation of over 400 years of oppression, racism, and systemic inequality in this country is the first step in understanding what it means to be an ally to my fellow Black, Brown, Indigenous, people of color, and other racially targeted people. I feel it is more important than ever to open my eyes to learn what has been so under-reported about the racism that is alive in our culture.
Through these challenging, deep, honest, and respectful dialogues some of my own deeply buried racism is rising to the surface of my consciousness. I am beginning to understand what living in my cocoon of white privilege has cost me and my community. Even though I would not consider myself overtly racist, I’ve been able to see the many micro-aggressions I’ve committed toward my Black and Brown friends. This is an on-going process for me as I continue have these conversations and continue to read, watch documentaries, listen to podcasts that take me ever deeper in the entire subject of the immense challenges that people of color face on a daily basis in America.
It helps me to see where I am complicit in racism and where my silence is no longer a viable strategy in the face of racism. I plan to continue this life-long learning so that the social fabric of our nation is healed and made whole for all peoples and all life.
– Justine Willis Toms