This American context

Dear President Trump,

How about those lists I sent you yesterday? You might have noticed that the lists of things people of color like about being part of their groups had lots of references to food, language, and culture, both generally and with regards to some specifics. Did you catch that the white people’s list was devoid of any of these things? One of the white people in the workshop said that if he’d been asked what he liked about being of Irish descent he would have had some of those kinds of things to add to the list and others with clear ties to places like Italy and France agreed.

Personally, had the white people been directed to be more specific about what we like about having whatever cultural heritage we have, it wouldn’t have helped me much as I’ve never identified with anything but white American. Come to think of it, while the question the white people answered wasn’t what we like about being white Americans, it might as well have been since our general experience of whiteness seems pretty uniquely American. Indeed, had there been a clearer focus on American whiteness it might have better paralleled what the people of color described by default since what they like about being part of their respective cultural groups is necessarily grounded in this American context. In addition to the consistent emphasis on aspects of their particular culture they enjoy and that their families and communities are actively preserving, there were also a lot of references to strengths and ways of being that were born of necessity by virtue of having to figure out how to survive in an often hostile environment that doesn’t welcome or value them – aka this American context.

This isn’t a new observation at all, but the lists that the people of color generated speak to how their cultures and communities often serve as safe havens, necessary respites for recharging, receiving validation, and probably protecting their sanity (in a non-clinical sense) where the larger, dominant culture fails to provide these things reliably, if at all. The other unsurprising observation is that none of the lists by people of color included the sorts of benefits of being white that the white people rattled off so easily (e.g., general sense of safety, access to resources, ease with which we can navigate most spaces, confident of the benefit of the doubt, etc.). It was so obvious that one might not think it really needed to be said, but one of the Undoing Racism workshop facilitators made clear that it did need to be said that people of color want access to all the basic life support stuff that white people take for granted. They want to be able to drive or shop or walk around or afford nice houses in safe neighborhoods while black (or Latinx or Native or Asian or Pacific Islander, etc.) without fear of being suspected of wrong doing, accosted, harmed, or barred.

I know this is what we as a country have been grappling with for decades and that you and your administration have brought into stark relief these horrible past 2+ years, but have you ever, in all your entitled male whiteness, sat in a circle with a mix of people of color and sat still and listened to them talk about how it affects them to not be afforded the basic dignities, resources, and safeties that white Americans enjoy? To a person, they were kind and gentle with the group as they talked about their experiences. I know they knew that everyone there was (and is) invested in addressing race and racism constructively, but I really don’t know how they managed the degree of equanimity it must have taken to be so generous. I’m grateful for lots of reasons that they were, including that it made it much easier to hear and take in what they were saying without flipping into either a self-defensive “yes, but” mode or devolving into a self-destructive guilt-ridden mode. Even still, it was incredibly hard to stay present.

What a shitty deal we’ve constructed. And what an imperative there is to undo it.

May we all be safe to be real with one another about the hardest stuff.
May we be grateful when we can trust one another enough to glimpse our respective burdens.
May we all see that undoing racism is absolutely critical to our collective health.
May we make peace with the need to radically redo how we are together.

Tracy Simpson

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