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Mistakes Made on the Journey to Racial Awakening

Moving out of the safety zone to action

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Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”

At the presidential debate Thursday, President Trump stated “I am the least racist person in the room.” Whether you agree or disagree, support or abhor Trump, determining who and what is racist, and who and what privilege is today, is a challenge. Digression into a political diatribe about supporting a racist would be easy here, though I will not go down that garden path. Here are some personal anecdotes illustrating some of these concepts.

On my birthday in September 2014, I was stopped by the police in my hometown of San Jose, California. The Ferguson, Missouri unrest had taken place about a month earlier, after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. The officer pulled me over about a block away from my house. I had been going 57 mph in a 40-mph zone. Reaching adulthood and being a white woman ‘of a certain age’, I had always been taught that police officers were a) there to help, and b) not to be feared, because they are there to help. That beautiful summer-like day, I was feeling good – yes, careening down the street over the speed limit — heading home to check the U.S. mail for birthday greetings, and plan the rest of the day with family and friends. As I tried to wheedle my way out of a citation with the officer, he was having none of it. “But it’s my birthday…” “How about a warning this time…?” “I promise to be more careful from now on….” He didn’t crack a smile. I gave him my license and registration; he wrote the ticket. Then I said – “You are an ass.” He ignored my statement, handed me the ticket, and we both drove away.

That day was a wake-up call for me. Yes, I was very late to the party. Retrospectively, after discussing the events above with friends and colleagues, I have come to realize the privilege that my age and skin color, age, educational opportunities, and place of birth afford me. Had I been Sandra Bland or any person of color, the scenario above may have ended very differently. Even my most outspoken and loudmouth friends told me my statement was a step too far.

While I knew that I had privilege for the reasons above, it was the episode described here that my white privilege truly became tangible. This was a ‘before and after’ event to me. The world in 2014 was changing, with racial, gender, and political upheaval accelerating to the current level.

So – what to do with this realization?

I would like to write here that I reconfigured my life to attend protests, support black-owned businesses, and own the moment in order to pivot to real change in my life. However, I cannot write this. The reality is that this was the start of a journey but there is so much more that I can do.

A few years later, in 2016, the west coast, liberal university where I teach offered a class called Whiteness and Race, a seminar focused on whiteness, white racial identities, white racism, and anti-racist practice. The course was only open to white-identified faculty. Blogger John Rosenberg stated, “Based on the scholarship and other notions that inform this seminar promoting “racial literacy,” I confess that I must be a racial illiterate. Although my racial illiteracy and the inevitably resulting racial insensitivity no doubt make my opinions and judgment suspect, I wonder if I am the only one who sees a problem with a state institution limiting an educational …  er, well, … opportunity to “white faculty,” or rather to “white-identified faculty.” For me, also, the ‘whiteness class’ was unfulfilling and did not answer the questions and misgivings that were surfacing.  This class reinforced a few things for me. First, for good or not, I came to realize that my tribe/bubble/family generally (though not solely) are of the same mind. While other participants in this course were worrying about politics-laden Thanksgiving dinners (Pre-pandemic) with large families in more conservative parts of the country, I did not and do not have this concern. The flip-side of that is that I am part of a fairly entrenched liberal ‘bubble.’   At around the same time, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (and more recently Caste, published in 2020) came to my attention. As I read the Warmth of Other Suns, and the book and movie The Help (which has been criticized for stereotyping black women as domestic workers) the awareness that my life, in the orbit of those publications, was on the northern, privileged side of the scale. I can’t change who I am or where I came from, but I can change my actions and responses to the world around me.

Another illustrative anecdote: Last year, a few faculty of various ethnic backgrounds were speaking with a donor of a large gift who was being honored at a University event. The donor started talking about the book Little Black Sambo, an 1899 book that perpetuates racial stereotypes. Rather than telling the donor to STOP, I said nothing, but cringed internally. An African-American colleague walked away.

Should I have told the donor his story was inappropriate, perhaps offending him, and risk losing the major contribution he was making? In retrospect, the answer is a resounding YES. But at the time, as with so many things, the words were just not there to kindly confront this man. What should have been said that would have addressed the issue without alienating a much-needed donor to our academic program? What would YOU have said?

So, what now? My plan was to conclude this essay by stating all of the things I am doing to become ‘woke’ to race and diversity and inclusion issues. It helps to start with a list of what not to do. I have learned to listen with an open mind to colleagues’ descriptions of microaggressions and believe these are happening rather than discounting them. But it is a process.

While the pandemic has prevented many of us from ‘showing up and showing support’ as we normally might have, the truth is – that I hadn’t done the work of ‘showing up’ before. The pandemic, among other things, is a convenient excuse to cocoon, though there are multiple opportunities to participate in political and educational events virtually.

Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election, some things will not change — lack of opportunities for people of color, inequities at all levels of employment, health care, and nearly every other venue, and the ‘privilege’ of white skin allowing people like me to call the cop an ass.

I hope to use this moment — understanding that I have the privilege and choice of using a moment — rather than having a moment use me to connect myself and colleagues to the larger issues that need addressing. This is my call to action. These may include but are not limited to the BLM movement, health care access for all, and other larger issues of our time.

I will not be quiet anymore. I commit to move out of my safety zone (literally and figuratively) and put in the work in my areas of influence and beyond to move these issues forward. Here is a curated list of ‘first steps’ 12 ways you can be an activist without going to a protest . You can call, sign, vote, donate, educate, and act right from the comfort of your living room.  Another place to start is what white people can do for racial justice

What will you do? Perhaps writing this essay was my first step. What will be yours?

Ruth K. Rosenblum is an associate professor of nursing at San José State University, a practicing Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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