“I feel like a raisin drowning in milk,” the black woman said. “White, white, white all around me. I’m drowning in a sea of white.” Thus was the statement that captured the essence of the People’s Institute Undoing Racism workshop.
There were about 50 of us in a circle in that room, the room that laid our souls bare and dissected our biases for two and a half days. White people, black people, and every shade in between — hearing each other’s stories. Listening to the words, I got a sense of each person having left something behind; their soul fragmenting piece by piece for every year they have assimilated into our white-dominated world. It may have been a family. It may have been their values. It may simply have been that elusive, once-in-a-lifetime feeling of home.
I struggle to write this because I straddle the line between those who have privilege and those who do not. As a young Asian woman who grew up with a North American mainframe, I have the ability to be ‘diverse’ enough to be edgy and different, yet Caucasian enough in culture and language to navigate this Pacific Northwestern sea of white. I am a crossover, a music album accessible to many audiences.
The most tangible indicator of this was when it came time in the workshop to compare the everyday experiences of white people to those of people of color. My immigrant background made me nod my head at stories of hardship and loss; my lifelong privilege made me bow my head in shame as I related to my white counterparts.
I teared up in horror as I heard a half white, half black woman repeat what her transgressor said on a bus to her one day: “You’re a nigger, but you’re worse than a regular nigger, you’re an UPPITY NIGGER!!!” I heard her humanity shatter in half as she told us in a cracked, raw voice that nobody, nobody said anything to her—not even after the fact—to offer words of comfort. And I thought to myself at that moment, would I have stood up and said something? Would I have, at the very least, stopped at her seat afterwards to see if she was okay?
The workshop has opened my eyes to the madness and blindness of our society. We may not think we are racists. We may think that just because we work painfully hard not to offend anybody, we are not racists. We may think that because we even try to be diligent about reserving judgment on people, we are not racists. But the fact is, we all harbor biases and prejudices formed from childhood, from the minute we could think in structured thoughts.
This is why we go around hurting people without even realizing it. This is why, when encountering a person different from ourselves, we shy away and stay at the shallowest level of interaction, because we don’t know them, and we’re afraid of what we don’t know. And in the meantime, while we’re over here freaking out about this “different” person, (God forbid) experiencing some discomfort over someone new, that individual is suffocating in a place that shuts them out and makes them feel unwanted and unwelcome. That person is then forced to shed their skin and don a new one, a more palatable one, just so they can survive and make it through the day. And then, day by day, year by year, they lose themselves in this quest of assimilation.
This is why it is not enough to make sure you say the right thing, or don’t say the wrong thing. We have to engage each other in painstaking, but meaningful conversation about our experiences in a safe environment. In these conversations, we may stumble across each other’s ignorance and accidentally offend somebody, but because we’re coming from a place of love, we apologize, ask to be corrected, and move on. We move on and embrace our differences in the hopes of reaching common understanding.
I’ve changed. I can never be the same again. But at least my sense for empathy is sharper, and I am one step closer to helping enable the change that we all so desperately need in a world as needlessly cruel as ours.