“Racism…” he thinks, with a long, drawn-out sigh, filled with dread, despair, confusion, anger, sadness, pain, hopelessness.
I am not talking about some hypothetical Man of Color. I am talking about me, when I think about racism, which is often, but probably not often enough.
Now that I’ve narrowed it down for you, I will also admit that, when I think about racism, I also feel guilt, shame, and a nagging reticence to think about it, let alone talk about it. I feel fear, fear for my fellow humans who are People of Color, fear for me, fear for our city, our country, our species. My feeling might help explain why it has taken me so long, in fact way too long, to address this central issue of our reality head-on in my blog. I have referenced it here and there, as I thought necessary to indicate my awareness of the issue, but after this past week, with the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin and his accomplices, I realize I should have done this long ago—maybe even as my first blog post—after witnessing what was so clearly a racially tainted system in the years I worked in the prisons. At best, I should have said something after the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Terence Crutcher, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and the many other African-American men (and women) killed because they were African-American over the past few years. In my (really lame) defense, I have shied away from this issue to avoid the reality or appearance of making my blog political, and to maintain an “ethical” stance of avoiding imposing my own personal, political, social, or other “values” on anyone else in this space, and in particular on any current or prospective clients. Looking back on it now, this seems like a load of crap, and the excuses of a man afraid to take a stand because it might jeopardize potential business, it might offend his clients. I apologize for saying nothing so direct previously. I should have done so. I knew better. I stayed in my safe white zone. And so it ends. And here I am. Not great. Better late than never, I tell myself.
What could be so wrong with a species that it actually targets, indiscriminately, an entire population of its own kind as different, less than, unworthy, criminally-oriented, inherently dangerous, subhuman? The answer (okay, certainly just part of the answer): history, politics, money, power, and all wrapped up in the human tendency to want simple explanations for complex situations. We want power, money, and safety. Fair enough. No problem so far. When we happen to get it at the expense of others, by damaging others—now we have a very serious moral problem. Even more compelling and wrong, if we have to give up more than just a little of our power, money and safety in order to stop depriving the same things (to a much greater degree) from another group, we won’t do it, not without something equally or more powerfully compelling. Just look at what it took to take slavery away from the Confederate States of America—many white people who live there (and elsewhere) seem to still want to bring it back!
I say these things as a tall, heterosexual, white, well-educated, reasonably mentally and physically-abled, man, in this society, at this time. I must contextualize my statements so others know I understand what I am, what I am not, and what limits I face and agendas I carry in what I see, say and experience. There are many others who can talk about things I will never truly understand, but want to comprehend as best as I can, like what it means to be on the other side of the race equation, to be African-American, or not White, in a society in which White people have the power to maintain their place of power. A few good places to hear what others have to say about these issues include, “So You Want To Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo, “Between The World And Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. Many other worthy books and information can give you access to what others have said about how they view and experience racism and what it has done to them. I mention these only because I have more or less recently read them and can attest to their strength and value as tools to inform yourself on these issues.
Racism is and has always been a core problem afflicting the mental health of all of the members of our society and communities, even though it obviously has a much greater negative impact on those who are its primary targets: People of Color. I have no doubts that, if you are a Person of Color reading this, you need no one to convince you or even remind you of the damage caused by racism. I have noted in past blog posts that People of Color suffer from daily forms of trauma from which there can never be complete healing, as these traumas are reinforced again and again. And here I do not just mean the trauma of being subjected to (or witnessing others being subjected to) brutality like the people I mentioned above. I mean what I have seen with African-American clients—the daily cumulative “affective trauma” of being subjected to slights, stares, dirty looks, words under the breath, avoidant behaviors, walking to the other side of the street, giving wide berth, looking away, tightening purse straps, locking doors in nearby cars passing by, all the time. Let me repeat, ALL THE TIME. If you are reading this and you are not a Person of Color, imagine what it might be like to have the weight and damage of this thrown at you every time you leave your home. Just imagine.
I used to work in a program that served the mental health and other needs of prisoners and their families. While working there, I befriended a co-worker who was an African-American man. I had suggested on a few occasions that we get together outside of work. He responded affably, always telling me he was busy, but some other time. Finally, I asked if he was avoiding me. He said, “Not you, specifically. I am avoiding spending time with white people outside of my daily work life. When I go home, or go out with my friends, I don’t want to have to worry about what I or others might want to say that they cannot say if you are around. I want that part of my life free from having to constantly worry how you, as a White person, will react to me. I want a place I can be just me, and not be African-American to you or some other White person. I want to be safe on my own time and I don’t know how to feel safe around you, not because of who you are as a person, but because you are White.” This was his take. He is only one man. Others like him feel very differently. Sure, I was hurt, and sad, but not offended. I thought he had every right to feel this way. I believed that his feelings, thoughts, attitudes and perceptions were reasonable and legitimate and were not specifically about me, but about the divide and the safety issues raised by the long-entrenched, deep, dangerous and traumatic impact of racism against him and his family, friends and community by me, my friends, and my community, and other people and communities that were similar to mine.
Now, you might be wondering what I did to him that prompted him to feel this way. The answer is: nothing, at least nothing overt, nothing intentional, and nothing directly toward him. He was suffering from a kind of racism he simply wanted to escape, when he was on his own time. I’ll try to explain (and it is not simple, so bear with me please). Racism is a tough word. It can mean, “you suck in a really terrible way” when directed at an individual for their outward beliefs, values and behaviors. And that can absolutely be true and justifiably when directed at people who really do suck in a really terrible way due to their overtly racist beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. It can also be something that is “systemic” and not based on an individual. What do I mean by “systemic?” I mean it involves more than just that one person. Let’s face it, no one is born a racist. No one is born a white supremacist. I doubt anyone would choose to be a white supremacist or racist if they’d been given a choice. We were born into a society that has reinforced racism over the decades and centuries of our nation, and even over the days and hours of our individual lives. Racism is everywhere in our society, from the day we are born to the day we die. Those of us who are not the targets of racism as a form of oppression (White people) can choose to ignore it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, all around us. White people might have what looks like racism (resentment from People of Color at times), but it isn’t the same—White people are not kept poor, uneducated, deprived of access to health care, locked up in prisons way beyond their numbers, and shot, killed, and suffocated on the streets because they are White. Systemic racism is directed at and used to control People of Color, not White people.
When my son Kalvin was about 5 or 6 years old, he encountered in a really harsh way his first experience with undeniable “systemic racism.” He was playing his first T-ball game in his life. He’d gone to several practices, but this was a real game, his team against another team. He played for a park in Southwest Minneapolis. His team was all white kids, just like he is. The other team was from a park in North Minneapolis. Guess what? That team was all African-American kids. To be honest, I had so expected it, I don’t think I noticed it (this is me not recognizing obvious systemic racism because it constantly surrounds us). Without understanding what he was seeing (systemic racism), my son had recognized something was wrong, and he didn’t like it. When it was his turn to come up to bat, he was behind the backstop, sitting on the ground, crying. The coach of Kalvin’s team waved me over—Kalvin wouldn’t tell the coach why he didn’t want to play. I squatted near Kalvin and asked why he didn’t want to hit the ball. He said he didn’t want to play if it meant that all the White kids had to be on one team and all the Black kids had to be on the other team. Then I understood why he didn’t want to tell the coach—the coach was African-American. I struggled to know what to say about Southwest Minneapolis (which is where we lived and most of which has a lot of money) and North Minneapolis (most of which has very little money). The coach simply said the situation was wrong, but that he hadn’t arranged it that way, and it was due to where people lived. He didn’t say that it was actually due to money, redlining, discrimination, and long-standing exclusive principles that gave White families but not African-American families real choice about where to live. The coach and I gave each other an embarrassed and knowing look over our lie to help Kalvin come to terms with the pain of what he could so plainly see. For Kalvin this was a very strange thing. Up until then, he’d spent almost his whole life living in San Francisco, in diverse racial neighborhoods, going to schools where white kids were the minority. He’d never been exposed to such dramatic segregation, until we moved back to the Twin Cities.
Systemic racism doesn’t just exist here in the Twin Cities, although it is much more pronounced here by a number of metrics than it is in most other places in this country, and includes profound achievement gaps in education, segregated living, and wide economic disparity. This still surprises me, given what I want to believe about our communities at large, but over the past several decades these numbers keep coming up. Things are not improving for our African-American communities—in some ways they continue to worsen. One reason it is important to recognize systemic racism even if you don’t feel racist or consider yourself to be racist is that, as long as systemic racism exists, it doesn’t just matter what you do, it matters what you do not do. In other words, if you are White, even if you are not using racially derogatory names or actively discriminating against People of Color, you are still benefiting from systemic racism at the expense of those who are damaged by it. Part of the reason I was able to live in Southwest Minneapolis when my son was in T-Ball was precisely because poorer neighborhoods have largely been relegated to People of Color and they have for a very long time occupied much poorer socioeconomic classes in our community overall (yes, there are exceptions, but I am talking about very strong and obvious trends), which greatly restricts where People of Color and especially but not only African-Americans can afford to live—the two go hand-in-hand. It is complicated, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean this is not also true.
I read this book in graduate school that was a real shocker to me. The book is called, Dismantling Racism: The Continuing Challenge to White America, by Joseph Barndt. In the book, Barndt basically says if you are White in the US, you are racist. You might not intend to be, or want to be, or know you are, but you are because you are taking advantage of a racist system that benefits you and your people at the expense of those whom racism oppresses. This is an important distinction. I know there is ample experiences of what people sometimes call “reverse racism” in which White people end up being the target of discriminatory and other negative treatment by People of Color. This does happen. I do not think of it as “racism,” though, because it is not part of an overall pattern of systemic and institutionalized racism which is used to maintain power for one group (White people) by depriving the power of another group (People of Color). I am not asking everyone or really anyone to agree with Barndt’s point that all White people in the US are inherently racist and can’t help it because of how our system functions. I am suggesting you consider it, and if you aren’t sure, give the book a chance and see what you think after reading it. By the way, if you might be thinking Barndt is just a resentful Person of Color, he isn’t. He’s White, not that should matter, but thought it worth mentioning.
Like I said above, these issues are not simple. There is no single right answer. There are degrees of positions and different solutions that have merit. Reasonable minds can differ on many points related to what racism is, how it affects us, and what to do about racism. However, I do not think a person can reasonably maintain that this society does not continue to operate with systemic and institutionalized racism at many different levels. Racism is real, pervasive, and it continues to destroy the lives of millions of us—just dare yourself to walk into almost any prison (not county jail, but state or federal prison) and ask if racism is alive and well in the U.S. I guarantee you will not be able to do so with a straight face. The unmistakable reality of racism requires those who are not its target (White people) to make an effort to understand why People of Color are so outraged and frustrated by its continuing damage. Addressing and ending racism requires everyone, including White people and People of Color, to make differently uncomfortable and tough decisions about how they are willing to support the changes that will be necessary to rescue us all from the scourge of racism.
Racism harms us all. It deprives us of the ability to see others as they truly are. It divides us in ways that damage us all. Racism is used as a tool to obtain, keep and use power by one group at the expense of another. It is always about this, even when it is not obvious, even when those benefitting from it are not even aware this is how they are being advantaged. Racism is indecent, not just to its targets, but also to its perpetrators, whether they are relatively innocent (most of us) or malicious (somewhat rare, but not as rare as we’d like to think). But make no mistake, racism is not the same for everyone. For People of Color, racism is not only often dangerous and deadly, it is crippling—emotionally, mentally, physically, and socioeconomically. It deprives its victims of realizing themselves as they truly are, in so many tragic and unforgivable ways. I have seen the unjustifiable dehumanizing effects of racism on People of Color countless times over my whole lifespan. I saw it when I was in group homes as a teenager watching my foster brothers of Color dismissed and categorized in ways I was not, even though we’d done the same thing (or I’d done far worse). I saw this in law firms when everyone working in my firm on the upper floors of buildings downtown were White but when I went down to the skyway to get a Subway sandwich, everyone except the Manager (who might be White) was African-American or Latino. Isn’t this a replica of Apartheid? Suddenly, there was South Africa staring me right in the face, in Downtown Minneapolis. I saw it every time, and you gotta know all the African-American people working at Subway saw it too. I also saw it in the bright-eyed, intelligent, funny, warm, courageous Men of Color in the prison classes I taught for several years, many of whom took my class called “Healthy Relationships” for no other reason than rumors had spread that there was a class in which they could be honest about themselves and yet be treated with dignity and respect while being seen for who they were (as best as I could despite my own biased lenses).
If you are reading this and you are White, one way to begin the move toward change within yourself to address racism is to acknowledge what you need to do differently, which will differ to some extent for everyone. Admitting our racist training and its impact on us is a good place to start. Just before I started writing this blog post, a member of my family recounted a racist event in the life of their immediate family by one of their neighbors. This is what I texted back to them in response (unedited): “Admittedly, the difference between me and your neighbor is not that I don’t make racist assumptions, because I do. The difference is that I make a concerted effort to check my racist assumptions against a current reality–I put them in context, when I can. I just wish I didn’t have the racist assumptions that I have to fight against, still, after all this time of trying.” I’ve been trained my whole life to see through a racist lens. That doesn’t make me a bad person. It means, though, that to be a good person, I need to pay attention to bad racist training, and strive to overcome it as much as I can. It is similar to having drug addiction issues, which also doesn’t make me a bad person, but does require me to use the tools I have available to avoid slipping into detrimental drug use. I think and hope that whenever you begin to pay attention to the damage of racism, the damage within yourself and the way it plays out among all of us here in the United States, you will want to address it and eliminate it to the extent you can within yourself and in your relationships, while supporting the kinds of changes we need to make to see each other as we truly are, not as we’ve been trained to do and in that way help to bring balance and equity for everyone.
While writing this blog post, I realized that one of the other reasons I’ve refrained from writing about racism is my fear of self-aggrandizing about it. I have feared that I have little to say that wasn’t already better said by someone else—which I still think is probably true. I also want to avoid taking over conversations about racism that do not affect me in anything close to the damaging way racism affects People of Color. Yet, I cannot ignore two additional facts. First, by not saying anything about it, my silence could be taken to mean that I do not think racism exists, or that it’s not a central problem for almost every facet of our lives. By breaking my silence, I can state clearly that racism definitely exists and is a central and devastating problem for every one of us. Second, to those of you who know me, you know that I abhor anything that might look like I am being preachy, so my fear of taking a position in the form of a know-it-all on race or racism would be appalling to me. A client recently taught me a new term that applies here: “virtue-signaling,” which I take to mean, in this context, someone saying “look at me, ‘I hate racism,’ doesn’t that make me great, or at least a good and forgivable person, even if I don’t do anything other than say I hate racism now and then, especially when everyone else is talking about it?” I sincerely hope that is not how this will come across. I thought it worth the risk. These are my stories, my experiences and they may or may not offer anything new or particularly insightful beyond what so many others have said and are saying. I can only hope that speaking to my own humble and continuing struggle with racism as it burns through the lives of my friends, family, neighbors and strangers like George Floyd might help to move others toward addressing racism in an authentic and tangible way.
As I rode my bike to several rallies and protests going on around my neighborhood in Minneapolis, I saw a phrase spray-painted on many plywood boards nailed across the windows of businesses. It said, “George Floyd”…and then, separately and together, it said “…say his name.” I thought, it’s such a simple, effective, good start: honor George Floyd, the man, his life, his death, his dignity as a person and admit racism killed him; just “say his name.” I’ve been saying “George Floyd” out loud ever since. It’s not comfortable, or easy, or pleasant, but it is a reminder. Racism is here, killing our neighbors and doing untold damage to those it doesn’t kill. If you are a Person of Color, I understand you do not have the luxury to ever forget this, put it aside, go home and just be. If you are a White person, it can be easy to forget these hard truths, because you can, because they are hard, so you may need to force yourself to remember the reality we all face with racism, some much more than others. We are all in this together, for better and worse. So, I encourage you to say it, whoever you are, say it, say his name, “George Floyd.” It’s not enough, but it is a start.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.