Is there something about blame that comforts people in the face of an emotionally charged problem? Does it give us something to believe in and be sure of, even when we are dead wrong?
Rampant blame can be seen in full view right now in response to the footage of Mr. Floyd, a black man, being pinned under a white officer’s knee, and dying a few minutes later.
In such an incendiary situation, it’s easy to blame, and everyone seems to have a different target – the police officers at the scene, police in general, the protesters, the media, the video footage, white people, black people and even George Floyd himself.
Who is taking responsibility for their own part?
I have been trained for three decades to replace blame with personal responsibility.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I have some part to play in the societal problems that most disturb me. There’s always something I do to contribute to a problem – and there’s always a way for me to address any issue.
I just have to look for it inside myself.
In the area of racial awareness, I have worked through uncomfortable stages of my own thinking and behavior, moving slowly in the direction of racial responsibility. I’m no expert. I’m still evolving. But as our nation again examines the harsh realities of racial tension, I would like to share with you four stages of my progress so far.
I hope my personal experience might pose points of reflection for your quiet time and for conversation with your friends and family.
What have I done to become more racially aware?
First, I faced the reality of my limited racial history and understanding.
I was raised in a wholly white environment – white teachers, white friends, white neighborhood, white churches, etc. The subject of race was not one I thought about because I didn’t have to. With few exceptions, people of color were outside my lived experience.
By exploring my racial history, I began to see the racial programming built into my ancestry, education, and social spheres: the assumptions that white people are smarter, more successful, harder working, and less dangerous than people of color.
I recalled the derogatory ways I heard my family members and classmates referring to people of color. My white world unconsciously operated around racial distinctions of “we and they.” As a result, bias was both taught by example and caught like a virus.
Second, I began to see myself as an enlightened exception to the racial bias of my upbringing.
“I am not like my racially biased relatives and friends. I’m more hip than that. I have black friends, and am more tuned in and aware.”
I bristled at the thought that I might be living with unconscious racial bias and denied that I functioned out of a framework of superiority.
My defensive posture about my own bias was interrupted by the experience of adopting and raising a brown-skinned daughter. Maria patiently educated me about her own experience, and helped awaken in me a level of racial sensitivity that was not native to my upbringing.
Third, I became educated about the black experience.
I began to take initiative. I took courses in black history, read books by African American authors, and initiated awkward conversations about race with people of color. I spoke with other white people who had done the same.
I noticed my discomfort, how I stumbled to talk about race, how afraid I was that I would “make a mistake” – that I would reveal my naïve and prejudiced views on race even as I believed I did not have such views.
I came to see that I have no idea what it is like to be black, and have no basis upon which to pretend to understand another’s experience. The narrowness of my own world view came to the surface.
Fourth, I acknowledged to myself and others – particularly people of color – my racial bias.
I acknowledged, “I am a racist by programming and an anti-racist by aspiration.” This wasn’t just words – it was a reflection of what I had come to learn about myself through interactions, study, and reflection.
That admission opened up possibilities for connectivity that I had not previously experienced. It enabled me to take part in candid conversations with black community and business leaders about racial bias.
It helped me to be less full of myself, and to do more listening than talking.
This led to deeper awareness about the ways in which personal racial bias gets expressed through institutions, structures, policies, and procedures.
I view working on my own racial understanding as part of my responsibility as a citizen, family member and community leader.
Mostly, it helps me suspend blame and look into the mirror.
What does your racial awareness journey look like?