This year has been hard — emotions are all over the place. I have been bouncing back and forth between anger, sadness, hopelessness and rage. Bouncing among those emotions are also strong feelings of discomfort. Recently, a lot of people have begun learning about the horrors and deep-seated history of racism in America. I am one of them.
I am Black and am still learning just how deep and racism goes.
I have amazing coworkers; I tell this to everyone I meet. They are kind, smart and incredibly funny. Between our shenanigans and goofiness, we are eerily similar to the cast of The Office. Last fall, a new guy joined our small team and he seamlessly joined our cast of characters. He took the time to get to know everyone and fearlessly dished back our sarcasm.
We work in a small house that has been converted into an office. One of the best things about this office-house is the deck out back. It’s spacious, it backs into the woods and it’s a great place to eat lunch. The new guy took a liking to this space and most days he could be found sitting on the deck with his lunch and a book.
One day, I joined him outside. I asked what he was reading. The Blood of Emmett Till. He asked me and another coworker sitting outside if we knew who Emmett Till was. We both recognized his name but we couldn’t recall his importance. This had happened before. He was reading Talking to Strangers and mentioned Sandra Bland. I admitted that I didn’t know who she was but that I could probably guess what happened to her. Later, after learning about Sandra’s story, I messaged my coworker, sad and mortified. And so began our friendship and our conversation on race in America.
I had a lot to learn. My coworker-friend shared podcasts, interesting news articles, and numerous book recommendations. At the time, I was too invested in learning to feel embarrassed about the fact that my white friend was the one pushing me to learn about my own history. Of course, I knew Black history. I knew about all of the “important” moments like the end of slavery and the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Every February, my church put on a Black History program. Kids dress up as key African American figures and speak of their accomplishments. I knew a lot of fast facts, but now I was learning how we got to where we are today.
My feelings changed, following the back-to-back deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Suddenly I was ill-equipped and under-prepared. People wanted to talk and understand how such horrific things could still happen. They added documentaries and anti-racist reads to their rotation. A lot of people rolled their eyes at the fact that people were only now interested in learning about racism. I knew that I couldn’t rightfully roll my eyes with them. I had only read the same books and watched the same documentaries a couple of months before. I felt like a fraud.
Racial Education and Humility
There’s a lot to learn about racism. A lot. But knowing everything there’s to know about racism isn’t the important part — being willing to learn is. And friends, there’s a lot that we can learn from each other.
Learning from each other begins by admitting that we don’t know everything. Humility. Does my coworker-friend know more about the Jim Crow era than me? Yes. Is it embarrassing? Yes. But should conversations about racial injustices slow down because of pride and fear? No. Our conversation began when I admitted that I didn’t know who Sandra Bland was.
Hear me: Book knowledge on racism can never replace experiencing it first-hand. There are a variety of fears and feelings that I experience daily because I am Black. The subtle microaggressions experienced by African Americans deserve the same amount of attention as blatant racism. People will become more aware of these instances of racism when hearing about them from an actual person, rather than a book.
Even if you’re well-read in the subject of race, humility is still required. The black experience is not monolithic. If someone tells you about something they’ve experienced, listen. Do not immediately try to compare it to something that you’ve read or have seen on tv. My coworker-friend never tried to force my experiences to align with something that he’s read in a book. He understands that my feelings are unique. In humility, he continues to admit that he will never experience things the same way that I do. The goal is to learn; to understand as best as you can.
Education and Conversations
It’s also important to remember that not everyone wants to have a conversation. Some want to argue. Some want to have their guilt absolved. Some want their problematic opinions affirmed. And some just need to learn — they’re well-intentioned but not ready for a conversation. We are all this person at one point or another.
Let’s not condemn those who are only now beginning to educate themselves on racism in America. No, we don’t have to give them gold stars, but we should encourage them in their learning. We should also push people to learn on their own. You do not have to open up and share your personal feelings if you’re not comfortable. Instead, you can point people to books, movies or podcasts that you’ve found helpful. After they’ve taken the time to learn and digest the information, the conversation can begin.
I am no longer cramming for an imaginary pop-quiz on racism. I don’t know everything and I don’t want to pretend like I know everything. I do, however, want to continue to learn. I want to learn so I can have meaningful conversations with those close to me, not to educate any and every random passerby.
We should all seek to learn about America’s racist past and the racism that still today. Even if it’s hard. Even if it’s embarrassing. No matter the color of your skin, no one is born with a full understanding of racism programmed in them. So what if your white friends to know more about America’s racist past than you? Rejoice! Learn from them and teach them. There’s always something more to learn. I mean, I only learned about Juneteenth a couple of years from that episode of Atlanta.
Let’s give each other the space to learn. Because the more educated we become, the easier it is to bring forth change.