“I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out, but I can’t disagree with your experience. And once I have a sense of your experience, you and I are in relationship, acknowledging the complexity in each other’s position, listening less guardedly. The difference in our opinions will probably remain intact, but it no longer defines what is possible between us.”
I was in a truck of an Afrikaans man and his girlfriend, driving towards Maseru nearly at dusk. The man saw me standing alongside the road, my finger pointed down to indicate that I was looking for a free ride, and he pulled over and let me in. The woman steered most of the conversation, explaining that her family was from India but she spent most of her life in Durbin, South Africa.
After pleasantries, the conversation turned toward race relations in South Africa, and the woman made strong remarks about how she felt about black South Africans. She masked her hatred in annoyance, as if she thought I could relate. She talked about the divide between white and black people like it was probably a good thing.
I told her that it was different in the U.S., that Civil Rights had happened a long time ago and racism was confided only to the country’s darkest corners. She cut me off. “You Americans, you think you are so much better than all of us. But you aren’t. You have the same exact problems as us, but you are unwilling to admit it.”
She wasn’t wrong. And, I was ignorant.
I can blame part of my unenlightenment on race relations in the U.S. on my upbringing in a small white conservative town. I only knew the experiences around me, and I assumed that was how everyone else lived, too. I did not understand what it meant to be a black woman or man in the U.S. I knew what came from history books, certain narratives left out or whitewashed, but I knew nothing of the oppression minorities, specifically black Americans, face every day. I was nestled in a bubble, not of my own making, but I was also not eager to burst it. I stayed uneducated about racial issues because it was a more pleasant way to look at life.
Then, I went to the Peace Corps. I had expected that my two years in a tiny rural village in Africa would expand my worldview, which it did, but to the same degree, that experience also changed my perspectives on my fellow countrymen. Peace Corps is an intense family of Americans from a variety of backgrounds who are thrown together to become each other’s support system, whether you all like it or not, during two very emotional years. In both my services, in Niger and Lesotho, I met incredibly wonderful, talented individuals who came from far different backgrounds than my own. I made friends that are black, Latino/Latina, of Asian descent, Muslim, Jewish, gay, bi-sexual, and non-gender confirming. As a trainee and training leader, I sat on several diversity panels as these volunteers discussed some of the hardships they face not only with host country nationals but also with other volunteers. It was the first time I had a glimpse at what it was like to walk through the world not as Christian white woman. It’s in these trainings that I decided to be an ally for minorities, in whatever way I could.
My thoughts and views are reflective of an ally, but my actions haven’t always followed suit. I’ve singled people out to share their experience based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation. I’ve made intentions to read more to educate myself and then stopped there. I’ve let racist, homophobic, and xenophobic comments slide, not wanting to ignite a tense conversation. I’ve let the pettiness of my own life stop me from speaking up.
There is also a inherent bias that runs through my thoughts. I recognize it more and more these days, and I am so ashamed of myself. I thought I was better than this, and I’ve acted like I was better than this, but here these awful thoughts are, so contradictory to what I say that I believe. And, yet, in order to break free from them, I must acknowledge their presence.
In the last week, I’ve thought a lot about my shortcomings as an ally, and I debated about writing this post. At first, I was scared what some blog readers may think of me (from both sides) or that the post would attract trolls. Then, I didn’t want to come across as making this story about me and my own insecurities and guilt. But, these thoughts have gnawed at me and I had to do something with them. I can’t continue to be apathetic anymore. I just can’t. Too much is at stake in our world right now, and we are all at risk at losing something big if we continue to pretend this isn’t happening until it dies down.
To hold myself accountable, I’ve decided to write down my commitments to be a better ally and person. These aren’t much, but I need to start somewhere. I know that I will make mistakes, but it’s far better to say the wrong thing than say nothing at all.
Here is what I will do to fight oppression:
- I will own my story and the times that I haven’t been inclusive and accepting. I need to acknowledge these in order to learn from them.
- I will recognize when I am bias, which I am, and reflect on it to change the course of my thoughts.
- I will never dehumanize.
- I will accept that another person’s experience is their experience. I can’t refute that.
- I will no longer be silent when racism and bigotry rears its ugly head in small conversations.
- I will not force persons of color and minorities to educate me. I will, instead, read books and articles and listen to interviews. If someone is willing, I will engage in conversation, but I know that is not their job to make me understand the racial divide in this country.
- I will make an effort to read books by POC writers and shop at businesses owned by POCs.
- I will donate to worthy organizations when I can.
- I will support my friends who are on the front lines of the resistance.
- I will not be silent.
- I will love before I hate.
Another reason I share all of this is to encourage my white friends and family to do some internal exploring on their own. If we continue to hide our bias and pretend our beliefs are as equal as action, these problems will not go away.
Below are a couple of resources I’ve found this week that have helped me come to these conclusions. I know that many of these are from white writers and journalists, but I really do think it’s on us to educate ourselves, and not demand that from people of color who are working through so much else right now.
Lastly, if anyone would like to have a discussion with me, I recommend that you reach out to me at heathermmangan(at)gmail(dot)com. Any hate-filled, racist comments on Facebook and Twitter will be deleted. While I am a supporter of the First Amendment, I do not believe that includes hate speech and it has no home on my personal pages.