March 3

07REFLECT:  Catalog carefully the primary voices that informed you as a person and shaped your thoughts and values in these areas:

  • Your closest friends
  • Mentors or people you’ve looked to for guidance
  • Teachers/Bosses/Advisors who impacted your learning or career path
  • Authors of the books you’ve read in the last year

Comprehensively list them and note the racial identity of each. Once you’ve examined the primary voices in your life, connect back to the listening exercise from our second session and write a reflection about what you discovered through the examination of the primary voices in your life and post in the group.


Applying this lens to my memories of what I heard about race in my early years emphasizes what I already believe to be true about how I learned to be white and to recognize or relate to Blackness, which is that it was primarily non-verbal. My parents were strongly of the “everyone’s equal,” “colorblind” mold of relatively mobile, privileged, racially isolated, northern white families of their generation. Because I grew up in proximity to Native American communities, and my mom did work representing and selling their art, I was aware of our status as immigrants. This was furthered by my grandmother’s family bible with her primarily Irish genealogy laid out inside the front cover. When the idea of our “Irishness” was talked about, though, it never satisfied the yearning in me for meaning. I wonder now if the facts, without emotion, weren’t enough to capture my imagination, or feed my soul’s longing. 

All through my youth, I had a sense that what set Native people apart was their rich culture, connection to the land and its other inhabitants (which mattered a lot to my family and our community also) and understanding of where they came from. I don’t remember my mom sharing anything about the atrocities endured by these communities, or the complications inherent in their need to perform and sell their cultural heritage for whites in order to survive as artists, though I assume she understood some of this herself. There were several adults in my young life who were positioned to educate me more deeply about how Native people were supported and shaped by their cultures – a white guy, friend of my mother’s, who married and was inducted into the Blackfeet; and my sixth grade teacher, a white woman who spent the whole year educating us in the different practices of the NW Coast Native peoples, their homelands, and their art, including modern work of living artists. When I think now of how these two people communicated with me, there was a mixture of facts and emotion, an indication that there was beauty and meaning here for me, for us. I can’t think how exactly I understood this, but I could feel that though I could never be Native, knowing about Indigenous people and being near them was of benefit to my humanity. 

I contrast this in my memory with a total blank around the cultural context of Blackness. I loved Lamar Burton; my dad loved Teddy Pendergrass and The Doobie Brothers. I watched Sesame Street and saw the delight of those neighbors in their diverse world. And it helped form my sense that Blackness was something very distant. Not bad, but a sort of caricature: simple, flat. By the time I was in high school, dancing to hip hop, reading Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou, my ability to listen without listening was laid down deep. Or, to say it better, to listen without reflecting. How tangled and hurtful that world seemed – so far from my own. 

I had a high school English teacher – the first Southern white person I ever knew (and one of the only, still) – who came to teach us straight from college when I was a junior. She was five years older than we were, full of urgency about things that made me roll my eyes at her obvious vulnerability. The combination of her accent, her professed feminism, and her lack of classroom management skills (she yelled at us, and cried) sparked in me a deep desire to distance myself at all costs. She had us read Absalom, Absalom, which shook me up, but not because of the opening it provided to notice whiteness – because of the intellectual modernity of the text, which I was primed to analyze. 

It’s true that there were no Black people anywhere near where I grew up, but I don’t think this can fully explain the disconnect. My guess is that the adults in my world could tolerate the way that Native stories made them into immigrants, but they couldn’t face the way that Blackness made them White. 

My parents and their friends did recognize and give some factual language to what was not good to do or be: Nixon, Reagan, segregation, overt racism, impoliteness. My father would tell me that for the years in his young childhood when he lived on the edge of hunger in Delaware, racism was very real. His father, he would say, was a racist. The tone with which he said this indicated that it was something to be ashamed of, but also a sort of antiquity – once common, no longer useful. I can recall, too, the awkwardness as he recited out loud some racist bit of language from his father – a sort of artifact for us kids – and laughed (from discomfort? Confusion? enjoyment?), while my mom made disapproving (and silencing) eyes at him across the table. There would be no further investigation or explanation, that much was clear. 

I was alerted in my group last time we met that I tend to interpret body language emotionally, and here above I’ve done that. The way that my mother created silence in my home was through body language: a briskness in gesture, pursing of the lips, sudden getting up to do a suddenly important household chore. Before this finality, there was a way of drawing back, gathering herself: limbs in, back straighter; or of reaching out with one hand to press the hand or thigh of the offending party, or with her eyes, a sudden purposeful coldness, lips pursed. 

I interpreted these gestures as warnings. They defined a threshold that was not safe to cross. To cross the line would mean disconnection.

I read yesterday in James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers”: 

“Now all this enters the child’s consciousness much sooner than we as adults would like to think it does. As adults, we are easily fooled because we are so anxious to be fooled. But children are very different. Children, not yet aware that it is dangerous to look too deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions.”

After this last meeting, I am looking back and seeing how it was almost like there was layer of “bad” white people who separated us from Black society. Nixon, people who voted for Nixon. Reagan, people who voted for Reagan. The backwards people who were named “racist,” that shameful, antiquated thing. In school, the difficulties of american history were easy to push off: slavery a problem of the South, colonialism a problem of the past. In each instance, the white people who were actually in contact with Blackness were made evil by it. I don’t think anyone said anything like this to me directly. But I was listening between the lines.

James Baldwin says that, “In order for me to live, I decided very early that some mistake had been made somewhere. I was not a “nigger” even though you called me one.” This feels so important to me. The Black teachers I’ve had through books in the last five years, by insisting on their own humanity, and on the practice of truth telling in this twisted system, have helped me as much as any spiritual teacher I’ve had. Claudia Rankine, James Baldwin, Rita Dove, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Roxane Gay – all have insisted, in the context of race, on being heard in their uniqueness, through emotion and fact. Like Angeline, I can feel both anger at and frustration with my parents and teachers for stunting my humanity by segregating my consciousness. But I also feel how untouchable it must have felt for them, how deeply they still fear their own disconnection, so that they flinch when I say the word “white.” 

My other major teachers in the last ten years have been children and their parents. I don’t know how to fit these people into the categories that Rebecca gave. I guess children are my mentors. Knowing a few Black babies and children intimately and others casually, and sharing the intimate work of growing and protecting and understanding children with their parents – Black, white, indigenous, mixed – has exposed so many of the dumb ideas I developed as a kid about difference and distance. When I miss my mountain home, my ten year old reminds me of how blessed we are to live in a place where there are black and brown people. And she is so right.

In a moment in a staff meeting last week, while a white colleague was speaking over a black colleague, I discovered myself getting physically tighter. I didn’t want to listen to her. I didn’t want to be associated with her behavior. And she reminded me very much of myself. I didn’t know, in the moment, quite how to intervene. I thought of what Rebecca shared about working through her motivation in the form of feelings and beliefs, and checking her thoughts, or ideas, against what we know about White Supremacy Culture, before going on to action. I vowed to stay with what I was noticing without doing anything for the moment. And the place where I was able to listen to my own communication, in that moment, was again in the area of body language. As I attuned to my own body, I knew that I was partly responding to the body language of my Black colleague who was being silenced – how withdrawn he looked: his chest low, his eyes down. He drew his hand slowly over his face. My white colleague leaned forward, her head reaching into the space in front of her body, her words a continuous tumble. I came back to my own form, seeking to open the space around my heart, to find a softer breath. I could feel the urge to go toward one of the them or the other – to get in between them, and protect him from her. 

This emotional response felt like white saviorism to me. And after the role-play in our last meeting, I am trying to think of ways to go toward my white colleague in a way that is not just about disarming her, but also about exposing my own process to her. It feels more humble if I am just sharing with her what I am working on around race, but I’m still not sure how to do that. I feel pretty solid, though, that giving her my mom’s patented ice eyes is not going to be the way forward!

I’m struggling with the sense that this colleague (the white one) is somehow my “responsibility.” I for sure believe “if not me, who?” And “if not now, when?” I can find a way to approach her with compassion and try to start a race conversation, without making it about her at first. But part of my struggle is that my practice shows me quickly how it isn’t about her. As soon as I get involved, it is about me. What I see, what I feel, my history, my worry. Yes, I see how much work she has to do – like I have so much work to do – and she will keep doing harm, not out of racism, really, just because her undone work – her personal work – keeps her from being present to her own humanity. And in the context of white dominance that results in her undermining his. But here I do not feel superior, or somehow like a mentor. I feel reflected in the world around me. 

Published by Devon Riley

lately: youth work, parenting, sorcery, books, walks in the woods

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