Why undoing racism matters to me

Moving from morality to personal responsibility

I’m about to attend an Art of Hosting gathering where facilitators from around the globe will meet around the question, “What is needed to consciously host and work through tensions of race, power and privilege, while honoring unity in diversity?” The hosts asked participants to bring an object that represents this question. On my kitchen table lies the severed hand of a porcelain doll. On its open palm lies a bird. “This,” I say as I wrap the bird in tissue paper, “this tension between being vulnerable and holding power is what will come with me.”

The people who attend are mostly white folks like me who care about making the world a better place. Of course, we care about ending racism. Of course we know it is morally abhorrent for one group to oppress another. But for how many of us does that care spill over into our daily lives, our conversations and actions? A probing question is raised by facilitator Maurice Stevens: “What needs to shift for you so that working through tensions of race, power and privilege becomes your question?”

This takes me back to another moment during a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop: Julian Boal snaps the cap back onto a marker. Behind him is a list of types of oppression. He looks at these issues and then looks at us. During the next two days we’ll be working on topics like race, immigration and gentrification to create a Forum Theatre piece. Choose an issue that affects you personally. Don’t be a helper. Don’t do this work because you think it is morally right, you need to be affected by it so you can act out of the fire of your care.”

I choose to join a group that works on white fragility. Soon I am in a scene where my character, a white lady, is talking to another white lady asking her to sign a petition to shift school hiring policies. My arguments for why she should care about undoing racism are dry pancakes with little substance and no flavor. I feel like I am treading water. Where is the solid ground of my conviction?

Why do I care about shifting racial oppression? What is burning inside me, motivating me to act and to keep showing up even when things seem hopeless and unmanageable?

On the second day at the Art of Hosting gathering, we pair up and share a story about how racism shows up in our lives. I place the porcelain hand with the tiny bird between me and my story partner. “This,” I say “represents my people’s history. Except this looks static. The reality is that my history feels like chapter upon chapter of this hand closing into a tight fist to smother the bird. My great-great grandparents fleeing France as their people are burnt for being Protestant. My French ancestors arriving in a Dutch Colony, colonizing the Cape, taking land from native people, killing and enslaving them. The British colonizing South Africa and putting my great grandparents in concentration camps, their intestines bleeding from having been fed shards of glass. My white people slowly picking themselves up after two wars, devising a system of oppression to keep black people disempowered and silenced.

“For several years now I have sat and worked with the pain that we, Afrikaans people, have caused to people of color. And it is not the story I want to tell today. I’m cautious to say what I am about to say, because I believe we need to celebrate and restore black lives in this moment in time, and not put whiteness at the center. But sometimes, in micro moments, not in systems of oppression, this hand closes onto my people. This weighs on me, so I’d like to share it.

“It was a rainy summer afternoon. The sky was dark with clouds, the road wet with rain. My ex-husband and I were driving out of the movie theatre parking lot, circling down ramp after ramp after ramp. I checked my voicemail. It was my mother-in-law. Her sister and her sister’s husband were found murdered in their home. Butchered with their own kitchen knives.

“Even though white is the safest skin to be in and white privilege protects you, I have more stories like that where someone I love is harmed by black hands: a friend gang-raped, my neighbor stabbed, another friend strangled just last week and so on. These violent events are painful. They sit in your body together with the silence you hold as you participate in oppressive systems that harm black bodies, that keep black people from good healthcare, proper education, safe housing. This fear, this trauma, this moral discord is suffocating. It is oppressive.”

I got quiet and felt something dislodge itself in me, shaking my body with sobs. “What is most painful for me, is that I don’t feel that I belong to my own people. The dissonance between their silence and inaction in the face of so much anger, pain and systemic dysfunction, can feel too hard for me to bear. I think my deep ache around racism is that I, at times, feel crushed by my own culture: the big porcelain hand of white silence and denial closing in on a small bird. I don’t always know how to live in a world where we are not taking each other’s lives seriously enough to actively care for and work toward a more humane world.”

Undoing racism is my question. It is my question because I want to belong and love and I want to live in a world where everyone can do the same. Racism stands in the way of this*. I believe it is possible for us to create a world where the thing we fear and fight is not each other. A world where we are able to see and care for each other. I want to live in the world where the black boy runs carefree through a summer rainstorm, the brown teenager walks upright knowing their worth, the high school graduate knows there is a place for them in society, the white farmer wakes up unafraid when his dog barks. The world where my white, brown and black people and I gather and share stories of how we’re growing and participating in a societal shift. The world where you and I feel at home.

*All systems of oppression need to be dismantled to create a world where we all belong, as Audrey Lorde reminds us, there is no hierarchy of oppressions. We cannot afford to dismantle one oppression only. But since the economies of my two homes, South Africa and the USA, are built on exploiting people of color, racism burns at the center of my world.