Originally published in Elephant Journal online
...and so are you.
The sun shines equally on all.
Imagine a 30-something year old woman.
Dress her in $80 yoga tights; throw her long hair up in a messy bun and frame her face with over-sized sunglasses. She’s breezin’ down the street in flip-flops with a reusable Trader Joe’s bag flung over her shoulder, maybe the day’s New York Times nestled under one armpit.
Almost definitely she’s carrying a beverage, probably coffee but maybe some overpriced chia, kale, coconut water concoction.
She is your run of the mill, San Francisco Bay Area white woman.
Perhaps you bumped into this woman at your local farmer’s market or browsing the Eastern religion section at your community bookstore.
If you’ve seen this woman, then you’ve seen me. And for the purposes of the next few paragraphs, it will be helpful for you to keep this image of my appearance and its corresponding stereotypes fresh in your mind.
Given this image you now have of me, it may seem surprising that I want to talk about race. Yes, a white daughter of upper-middle class parents, raised in the suburbs of America…I want to talk about race. It seems there are many under qualified people out there talking about race, anyway. While I’m no Cornell West, I have been to a Talib Kweli show and I have seen every episode of the Chappelle Show. I think that puts me ahead of the curve.
Okay, here it is folks: since no one else seems to be willing to do it, let me take a bold step where no socially liberal minded, white person has gone before to tell you that,
I, Melissa Ann Fitzgerald McLaughlin, am a racist.
That’s right, you read that correctly. I, a tree hugging, latte loving, NPR listening white woman, am racist.
It’s not that I believe in the superiority of any race or that I’m a crazy bigot preaching white power or some other nonsense. But I, like all unenlightened human beings, notice race. And every so often, I make assumptions about people. Maybe because of their skin color, maybe not. If I meet you for the first time and you are not white, it’s for sure the first thing my brain processes about you. I don't do that with people who look like me. I don't register their skin color or ask to touch their hair.
When I get off the freeway in Oakland after going the wrong way on the 580, I lock the doors of my car, and I have automatic locking doors. If my car is in drive my doors are locked, and I still check to make sure my doors are locked. If three or four young black men in over-sized pants were approaching me, at high noon on a crowded street, I would notice that.
I wouldn’t necessarily be afraid of them or call the cops or assume they were thugs, but I would be aware of them.
That’s some racist shit.
I get frustrated when a “hot button” race story happens. It’s so interesting to see white news reporters, activists, average citizens bolting to different sides of racial issues faster than they can pick out a movie from the RedBox in front of CVS. It’s as if by virtue of solidarity with their African American counterpart they try to prove themselves not to be racist.
They shout, “People in Florida are racist!” “The L.A.P.D. is racist. Don’t look at us up here in the liberal utopia of Marin County, California, we’re definitely not racist. Cut us open! We’re black on the inside.”
Well, I would be willing to wager the price of George Lucas’ ranch that if Trayvon Martin was walking around in a Mill Valley, California neighborhood, where the homes were worth upwards of $800,000, some white person would notice that, even if just a second look. That second look, that’s racist!
The thing that is so wearisome about these issues is that we all react so quickly we lose the opportunity to examine our collective racism. We lose the opportunity to confront that tightness in our chest when we realize we walked into a “bad neighborhood.”
“I’m better than that. I side with the black man. Solidarity Brother!” we say. “I’m so open-minded, I don’t even notice race.”
Bullshit! People of America! Get a grip! You cannot possibly understand the sting of racial discrimination or know what it feels like to have suspicion follow you around. You are not Trayvon Martin!
Your brain is a crafty machine built for convenience. I am a racist, not because of hatred in my heart, but because of the limitations of my own mind.
As a living breathing human being you have all sorts of personally, socially and culturally constructed stereotypes floating around in your mind. They pop to the surface when you see the real world physical embodiment of said stereotype. As a result when you see some black dudes standing in front of a corner store, your mind may send your body a message of menace.
As a result you quicken your pace and don’t make direct eye contact.
I’m here to tell you, it’s ok. If we ever want to live in this “post-racial” society everyone’s been going on about since we elected our first African American president, we have to stand out on our edge and confront the racist that lives in our own mind. Fear, discomfort, suspicion, contempt, thoughts of one’s superiority over another, the minor thoughts and emotions of racism, do not deny them.
I have been blessed to be invited into many different types of communities and share space with different races and cultures.
There’s my man Ali, from Iraq, owner of the Linden Corner Store in Allston, MA. I used to go in late night on the weekends to take a break from socializing with my fellow drunken college students. He’d bum me a cigarette that I’d smoke behind the counter with him while we talked politics.
There is my good friend Chantal who invited me to a BBQ with her family and friends in South Central to drink punch and dance the Electric Slide. There were the “trouble maker” scholarship kids that came up to the outdoor science school, where I worked, from rougher parts of San Bernardino County; the kids who had never been to the beach, even though they live just an hour’s drive away. The kids I would take on trail who I would ask to sit silently by a running stream for one minute with their eyes closed.
The ones who told me that the sounds were so peaceful compared to the sounds in their neighborhood, the sounds of car horns, fighting, and gunshots. And I can’t forget my Chinese students in Hunan Province, China. They would sing to me when I came into class or tell me “I love you everyday.” And my Chinese grandmother who used to give me fruit and tell me I would get sick and smack my legs for wearing shorts when it was 85 degrees out with 120 percent humidity. I remember Andre, the man who managed the after school program in Dorchester where I volunteered in college.
Andre, the size of a professional football player, has an intimidating physical presence. I think of how if I saw him on the street, I might look away or assume him to be something that he’s not. I think about the reality of his life and the service he provides to his community. The fact that he meets criminals and gang members with a helping hand and high expectations of what they can achieve.
Even with all these experiences and many incredible friends of other races, I am still a racist. Each of these people and all the communities where I have lived, worked and traveled have been my teachers. It is from their friendship and their love that my world has opened.
A yoga teacher of mine, MC Yogi, often talks about a love like sunlight.
He says, “The sun does not discriminate; it shines equally on all beings.”
What if we could be more like the sun? Waking up each morning, walking out our front doors and radiating love outward, equally on all beings we come into contact with. It’s not a campy kind of love where we float around blissed out on clouds with rainbows shooting out of our eyes. Being that present and loving that vast takes a lot of work.
It’s about digging in and readying ourselves for battle against our own mind. It’s a tireless, lifelong effort in the hopes that one day, we, the human species, may recognize that all our differences are illusory. The thugs, the pimps, the housewives, and the president, we are all the same. Sure, we made some different choices, but god does not discriminate, the divine lives in all beings and shines down equally upon us. This is the work that will tear down racism.
To work on my racism, I know I have to acknowledge it. It lives in the darkest corner of my mind, the part of me that I’d rather not reveal to others. If I want to change, I know I have to bring my own racism out of the depths and up to the surface. Yes, I am a racist. I choose to fight it rather than pretend it does not exist.
I am a racist, but I choose to wage the war for love in my own mind. This is really, really hard stuff, but it’s where progress happens. It’s where the world shifts. This is my practice. To meet pain with love. To meet anger with love. To meet fear with love.
To meet stereotypes, and assumption, and misunderstanding and suspicion, to meet it all with love. It is not an easy journey, not for me anyway because I am a judgmental a**hole, but it’s the work.
And if a cynical, East Coast educated, New York Times reading snob like me can try it, surely you can too.