By Kevin S. Crowder
I was raised to be a racist.
Transparency is hard. It involves risk. It involves trust. Today I am going to break one of the rules of white privilege: I am going to be racially vulnerable in a racially inclusive conversation.
Before I ever knew it was happening, I experienced privilege by being white. I continue to be privileged by being an educated white man with an American passport. I am privileged by being in the dominant religion (Christianity) in America. Being cisgender and straight have also privileged me not to deal with stuff if I preferred not to.
But I recognize my need to deal with stuff. I am learning. I am on a journey with my friends of color. I get it wrong. According to Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, I’ve gotten most of it wrong, most of the time, in spite of my efforts not to. I don’t want to let down my colleagues or profession, but I especially don’t want to let down my friends of color. The truth is, though, I’ve been letting them down my whole life. I just did not see it. I just did not know it.
I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. I attended public schools in an era of court-ordered desegregation. Every year at the beginning of school, I watched each teacher complete a card documenting the race and ethnicity of children in the classroom to demonstrate compliance with the court order. No children of color lived in my neighborhood. In fact, I was in high school before I knew where any people of color lived. The schools may have been integrated, but our lives were separate and definitely not equal, not in Arkansas.
As I said, I was raised to be a racist. I am certain my parents did not do this on purpose, but they could not see the racism in which they swam – because they had not been socialized to see it. I had three parents most of my life. Two of them worked at not being racist, but all three occasionally denied their racism, like virtually every white person I know. In spite of their protestations to the contrary, I heard things no child should hear. The pet of an extended family member was named a common racial slur. The so-called humor which I heard both at home and in the media was inappropriate, insidious, and even poisonous. If you are white and at least 50 years old, I bet you heard it too. I could go on.
That was some of the obvious, conscious racism I saw, and I knew it was wrong. But for most of my life, I was blind to the unconscious attitudes, biases, actions, and inactions that I inherited. Like too many white people, I was socialized to believe that I could not have racist views if my intent was pure. White people, you can have the best of intentions, not mean anything bad, and still commit acts of racism and micro-aggressions that virtually any person of color would identify instantly! We are all swimming in racism. None of us created it, but all too often we contribute to it with our silence. Every time we think, act, or speak in white-normative ways, we demonstrate our unconscious bias.
I see this in the hospital every time a white clinician asks the chaplain, “Can’t you quiet them down?” referring to a grieving family of any race. The problem is not the volume of the grief. The real problem (aside from inadequate sound dampening) is the white staff’s expectation that grieving should be done quietly. Whether the professional staff has white-normative or quiet-normative expectations, people of color are often on the receiving end of an unfair bias. (I am not assuming that people of color grieve loudly or that people who grieve loudly are people of color. But in my experience, when a white clinician calls a chaplain for a loudly grieving family, that family is often not white.)
White allies need to educate ourselves, but not at the expense of our Black colleagues and friends. Our ignorance is our own problem to mitigate. We need to understand the insidious but subtle barriers that hold back all people of color. We need to read James Cone, Howard Thurman, Peggy McIntosh, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, John Lewis, and others, but reading is not enough.
This is not a time to say, “But I have a black friend!” This is a time to invest in the lives of persons of color, clergy of color, chaplains of color in real, tangible, and emotionally honest ways.
All is not lost. Knowledge really is power. Self-knowledge can lead to changes of beliefs, attitudes, and biases. We can decide to be otherwise. We can and must look for our own micro-aggressions. We can and must look for systemic racism. When we find it, we must do something about it. If we see it all around us, our calling, our vocation, and our profession demands that we take a moral stand, that we take decisive action to right past wrongs.
I suggest we look for opportunities to support and encourage people of color personally and professionally. We need to seek ways to be antiracist, even if from time to time, maybe even regularly, we fail. But when we fail, we recommit ourselves to a common antiracist future.
Kevin S. Crowder, BCC, is an ACPE Certified Educator at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia.