Living My Questions: What does it mean to “do the work on yourself” first, as a White, Privileged Female in a Racist World?

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The Day the protests began, I’d already felt helpless. I didn’t know enough about the Black Lives Matter movement. I didn’t know how to help. I didn’t even know how to talk about it. And, if I’m honest, I had very few people in my racially insulated northern Minnesota pillowed life to talk to about it with a listening ear. Most people are ready to defend their views. Much of what I was reading on social media urged White people to “do the work” themselves to make a difference in racial injustice advocacy.

But, what does, “Do the work?” actually mean?

As always, I reach for books first – books about racial injustice, racism, and the history of white supremacy in our country. The first read was a book by Beverly Daniel Tatum called, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.

With a pen, book and notebook in hand, I carried two chairs and a small table out into my yard by the flowering crab apple tree. A perfect location to bask in the aroma of the tree blossoms and soak in the sun. I needed one chair to sit on, the other to rest my feet upon with knees bent to use as a table for my notebook. This is an important part of the story. Pay attention. The chairs were kinda heavy. I had to make two trips. After I was set up, I made a third trip and balanced my coffee on a small table, bringing it out to set beside my chairs. I could stretch this part of the story out, but this is just a blog post, not a book and this is enough to give you a picture of my effort in this matter of setting up to read.

Each chapter in this book, demands a close read. There is so much to digest, unpack, and make sense of: systemic racism, microaggressions, Real Estate Laws, redlining, the New Jim Crow, Government Policies, incarceration statistics, discriminatory voting laws, intersectionality, overt white nationalism and internalized oppression. These are only some of the factors that contribute to a society of racism. I’d read for a bit, then write a few sentences in my notebook, connecting the ideas to prior knowledge or experiences.

My only issue was:

I didn’t have enough experiences.

My husband eventually ventured out to the yard with his coffee cup.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Reading – writing,” I replied. He must tire of this response and wonder if I ever get anywhere with the reading and writing that I do.

He set his coffee mug on my table and with both hands on the sides of the chair I had my feet on, began to move it.

“What are you doing?” I asked, jolted.

“I’m going to sit in this chair,” he said.

“But I’m using that chair for my feet,” I said. (I know. This sounds so selfish. But, don’t forget how much work it took me to get set up!)

“Do you really need two chairs?” he asked.

“Yes, I do,” I replied. “There are more chairs up by the house if you want to bring one out.”

He was calm and not upset. Rolled his eyes inside his head, I’m sure. He took his coffee cup and decided to go sit up by the porch.

Now, you may be thinking I am an inconsiderate wife. Or, you may be thinking my husband is inconsiderate. Whatever you are thinking, park that thought for a moment, because it’s beside the point I want to make with this episode. Just play along with me here.

Instead, imagine you are a Black college student, male or female, it does not matter,  sitting in the Union studying alone. You pulled a heavy chair from against the wall over to rest your feet upon to set your laptop on.

Then imagine, a White male comes and attempts to grab the chair your feet are resting on to bring over to sit at another section of the Union with his buddies. He does not ask. There are other chairs available. He wants this one.

How do you feel?

Imagine it. Maybe it’s actually happened to you – or something like it.

That’s how I felt.

I happened to be reading Tatum’s chapter on microaggressions.

Tatum uses psychologist, Derald Wing Sue’s definition of racial microaggressions as “the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.”

I imagined the act of taking my chair as a behavioral, unintentional indignity. Indignity is a sharp word that encompasses shame, embarrassment and insult. I didn’t have shame or embarrassment, nor was I insulted, but had I been surrounded by others? maybe. . .

After my husband went back to the porch, I presumed he was perfectly content, drinking his coffee and reading. He doesn’t dwell on these kinds of things. He respects my solitude and I respect his. I can rationalize this.

However, I was left, energetically, in a different place, than when he arrived. I internalized the small act of inconsideration towards me and I could feel it in my body. It had to go somewhere. I blew this up in my mind, for “the experience” of “the micro-aggression”.

Keep playing with me here. . .

Did he feel entitled to the chair? Did he feel he had power over me? He was not emotionally effected. I was. What was that???? Call me crazy.

Back to being the imaginary Black student in the union. Do you say something? If you do, what do you risk? Is it worth it? Who would be the one to start the argument? What authorities get called over? Whose voice would get heard? Certainly, no one NEEDS two chairs.

Now imagine 10 – 20 microaggressions a week. These – just the “smallest” acts of racism.

Beverly Daniel Tatum writes, “Social science research has demonstrated that the cumulative effect of microaggressions ‘assail the self-esteem of recipients, produce anger and frustration, deplete psychic energy, lower feelings of subjective well-being and worthiness, produce physical health problems, and shorten life expectancy. . .'”   Psychologist Derald Wing Sue “the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.”

It’s a constant perpetual drip of stress.

I imagined a life time of these acts towards me – in which I had no power to reject or stand up against, for fear of what might happen. Then, I imagined generations of these acts – for hundreds of years. How much gets stored in the body with nowhere to go? Passed down from generation to generation. At some point, you don’t even know why you are angry – you can’t name it. It lives in you.

But then. Something happens.

Like a Black man being killed on video for the world to see.

And, you are cracked open.

I made these discoveries in my notebook as I documented what was happening, my emotions, connections to ideas from the book and my imagination.  I needed the “chair stealing” experience with my husband as the missing piece to “the work” I needed to do.

Gratefully, our relationships can prompt for experiences that can be starting points to imagine racial injustice. It is here that we gain understanding and develop empathy for those who are oppressed.

I’m not sure how others do “the work”, but this is where I’m starting until I learn more. I know I still have “work” to do on my own unconscious racist ways of being, thinking and behaving. I know that I’m not sure if I will do this “work” right. But, I’m willing to just start, lean into the discomfort, get messy trying figure it out.

“The work” continues . . .

 

 

 

 

 

The Medicine of Words

 

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A new generation began the day my grandson, Grayson, was born into this world.  The first grandchild on both sides of his family, he will pave the way for many more to come.

I watched with anxious eyes as he passed the threshold of his mother’s womb to a place where there is air to breath. His lungs surprised at this.  His body traumatized by the brightness.  And, the cold.   Purple.  His head misshapen – and purple.  My daughter, now Aunt Gracie, and I, the sideline observers, frozen in silence, unbeknownst to what is normal.

And what is not.

Within an hour, fresh color warmed his skin and his little head settled into a perfect shape.  A miracle, we breathed.  Awed.  The color came back to our own faces.

Along with Grayson’s arrival, an entire new shipload of worries set port in my mind.

Scrolling Facebook, a dear old friend who belongs to the Grandma Club, posted an article as a “must read”.  I trust what she posts, so I felt a sense of urgency to read it.

The headline, “Letter to Doctors About the Dangers of Insufficient Exclusive Breastfeeding“.  Apparently, one in four newborns do not get enough milk from their mother’s breast milk the first days of life and this deficiency can lead to “long-term neurodevelopmental impairments including autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, severe speech delay, seizure disorders, motor impairments and mental retardation.”

Oh, Heavenly Father.

I felt nauseous and then immediately messaged my daughter to find out how much Grayson had been eating, if the jaundice was improving, were his diapers wet?  Waves of panic sent hot flashes to my already menopausal self.  What should I do?  Perhaps I could buy them a baby scale?  How else would they be able to monitor how much milk he’d be getting?  Perhaps they need to try formula and just forget about breastfeeding.  I kept asking my daughter worrisome questions, but my mind would not rest.  She assured me that the doctor said everything was normal.

“What do they know?” my fearful know-it-all-experienced-mother-self taunting me.

Later that evening, after I’d calmed down a bit, I was drawn into a movie called Spy Games that my husband was watching.  I sat down for a bit.

“Geez, Robert Redford has a lot of lines on his face in this movie,” he said.

“Well, those would be wrinkles my dear, and don’t let the hair fool ya, I think he’s almost 80,” I replied.

“Seriously?” he asked.

“Yup,” I said.  Now, I wasn’t really sure.  I just know that Paul Newman died and they were buddies.  I think.  Well, they were in movies together.  Well, at least that one. . .

I grabbed my Smart phone to double-check my statement.  Fact checking.

“Yup, right here it says he was born August 16, 1936.  He will be 80 this August,”  I have to make sure to let him know that I was spot on with this one.  It’s not all that often I’m right.

I continued to read Robert Redford’s biography, now distracted from the movie.  An interesting heading catches my attention: “The Heartbreaks That Robert Redford Hides“.

He has authorised a new biography – but it is the personal tragedies the actor doesn’t tell us about that make the book remarkable…

On a cool November evening in 1959 Robert Redford kissed goodnight to his 10-week-old son Scott and lay him down in his cot. The rising young star had just moved into a large apartment on West 93rd Street in Manhattan and days earlier had opened on Broadway in new drama The Highest Tree. With his bride of barely a year Lola and still heady from their elopement to marry in Las Vegas, Redford seemed on top of the world. But by the next morning Scott was dead, the victim of cot death, a syndrome that back then did not even have a name. It was the heartbreak of Robert Redford’s life, a tragedy that forever altered his psyche, plunging him into a depression that he only escaped by immersing himself in acting.

Oh Mylanta, Georgia.

Crib death.

Why would God put this article before my eyes tonight when He already knows I’m freaking out about the breast milk?  Seriously, God.  Help me here.  What are You thinking?

I put my phone away and tried to focus on the movie.

After I messaged my daughter.

I just don’t remember these anxieties when I was having my babies.  I’m pretty sure it’s because I was exhausted and just trying to survive.  Or, maybe my mother stayed with me for a few days.  Could it be that I just didn’t have the anxiety that I have now?

No.

It’s more than that.

The internet feeds anxiety.

Any small infraction of abnormality leads me to the worst possible scenarios.  And, I will find them.  Trust me.

It was way better when I didn’t know.

There is a dear wonderful writer whose words I frequently visit.  Her name is Emily P. Freeman and she writes a blog called Chatting at the Sky.  It’s lovely.  The morning after the breast milk/crib death/anxiety/hot flash meltdown, her post showed up in my inbox. On this particular day, she shared the thoughts of a new-to-me writer, Christie Purifoy.

Christie’s words were medicine:

I have always been a follow-the-rules, keep-it-under-control, anxious-to-please kind of girl. Which means I am, more often than not, anxious.

The hum of impending disaster is the white noise of my day. Whether weeding my garden or reading a bedtime book, I am on high alert: for the cough that might be asthma, the rose-bush harboring some soon-to-multiply pest, the crock pot I must remember to fill and start at 11 am exactly. And woven in and out of these small, weedy worries are the invasive vines of my anxiety: the writing deadline, the big decision, the older child who seems, unusually and inexplicably, sad.

If the moment is without crisis, then it is up to me to keep it so.

I stopped reading and shut my laptop and looked around.

Then, I opened it back up to keep reading.

Her first baby, a daughter, was difficult.  Ah-hem.  Mine, too.  But, she writes, this breaking point of feeling out of control is what led her to be grateful for the small moments of grace.  And then, she writes more:

She and I both grew, and my tears dried. Three more babies joined their older sister, and every year I harvested another crop of worries. I grew large again, and the shadow cast by that world on my shoulders obliterated all the tiny, wonderful things.

Umm, yes, me too.  Three more babies.  All more worries.

And finally . . .

It hurts to be sifted by sorrow, and I can glimpse no end to the hurt, and yet I find myself grateful. To be sifted by suffering is to find that all your usual worries have settled down into their proper places. Large uncertainties land in your prayers, plans for the future edge your daydreams, and the small anxieties that once loomed so large on your shoulders float down and far away where they look like just what they are: the dust beneath your feet.

Now lift your eyes and look around you.

Here, at last, is room for each given breath. The doorway is wet with tears, yet this is a spacious place and a land of small wonders.

I can’t even.

How is it that another human being can so precisely craft the words that are the exact replica of the life that you are living?  I am frequently gifted with words from others in this way.  God uses writers (and artists and doctors and musicians and ministers and human beings, basically) to speak to others.  All of us are just messengers.

Immediately, Christie’s words are printed in order for me to reread and talk back to, to Christie really, my new writing friend (all authors I love are my writing friends) pen in hand, jotting down my own thoughts to these words.  Authentic “close reading” at it finest.

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She is me and I am her.  Some words are meant to marinate in the brain, to savor, to digest in such a way that the message is so clear, so understood.  These words were meant to teach me.  It was my job to study them. There are big lessons in here.  Not surprisingly, lessons that have been taught to me before, many times before.  However, I am in a new context – as grandma.  The lesson needed to be retaught.

In education, we call this transfer.  I remember years ago, teaching a listening lesson to third graders.  Later on, a student asked me, “Should we listen here, too, like we did this morning?”

How are we to know that our lessons learned are to be applied in many different circumstances?  Why do we forget?

Because we are humans.

Thankfully, we have teachers and writers to keep reteaching us.

It’s okay.

God knows we’ve got this.

It will all be okay.

I need to look for small wonders.

I receive a text from my daughter after Grayson’s one week dr. visit –

“The dr. said we don’t have to worry about jaundice anymore because he’s gained 6 oz. since Friday! So, I can stop the extra formula, too!”

Okay.

I guess they do know.