A Thorough Examination of My Whiteness in a Racist Society

A necessary part of anti-racism work is to examine ourselves and our own implicit biases. I have spent the last couple weeks reflecting on my whiteness, my privilege, and the ways in which I have perpetuated white supremacy. Today I want to share, with full transparency, the self-examination that I’ve done and the things I have learned about myself.

As a teenager and young adult, I never would have thought I was racist. I was nice to everyone, regardless of their skin color, and my naïve and sheltered view of the world allowed me to believe that was all it took. I thought that in order to be racist, you had to be actively committing acts of hate speech or violence toward people of color.

You guys…I was racist AS FUCK. And in a lot of ways, I still am, because I was raised in a deeply racist culture. Like it or not, we are products of our environment. Trying to pretend we, as white Americans, are not racist is like spending all day in a swimming pool and insisting we’re not wet. But of course, I was not taught this.

In my teen years, I was one of those people who would roll my eyes and talk about “playing the race card” whenever a Black person tried to speak out about racial injustice. I’d been taught from a young age that racism was a bad thing that happened in the past, and now it was over. Every white kid I knew was taught the same thing. And we all believed it. Why wouldn’t we? I can count on one hand the number of Black students I went to school with, from kindergarten through my senior year. My perspective and my environment were so whitewashed that I couldn’t possibly consider anything else.

Toward the end of high school, I began the college application process and found myself loudly taking against affirmative action. I felt slighted and injusticed, and I talked to anyone who would listen about how terrible it was that Black students could be taking MY scholarships and MY college acceptance letters. I DESERVED those things, and IT WASN’T FAIR. In fact, I was the one being discriminated against - not THEM!

Oh, sweet summer child. How very, very blind I was.

I didn’t begin to examine my beliefs about race until I was 30 years old - and the fact that I did at all was purely an accident. Here’s how it happened.

At the end of 2013, I finally left a relationship that was physically, emotionally, and sexually violent. In the midst of experiencing this violence, I hadn’t been able to accept that’s what it was. I had an inkling that my partner’s behavior was abusive, but I was really good at mental gymnastics, and I justified all sorts of things in very creative ways to avoid facing the truth.

The summer after I left that relationship, I experienced my first PTSD trigger. I was at a music festival, waiting in line to use a port-a-potty, and two 20-something men directly in front of me were having a heated exchange. They began throwing punches, just a few feet in front of me - and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. It felt like the world was tilting on its axis. Panicked, I fled the line, but there were people everywhere, and the thick crowd just made me feel more trapped. Finally, I broke through the wall of bodies and sat on a curb with my head between my knees, shaking and sweating and crying and trying to convince myself I wasn’t going to die.

I couldn’t help but wonder if that incident was connected to the violence I’d experienced in my relationship. I began researching - and with every article I read about domestic violence, I felt more and more validated. It HAD been awful. I WAS abused. I WAS dealing with the aftermath of intense trauma. Opening my eyes to these truths helped me identify other ways I had experienced oppression throughout my life, as a woman in the patriarchy - incidents I hadn’t even thought twice about, because they were so NORMAL. I began learning more about feminism and feeling passionate about standing up for the rights of women.

One of the websites I read the most was Everyday Feminism. One day, I came across an article about the intersection of gender and race in discrimination. Mentally, I rolled my eyes - “this tired argument again??” - but as everything else I’d read on the site had been so helpful, I decided, albeit reluctantly, to give it a chance.

That article changed my life.

It was written by a Black woman. And as I read it - as my eyes and my mind absorbed the things she was saying about how her life had been because of the color of her skin - it occurred to me that everything I knew (or, everything I thought I knew) about racism had been taught to me…by white people. I realized I had never - NEVER - really listened to a person of color share their own experience.

I decided to start listening - just to see. If I hadn’t realized I was oppressed as a woman, even though I had been living with that oppression my entire life…maybe I was wrong about this, too. I began reading books and articles written by Black Americans. And with each story, with each truth…I began to wake up.

And then…I got angry, and I took action.

For a while, I was fairly involved in activism within an intersectional feminist scope. I wrote articles about discrimination and oppression of marginalized populations, some of which were published by the Huffington Post and shared tens of thousands of times. I went to marches and protests and held up signs and shouted. I shared information and tried my best to call out racism, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination when I saw them. And all the while, I congratulated myself for being such a “woke” white person. So much of my activism was performative. I cared about fighting injustice…but I also cared about BEING SEEN fighting injustice.

Then, a couple years ago…I stopped.

Initially, my abandonment of activism was a necessary step to protect my mental health. I live with Major Depressive Disorder, and I’d had several quite severe episodes. I knew that being so immersed in the terrible things that were happening in the world was negatively affecting me, so as an act of self-care I set it aside, fully intending to return once I was feeling better.

It was not wrong of me to prioritize my mental health. I knew that I couldn’t help anyone if I myself was down in the depths. But something else had happened, just before I opted out of activism: I had called someone out for a racist remark on social media, and they responded by telling me to quit virtue signaling.

That comment hit me in the gut - probably because I knew, on some level, that that’s exactly what I had been doing. I felt shame. I really cared about ending racism - that much was true. But now, I worried that every time I spoke out about it, people would think I was only doing it for show. I didn’t know how to do it “right” - and it had suddenly become very uncomfortable.

So while I will always defend anyone’s right to prioritize their mental health over anything else, protecting my emotional well-being became a handy excuse for not having to do the work that made me uncomfortable.

My depression has been a lot more fierce over the last two years; this much is true. However, it has not been constant. The episodes have come and gone in waves, leaving me plenty of opportunities in between to feel strong and use that strength to do the right thing.

And I didn’t. I saw atrocities happening and said nothing. I watched as, one after the other, Black people were harassed, assaulted, and murdered by police. Sometimes I shared a post about it, fully aware that wasn’t even close to enough, but at least, I told myself, it was something. I watched these things happen, felt heartbroken about them…and did nothing to make them stop. And in this way, I directly contributed to white supremacy. Over and over and over again.

As white people, it is so easy to become complacent. We have the luxury of being able to turn off the news, tune out the social media posts, and continue with the status quo without being in any real danger. The ability to ignore the senseless snuffing out of Black lives is privilege in action.

I took full advantage of that privilege, and I am sorry.

I could have written letters. I could have sent emails. I could have made phone calls. I could have done better to try and call other white people in. I couldn’t have done these things while in the midst of debilitating depression - but I could have done them at all the points in between. And I am sorry.

I am still working to unravel my own implicit bias and inherent racism. I have understood the importance of this for nearly six years now, but I haven’t done enough. I haven’t done NEARLY enough. And for that, I take full responsibility.

I am listening. I am learning. I am reading. I am signing petitions, making phone calls, and writing letters. I am holding politicians, businesses, and other white people accountable. Most of all, I am holding MYSELF accountable - because the failure to do so makes me complicit in the atrocities committed against Black people.

I don’t want to contribute to the problem anymore. I want to be part of the solution. And I promise to do so.

When it’s hard, I will recognize that being Black in America is harder.

When it’s uncomfortable, I will acknowledge that my discomfort means absolutely nothing when lives are at stake.

When I need to take a break from activism to protect my mental health, I will not allow myself to grow complacent: I will return to the fight as soon as I am able.

When I am criticized or corrected by a Black person, I will listen, because this is not about me and my pride.

I will do better.

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© 2020 by Ali Owens​