There is so much rhetoric these days.
‘You’re a racist!’
‘No, I’m not!’
‘You don’t understand me!”
‘Yes, I do!’
‘Those punk millionaires don’t have a right to disrespect the flag!’
‘It’s not about the flag!’
‘Yes, it is!’
As I pondered all the negative, icky, upsetting language we’re throwing around, I had to ask myself, do I understand racism?
First let me tell you some facts. I’m an upper middle class white woman who has lived most of her life in Minnesota. I served on the Board for the Diversity Council in our city, I was trained over 8 weeks as a ‘Promote Respect Workshop’ facilitator for Kindergarten through 12th graders and I have a friend who has taught me a lot about her life as a woman of color.
And I don’t understand racism.
What I do understand is childbirth! I’ve been pregnant 3 times. I delivered one by cesarean, one naturally, and one pregnancy ended up as a miscarriage. I gained 57 (yes 57!) pounds during one of my pregnancies and heard countless remarks about my size such as, ‘hey, how do you get behind a steering wheel?’ and ‘are you sure you aren’t having twins?’
‘Ah, yes, I’m sure.’
During my first delivery, I actually thought to myself, ‘this is what it feels like to die’. The second one left me a raving lunatic who screamed at the doctor, ‘I’m not panting! I’m gonna push!’ The miscarriage left we wondering what happened to that little life and how I would go on.
Pretend I’m telling you a story about trying to push out my 10 ½ pound baby (yeah, that actually happened) and my husband interrupted me to finish the story. Let’s say he thought he understood how this whole thing went down because he was there and it's his child too. He says, ‘well it really wasn’t that bad. She pushed for about 2 hours and then they whisked her off to do a cesarean. It was no big deal! The recovery was a breeze too. She was up the next day and didn’t feel much pain’.
If my husband said that, he’d be banished to the couch for days. He's smart enough NOT say that. It's one of the many reasons I love him.
It’s true. He was there. But his explanation reveals that he has no understanding of what actually happened to me. He may think he knew what went on by observing me, but he didn’t feel it. He now had a newborn son but he didn’t go through the dramatic series of events to bring that new life into this world. He observed me laboring and pushing and having a cesarean, but he didn’t feel that excruciating pain. He simply observed it.
Men cannot understand childbirth. Women who’ve had babies do.
White people in America cannot understand racism. People of color do.
We can think we understand something even though we’ve haven't experienced it. My husband didn't throw up for 12 weeks, feel as tired every day as if he'd been at a slumber party, gain tons of weight and wish so badly he could wear a belt, wear tent dresses in an attempt to hide his belly (it was the 80s), have difficulty sleeping, eating and sitting, and lose all dignity as he grunted, sweat and pushed with all his might to deliver our son.
He didn't experience that so he simply cannot understand.
Sometimes we make up stories about how something can’t be true because it’s too uncomfortable to see that it is. My husband had a hard time believing I could be so tired in the first trimester. He will admit that he made up stories to explain my exhausted state. We also make up stories about how racism can't be that bad because it means we have to face the ugly reality.
We also create beliefs about how we think we’d act if we experienced what others experience, but we’re just speculating. I could believe that I'd act calm if George Clooney knocked on my front door, courageous if a masked gunman robbed me, or responsible if I won the lottery, but I don’t know because I haven’t experienced it. Likewise, I do not know how I'd act if I had been treated as 'less than' every day of my life simply because of the color of my skin.
We (white people) can judge people of color based on their response to racism but we don’t know what we’re saying because we’ve never experienced it. To explain our position, we say silly things like;
I’D NEVER show disrespect to anyone!
Really? If your neighbor knocked on your door every day and said, ‘you’re ugly!’ you’d show them total respect?
I ALWAYS follow the rules.
Un-huh. You never drive over the speed limit, take a shower before you enter a public pool, and tell the whole truth?
ALL lives matter!
You mean you don’t distinguish between those in positions of authority, those who can help you, or those have hurt you? You don’t ever show a preference or lack of preference to any group of people?
Unless we’ve experienced it, we don’t understand.
My husband doesn’t understand childbirth. I don’t understand racism.
What do you understand?