This week my friend and I attended a lecture at the local community college entitled “Concerning Democracy: How Systemic Bias in Services Strengthens White Nationalism.” The general description of the event went as follows:
This event will explore how the systems that we
rely on (including healthcare) create the
inequalities that we see every day as well as what
we can do locally to address this. We will explore
the exclusionary history of our state while looking
at the systems that dictate all of our lives.
Before the lecture began, however, the speaker—Eric K. Ward—had each table participate in an exercise. We were to go around in a circle (there were seven of us at my table) and take turns sharing our experience of discrimination; when we were discriminated against, when we witnessed discrimination, or when we ourselves discriminated against someone. While each person shared, we were not allowed to make any comments or have any reaction of any kind. We were merely supposed to listen. Silently.
Whenever I’m put in a situation like this and I’m forced to come up with a story, my mind usually wanders to the misogynistic comments I’ve experienced just from being a woman. The homophobic/biphobic slurs or microaggressions I’ve experienced as a queer woman. But for some reason, this time felt different.
As soon as I walked into the room that night I could tell this was going to be a time where I needed to allow myself to feel uncomfortable. To acknowledge my own shortcomings in terms of subconscious racial biases, and how I’ve largely benefited from a system of white supremacy simply by existing as a white person. It was not my time to be the center of attention.
I spoke second to my friend, and the story she told only solidified my earlier thoughts. She told a story about how as a child she had been given a gift from someone of a different race, took it home to her parents, only to be told that she needed to give it back because “we [the white people] don’t interact with them [the non-white person, the ‘other’].” As a small child she had not only witnessed blatant discrimination but, through no fault of her own, was also a participant.
I knew I had to tell a story I’d never told anyone before; and because of certain comments that were made today, I know I need to tell it to you.
In the summer of 2012 I worked driving combine for a wheatgrass farmer just north of my hometown. What I’ve realized having lived out of state for 5+ years is that a lot of people don’t realize that Oregon is not actually the progressive haven the media makes it out to be. Sure, Eugene and Portland are pretty much the hippie/hipster capitals of the world, but if I could explain Oregon’s dynamic in ten words or less, it would be as such: hippies/hipsters, and people who hate hippies/hipsters. Much of the state is rural conservative, so much so that you might as well be in the Deep South.
That being said, the community I worked for that summer easily fell into the “people who hate hippies/hipsters” category. But I knew that going in. I had “interviewed” for the position in my boss’s living room a few months prior, and as soon as I’d driven up to the house the first thing I saw was a Tea Party flag waving proudly just below the American flag. I walked into the living room and Fox News was flashing proudly on the television in the background. I knew right away I was coming into an environment of people who possessed opinions very different from my own; still, it was 2012 and I had yet to learn the more complex issues of race and politics. To me, you either agreed or disagreed on issues, and that didn’t necessarily make you a bad person. A very black and white point of view, if you will.
About halfway through the summer we combine drivers and a supervisor (our boss’s second-in-command) were taking a break, hanging out in the barn with our boss’s two English bulldogs. I was the only woman in the group, but all of us were white. When it came time to get back to work we needed to get the dogs back into the barn, but one of them did not want to follow directions. We tried for a while to get him to stay still, with no avail. That was when I heard it, straight from the mouth of my supervisor:
“He must be a n****r dog. He doesn’t listen to anybody.”
I froze, as if all the oxygen had been sucked from the room. I may not have learned all the complexities of race relations in the United States by that point in my life, but I knew enough to understand that you were never to use that word. Ever. Disgusting people used that word. Evil people used that word.
Supervisors did not use that word. Until they did.
I waited for the room to fall silent in shock, just as I had. Either that or become so outraged we risked a mutiny.
Neither of those scenarios happened.
Instead, everyone laughed along with him. Tossed it aside as if all the history, power, and violence behind that word were nothing compared to the 21st century white [male] privilege. I felt nauseous. I had never in my life heard someone use that word so casually, right in front of me, assuming I wouldn’t care. I felt sick that someone could look at me and assume that I would be okay with language like that.
Yet at the same time, I was scared. I felt words bubbling in the back of my throat:
“Do not ever say that word around me, or ever again!”
“If you use that word again I will walk out of here and be done.”
“Do you not understand how offensive your language is!?”
But I couldn’t say any of them. These men were bigger than me. They had power over me. And they all thought alike. And our boss had a temper. What would happen to me if I opened my mouth, and he found out? Intellectually I could hold my own, but physically, emotionally? I had nothing.
So I said nothing.
To this day I hold that regret. I chose my own comfort and security over confronting the racism and oppressive behaviors in my own backyard. I stood there and let them laugh, and let them assume I condoned it. The fact that there were no black people in the vicinity was neither here nor there; what mattered was that at the end of the day, because I chose to stay silent, that man went to bed at night believing he had an unquestionable right to use that racial slur, and with no consequence.
What mattered was that for all I knew, that man could live days, months, and years still believing that that language was okay. He could teach his friends that that language was okay. His church. His children. His words would spread like wildfire.
Then think about how many other people are out there in this country who think like him; who have never been held accountable. How many people are they influencing? And how many persons of color’s lives would be affected in real, tangible ways?
I had an opportunity to take a stand. To put a stop to injustice—no matter how small—and I made the choice not to.
So where am I going with this, you may ask?
On January 11, 2018 our so-called “President” went on national television and—Hold up. I know what you’re thinking; “I’ve heard this sentence-starter before!”—referred to places such as Haiti, El Salvador, and countries within Africa as “shithole countries,” and then suggested that the United States should “bring in” more people from countries like Norway (aka. more white people).
Setting aside the question of why the fucking hell would Norwegians want to move here when they already have universal healthcare, a living wage, and one-year guaranteed maternity leave, this statement is despicable.
Our so-called “President” is despicable.
We’ve all known Donald Trump is a racist, that much has been clear forever, let alone the past two years he’s been in the political spotlight. He has attempted to ban Muslims. He has called Mexicans rapists. The list goes on.
But I think this particular incident stands out to me so much because it was just hours ago I was sharing publicly—for the first time—that I had witnessed racial discrimination firsthand and done nothing. For years I hadn’t wanted to face the guilt head-on; I didn’t want to risk telling that story and having someone tell me how awful I was. How I wrong I was. How complicit I was.
Because look at where we are now, fellow white people. Being complicit in racism—or any -ism for that matter—is how it all begins. No matter how unintentional, I had given that supervisor the power this country has been feeding Donald Trump through an IV-bag for decades.
I don’t want to live in a world where rich and powerful white men can run off at the mouth with oppressive, hateful language and suffer no consequences.
So we, fellow white people, need to speak up. Right now.
Black lives matter more than your feelings.