Maybe Doing It Wrong But Doing It Anyway: Talking About Racism

culture and society

While my six year old was home recuperating from her recent tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy, her classmates drew her cards and wrote little notes, wishing her well. Remmy’s teacher and I arranged a FaceTime session with her classroom, and the phone was passed around the room so her classmates could say hello.

The phone stopped in front of James, a friendly black boy in a school uniform navy blue fleece. James and Remmy said hello and mostly waved, but James made sure to say “feel better” and “I miss you” before the phone was passed off to the next classmate. It did Remmy some good, to see her friend and say hello.

I’m raising white daughters. They don’t look “ethnically ambiguous” like me; no one can tell that they’re part Pacific Islander. The three of them have fair skin. In ten years, when Remmy’s walking down the road, it’s likely no one will cross the street to avoid her. In ten years, I’m not so sure I could say the same for James.

The Ferguson case is a volatile one. And we could sit and debate what Wilson said or what the witnesses corroborated, we could point to the protestors or point to the riots, we could reference cases that are like this one, but void of national media attention. We could get red-faced with anger arguing a point, or explaining what a grand jury actually does. And maybe that’s necessary. But what’s more necessary, I think, is to stop and think about what the black community is going through. Regardless of which side we all stand, if any at all… outside of Ferguson altogether, I can look at my black friends and realize that raising black sons is scary.

I’ll point to my own ignorance on this one. And truth be told, I’m still really ignorant to a lot of what my black brothers and sisters face. Until recently, I didn’t know the concept of DWB, driving while black. I didn’t know that some parents have to coach their kids on how to talk to police officers. I didn’t realize that often, a mom will look at her black son and worry about the day that society suddenly sees him as a person to fear, and that her worries are backed by data. I didn’t realize that kindest, most gentle-mannered black man could ask a group of people for directions only to hear the words go away, we don’t have any money.

Talk About it

Racism is hard to talk about, and I’m so afraid of saying the wrong things. But ultimately, I’m more afraid of not saying anything. I got wrapped up in a Facebook debate this morning. A friend (we disagree a lot; it’s ok, we’re still buds) posted something (insensitive, IMO) related to race, and we went back and forth on it. Not much later, we were berated for arguing. We should be able to talk about this without feeling like we’re stirring up trouble. Remove that last part. We should be able to talk about this.

Where my white friends at?

(Religious sidenote: Where the white Christians at? We can talk about the love of Christ all damn day, but when it comes down to it, when people are hurting, when an entire community is in mourning, politics of a judicial decision aside, when we need conversation to happen in order for understanding and empathy to spread, maybe some of us — me included — are being a little too quiet.)

Some truths that I think we can agree on:

1) It’s okay to disagree.

2) It’s okay to not make sense of the Mike Brown case.

3) Racism is still alive in the US. And if you disagree, check out any comments section on any news site to be proven wrong. :/

So what can we do? I don’t know; I really don’t. But I don’t think we should be silent. I’m watching black friends post on Facebook, calling on white people to start conversation. Open, thoughtful discourse is important, and I think we should offer as much empathy as possible. Talk to our white friends. Talk to our black friends. Don’t have any? Probably time to make some. We can read what black people (and parents of black children) are writing. I don’t have to agree with every word someone says in order to learn from someone.

While we’re all sorting this out, if you want to do something immediate and tangible, I like the suggestion of making a donation to the Ferguson Public Library. They’ve tweeted today: WE ARE OPEN! Teachers and volunteers are here 9am-3pm to help kids who can’t go to school today. Library open 9-4, presuming it stays safe. A safe haven worth supporting. Additionally, Natalie DuBose’s bakery was severely damaged by rioters after she pleaded with them not to burn it down or destroy it. People have sent up a gofundme for her to get her bakery back in operations.

These are hard conversations to have, but they’re important. We may never do it the best or the most eloquently, we may the wrong things and have to subsequently apologize, but all of that’s okay, I think. I’d rather do it sort of badly than not do it at all.

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  • Reply Alex @ True Femme November 25, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    This was beautifully and humbly written, Roo, just like all of your other work. For the better half of this year, I worked in a multi-cultural center and was one of 2 white employees. My fellow colleagues and I worked hard to bring awareness to social justice issues that exist on our campus, but admittedly as a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, well-educated female, I have a lot of privileges and with that, a complete lack of experience of what racism *really* means. I was grateful for the patience of my colleagues and their willingness to educate me about things that as a white person, I frankly knew nothing about. This current case is a really sad and tragic one all the way around, but you’re right: it highlights the dire need for more discussions about racism (and the other -isms). We all have certain privileges, some more salient than others, and we have to be willing to make mistakes/say potentially politically incorrect things for the sake of furthering the dialogue and learning what we should say and how we should act. I think well-intentioned errors are more important than silence in favor of political correctness. There’s nothing correct about not talking about this and there’s nothing correct about any person of color walking around in fear because of the color of their skin. There’s nothing right or ok about that at all.

    • Reply Roo November 25, 2014 at 9:48 pm

      Alex, I love your comment. I think you’re insightful and self-aware and it’s fantastic that you were teachable in what sounds like a really positive work environment. I feel ill-equipped and painfully ignorant to a lot of things (I can’t tell you how much of what I know about racism I learned in the past 18 months alone), but I’m hoping everything that’s happening inspires a shift in the way we talk about it. Thanks so much for weighing in.

  • Reply Mixi November 25, 2014 at 7:04 pm

    Thank you for this heart-wrenching read that tackles smack dab right down the middle of this hypocrisy and depressing reality.

  • Reply Kelly {the Centsible Life} November 25, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    I agree. I am a white woman that grew up relatively sheltered in a middle class home, so no matter how many conversations I have I know I can never really fully truly understand what it’s like to be discriminated against for just driving down the street. I try, I talk, I open my mind and my heart, and I’m the first to admit when I put my foot in my mouth, but I don’t know if it’s enough.

    • Reply Roo November 25, 2014 at 8:58 pm

      I think being aware and open and level-headed is worth a ton, Kelly.

  • Reply Sara November 25, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    Thank you for writing this. I live in St. Louis, and I have friends on both sides of this issue. Not knowing what to say (or think), I have kept silent, except for wishing everyone safety. But you are right; the issues surrounding this case–both race and class related–need to be talked about.

  • Reply Rusty November 25, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Roo, your thoughts provided a wonderful example of how non-judgmental discourse can be productive. It’s too easy to blame, from whichever “side” one might be on. If people blamed less often and looked more inwardly on what they could do to improve a set of circumstances, we would accomplish more and do it in unison. The sobering reality which is hard for many to admit is that the events surrounding Ferguson are where we are as a society, and no one forced our attitudes upon us. We have developed them very methodically. Reaching across to you and all who want to improve this condition we find ourselves in without simultaneously making it worse. We’re all in this together. Let’s get out of it together too.

  • Reply kyle November 25, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    Yes, Roo.
    I have involved myself in two conversations on this topic and they are short and simple: judge all you want, those present when information was presented to the grand jury, Mr. Brown, Officer Wilson, and God are the only ones who have enough information to develop an informed opinion on the case AND (and in my opinion most importantly) when we see someone hurting, we need to show compassion. It doesn’t matter who that person is, what that person believes, what that person looks like, where that person lives…nothing matters but the fact that a fellow human being is hurting. Empathy is hard for some, I understand that, but at least we owe each other compassion.

  • Reply Jen November 25, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    Roo, once again you were able to beautifully express – in a much more eloquent way – what I’ve been thinking. This whole thing just hurts my heart, and I struggle with what to say and how to start conversation, especially when I’m struggling with patience towards the (manyyyy) narrow minded comments I keep hearing. You’re right though, silence isn’t the answer – thoughtful discourse paired with open hearted listening is so important. Thank you for such a great post.

  • Reply Amanda November 25, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Thank you for this, Roo.

    As a black female, I was also coached by my parents when it comes to police officers. 1) If you are pulled over, do not reach for anything in your car. They may assume you are reaching for a gun. #2) Do not walk around the store with your hands in your pockets. They may assume that you are stealing something from the store.

    I was actually bullied by a group of black girls for years when I was younger because they accused me of “wanting to be white”. When one of my friends asked them why they thought that, they said it was because I made good grades, lived in a nice house, and my parents had good jobs, and I met several people in college who had the same experience. If this is not evidence of how damaging stereotypes and racial profiling can be, I don’t know what is. It’s gotten to the point some of us believe that these stereotypes are not only who we are but who we are supposed to be. Race has become a behavioral attribute.

    We need to do better encouraging our black men to aim higher, but that’s difficult to do when they’re being raised in a society (especially with the media) that too often assigns the same negative behavior to all of them with low expectations.

    • Reply Amy November 26, 2014 at 10:34 am

      I am a white female, and I was also taught the two things mentioned above. Those are logical nuggets of wisdom that should be taught to everyone. I was accused of stealing by a manager of Claire’s (the teeny bopper jewelry store) when I was a teenager and apparently forgot #2 and put my hands in my pocket. I had to empty my pockets crying as she threatened to call the police. I also had my car searched by police when I was a teenager, because my friend and I had been smoking cigarettes and the officer said he could smell marijuana. He accused us of lying and even called for backup. Of course, they found nothing. If I was black, these would be two of my “I’ve been discriminated against” moments. I do not believe the implied rule that every time the involved parties in situations like this are of different races, it is racial discrimination.

      • Reply Amanda November 26, 2014 at 11:51 am

        For the record, it would take a lot for me to play the race card because, as you just demonstrated, these things could happen to anyone. However, stats show we are more likely to be falsely accused of crimes which is why black parents stress these things so much to their children.

        But I agree with you, it’s probably something everyone should be taught, but do not assume that every black person uses run-ins police as an opportunity to claim racial discrimination. We’re not all the same. I take responsibility for my mistakes and have a large group of friends who do the same.

        • Reply Rebecca November 26, 2014 at 10:57 pm

          Thank you for providing a mindful comment despite that what was said was essentially a bit dismissive of the point you were trying to reach. It’s not as was stated, that you (as a minority) are the only one who is involved in these situations or received these instructions. The point is that you (as a minority) are often more likely to be believed to not only be capable of these behaviors but expected and presumed to exhibit them.

      • Reply Amanda November 26, 2014 at 12:17 pm

        Also, I’m sorry that happened to you. That sucks.

    • Reply Brynn December 6, 2014 at 6:29 am

      This, conversation, right here. Thank you. Thank you. For being civil, for talking it out. It is something I have thought too, but I have no one with whom I can talk about it. I have no clue about the racism that other races might feel, and I am so thankful for Roo, for writing the way she does, with the same questions and thoughts I have, and for this civil conversation that has restored my hope for learning and understanding without feeling like I am saying something wrong. I have these questions, I want to ask them, but I am afraid of coming off so ignorant and rude.

  • Reply michelleLG November 25, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    yes. i’ve been walking these same mental paths yesterday and today. taking in some amazing perspectives like…
    this from a pastor in St. Louis: http://darrinpatrick.org/blog/ferguson-response/
    this round table discussion on race (because YES, we need to be able to talk about it): http://thejourney.org/raceroundtable
    and this shared by a friend: http://qz.com/250701/12-things-white-people-can-do-now-because-ferguson/

    i shared the following on facebook today (though i usually shy away from internet conflict, after reading the first link above, i just couldn’t stay silent): “A few thoughts: (1) When the national conversation flares up around the issue of the day, I want to withdraw. I would much rather discuss face to face with people I actually know than sling my opinions all over the internet. But, this St. Louis pastor is asking that I pay attention. So I’m trying. (2) sometimes Adam and I will get in a fight about something trivial, and its not until we’re pretty far into the argument that we realize that the issue that sparked the fight isn’t the real issue, there’s something deeper going on and our overly-strong reactions are a red-flag, a symptom of a bigger problem, a real problem. I want to converse about race issues like I strive to converse with my spouse: I want to listen, to hear and work to understand, I want to bear with others in love.”

    thanks for giving voice to this roo, and encouraging the conversation. fistbump.

    • Reply Roo December 3, 2014 at 8:36 am

      That’s some great insight, Michelle. “A symptom of a bigger problem” — spot on.

  • Reply The Fearless Scribe November 25, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    Thanks for this post, Roo and for speaking with thoughtful kindness on such a difficult topic.

  • Reply Lisa November 26, 2014 at 8:45 am

    Yes, yes, and yes. Silence and failing to discuss is the worst as it serves no one. I love your suggestion to support the library. I cannot even begin to imagine the healing that must be allowed to start in Ferguson, if only in tiny ways.

  • Reply LaToya November 26, 2014 at 8:57 am

    I love that you wrote this, and I love what you wrote. :)

    • Reply Roo December 3, 2014 at 8:35 am

      Thanks, LaToya. :) :) :)

  • Reply Liz November 26, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Thank you for writing this. It’s everything I feel like I should have but you just did, beautifully. Nothing has been more enlightening than following the feeds of black people I know and those I don’t. I want to talk more, but I’m now feeling that maybe I just need to sit back and listen first. This doesn’t seem to be the time for dialogue for a lot of people just yet. I’m glad you found a beautiful way to enter the conversation.

  • Reply Katrina November 26, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Roo, it was so nice to read this. I live in St Louis, but right now I’m in small-town Iowa with my family for the holiday. I’m having such a hard time hearing the basically racist attitudes and comments from my family and struggling to know what to say. I’m not confrontational and don’t want to get into arguments with people. But it’s time to stop listening to their ignorance.

  • Reply Voices of Women and Mothers on Ferguson - Mom 2.0 Summit | April 29 - May 1, 2015 Scottsdale, AZ November 26, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    […] Maybe Doing it Wrong but Doing it Anyway: Talking About Racism by Roo Ciambriello […]

  • Reply Lesley November 26, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    Well said. Initially when I got to the part specifically referencing black males, I was a little off put. We are raising a daughter of mixed race (black and white) in an otherwise all white family, and it has certainly made me more aware of race issues and making sure our daughter is not discriminated against nor feels marginalized in our community. Thus far we’ve had no overt issues, and I do check in with my daughter regularly about whether she is feeling comfortable in her skin as it were. She totally gets why I am asking and is perplexed by these stories as they come up in the media as she has fortunately not felt the potential brunt of the colour of her own skin.

    Over the last few years, with the racially charged cases in the US, I have become very aware that there is however somewhat of a difference between being a black male and a black female, and remain thankful that we are charged with dealing with the less difficult of these.

    It is a sticky discussion, but it does indeed need to be an active discussion or we’ll never get anywhere.

    • Reply Roo December 3, 2014 at 8:34 am

      Thanks so much for your insight, Lesley. Your daughter sounds like she’s being raised in a loving home. :)

  • Reply Morgan November 26, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    I live in St Louis not 5 miles from Ferguson and work at a crisis nursery. Our supervisors told us to be prepared to work extra so we could help as many families as possible when the verdict was released. We’ve gotten calls from parents in the community wanting a safe place for their children even on the holiday.

    As far as the body of Christ during this time, I know of a group (http://www.thefergusonresponse.com) from churches all over the community who came together to worship and pray for Ferguson, in Ferguson. They did outreach as well. It may not be getting news coverage but trust me the churches here are acting and praying!

  • Reply Kristin December 2, 2014 at 11:44 am

    This is great! Open and honest discussions are exactly what is needed. Although, I’m not sure it will ever happen effectively. I think there are too many people with too much pride to actually sit and listen to the “other side” without becoming defensive or put off. I think if we all would just listen, and let other stories really soak in, think on for a few hours/days, live in it, instead of immediately coming to a conclusion, then talking would be productive. We have become too accustomed to acting before thinking and speaking without really listening.
    The only thing about this post that I do disagree with is “Talk to our black friends. Don’t have any? Probably time to make some.” While I agree with the heart of the statement, it seems off to me. I don’t have any black friends, but that isn’t because I don’t want any, I just don’t. I live in a predominately white community (probably more Hispanics than Black and I’m marriend to a Hispanic man). I think making a friend just for the sake of his/her color is counter productive. It doesn’t seem real or genuine.
    I look forward to the day when people can see other people as …. well… people. I think it will take a lot of work from the human race though. It will take a lot of people breaking their own stereotypes and a lot of communication and a lot of prayer.

    • Reply Roo December 3, 2014 at 8:25 am

      Totally get it. I don’t mean to do it disingenuously, but so many people are afraid to get out of their comfort zones and get to know someone different. So I’d say that would be a priority for me, getting to know people who live this and face those challenges… but not do it simply so I can check it off a list: “make a black friend!” “make a lesbian friend!” etc.

  • Reply Because Silence Isn’t an Option | the organized chicken December 3, 2014 at 10:07 am

    […] and I’m trying to read everything I can get my hands on. Some articles (like this one, this one, and this one) give me hope for moving forward. This is hard, but we have to talk about it — […]

  • Reply Chase December 4, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    “Religious sidenote: Where the white Christians at?” YES.
    Speaking as a white girl born and raised in the suburbs of Philly, currently living in Jackson, MS and married to a (white) Baptist preacher…yes, please, where is the support of the Christian community? Earlier this year a poll placed Mississippi at the top of the list as the “Most Religious State” …but I am shocked by the racism I see down here (sidenote: it’s not like it’s not present in the North as well, I totally get that). Yes, part of the discrimination is economic, but in Jackson it’s pretty much the same thing (lower economic class = minorities, mostly black). I’m shocked by casual statements that I hear that are completely racist to me but don’t make others bat an eye down here.

    I don’t get how the whole “love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself” thing gets so grossly ignored when Jesus prefaced that with a statement that was basically like “hey guys, here are the only two things that matter.”

  • Reply Voices of Women and Mothers on Ferguson | MOM 2.0 July 24, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    […] Maybe Doing it Wrong but Doing it Anyway: Talking About Racism by Roo Ciambriello […]

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