A few weeks ago, I went on a cabin-in-the-woods vacation with my family and my girlfriend and her family. And I experience bald-faced racism that I didn’t know still existed. It was a horrific episode.
As a child, I had been bullied by a neighborhood kid one block over. (He bullied me and the other kids of color, all Asian. He would call us “N-gger” and go out of his way to be cruel.)
But those were simpler, I daresay more innocent, times. There were fewer words in circulation to designate non-White people. And while I knew that “Tommy” enjoyed picking on and beating up other kids, I knew he wasn’t going to take my life. (He did take another boy’s testicle though. By accident, mostly.) Tommy just liked being mean.
People don’t speak up when they see racism unfolding. They don’t interject themselves. I wrote a post on the topic of White Liberal silence in the face of real-time racism, and outraged quite a few readers.
A number of people felt called out. Maybe you felt called out too. If you felt called out, then that was my intent. I wanted everyone to feel called out. Especially you.
Here are some common things I heard in reaction to that post:
“You should use less offensive language.”
- “Are you calling us Cowards?”
- “My Black Lives Matter sign is helpful!”
- “You’re alienating the ‘Good Guys’! I’m one of the good guys!”
- “You should talk to a shrink.”
- “You should reach 1:1 to talk to people instead of writing angry blog posts.”
- “My church does a lot to help People of Color and Immigrants.”
- “Racism happens everywhere…and there are a lot of good people who go to the North Shore.”
- “You’re lying.”
- “You should go back there, damn it! It’s America. Claim your space.”
- “I don’t know what to say.”
How to Share that You Relate in Helpful Ways
A number of people did respond to the rural-town racism incident in helpful ways, including telling me that this type of racism against Asians and People of Color in rural parts of America is incredibly common.
I learned (in an online mom group) that many Asians are afraid of going to rural towns. To visit a small, rural town in America, as a POC, is to put your life in peril. I discovered that they have had many close-calls.
As one fellow Asian woman put it, “Racism is insidious and harmful in every corner of this country to BIPOC, but in rural America we are in actual, constant, real, physical danger.”
REAL PHYSICAL DANGER
Somehow, I’ve failed to convey the real physical danger I was in. Why else would people suggest I go back there?
It’s been suggested that I go back to that small-town where my story unfurled, and to other rural communities. If POC keep going to those places, White people who live there will get used to seeing People of Color and it will broaden their narrow world views. They will see for themselves that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Out of all reactions, this one has left me the most dumbstruck.
One kind woman invited me to visit her hometown in rural Wisconsin where the “people are really nice and not racist at all”.
Another woman suggested I visit her city on Madeleine Island, because “I know it didn’t happen here.”
And a third assured me, “Not everyone is like that in rural Wisconsin” and said I should keep looking and I’d find my perfect small-town lake retreat.
Where is the disconnect? Did I fail to adequately express the real, physical danger I was in?
Or maybe, my Ally listeners (who weren’t there) just know that it wasn’t that bad.
Of course the tale is awful. But how I’ve shared it, implicating Others, is more distasteful and more problematic than the potential violence itself.
They can get over what happened to me. They can’t get over how I share what happened to me.
I’ve made good Allies feel not-so-good.
Maybe fighting racism is not supposed to feel good.
Or maybe fighting racism can feel good, and that’s the best way to go about it?
Is Your Allyship Conditional?
I’m aware that White Liberals won’t want to stand with me if I offend them. Several readers have gently chided me. But this is not new or helpful information. White Liberal ‘friends’ have been giving this advice to colored folk for decades.
Are you against racism because racism is inherently bad?
Or are you taking a stand against racism under these “if” clauses: You’ll stand (with us) against racism IF:
- I don’t ever share when you’ve offended me. (Because that’s really offensive to you.)
- I don’t suggest there are ways you can grow.
- I don’t point out ways your behaviors can be problematic.
- I put in the emotional labor to talk to you, individually, about racism in ways you find non-threatening, non-judgmental, non-angry, and non-critical.
- I don’t malign people and places you love.
You Need Tough Skin to Be an Ally
You need tough skin to be an Ally. In order to be a real Ally, you have to risk being misunderstood and misinterpreted. You have to risk being labeled a racist. You have to risk having your feelings hurts or being offended.
In order to be an Ally, you have to be willing to sacrifice your Ally status.
But being misunderstood and called a racist is a million times better than being on the receiving end of racism.
The ability to be mis-labeled as a racist is a privilege.
“Thank you for telling me so I can do better. I’m sorry. I’ll do better.” This is an appropriate way to reply when you’re called out, wrongfully or not.
Because your words caused pain to a POC. Why is your pain, at being called out, more important than the other’s?
Bringing It Back to One True Sentence Today
In trying to understand the racism I experienced in rural Wisconsin, I’m learning about the limits of allyship. I’m learning about the conversations that Ally-identifying people don’t want to have.
I’m learning about the conversations I don’t want to have.
I don’t have the interest (or ability) to not alienate any White Liberals and keep them all energized and all feeling good about my feel-bad story so they’ll want to “help”.
I don’t know what “help” looks like. I’ve never seen it extended, mid-racism.
And while the North Shore has lots of lovely, non-racist bits – and is a safe place for you – it’s not a safe place for me.
For a POC, it takes just one misstep.
Driving through all-White, rural towns in the future is unavoidable. I just know I won’t be traveling to them.
My life hinges around those two prepositions.
Um, I don’t want to get lynched.
You can be wrong or think I’m wrong. I will not put my life in peril to prove it.
(Which of mine is cheaper than yours: my life or my life experience?)
A writer I follow, Fidgets and Fries, sums it up better than I could. As POC, we are already trying to navigate a world that’s “maladaptive” to our skin color. Repeatedly integrating places that don’t want us, because our skin color is “provocative”, is unsafe.
Maybe there are “behaviors we can perform consistently that would reduce and or eliminate harm to come to us”. But this places the onus on People of Color. “This makes it our responsibility to make others comfortable enough to not harm us.”
You can encourage other BIPOC to desegregate small rural towns during their holidays, but I’m going to stay away. I’m not going to endanger my life to dismantle (your country’s shameful) racism.
So tonight, on the eve of the 4th of July, here’s the truest sentence I know: While I appreciate ‘diversity’ as much as the next Progressive Liberal, I don’t want to visit rural places so White Men with Guns can get to know me and other POC.