As a straight white man, I have been committed to ending racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism- all the ‘isms’- for a long time. I do this through working in organizations dedicated to social justice, training, speaking and writing about these important issues. Like many whites, I’d like to think I am not racist- after all, I never use the “N” word, I have some Black friends and family members and I am a multicultural trainer. In addition, I care. I taught in a very urban high school for 35 years, I have worked as an ally to many oppressed people in effective ways for some time. I am trusted by my Black and Gay friends and the women in my life. So I get a ‘pass’, right??
Sadly, this is simply nonsense! I do not get, nor deserve a pass. I was raised in a society where I was steeped in racism, sexism and all the others ‘isms’ on a daily basis. I listened to radio and TV broadcasts, read books and newspapers, went to church and family gatherings where I received ubiquitous messages about my superiority and the ‘others’ inferiority- constantly! These messages were usually covert but insidious and vicious, I am very sad to say.
My mother, for example, was an avid church going woman who believed in every fiber of her being that she was not prejudiced. Yet, when my beautiful niece was born to my sister and her Black husband some years back, she audibly sighed with deep relief when she first held her granddaughter, because “Thankfully, her skin is so light!” My sister and her husband were devastated! This is just one small example of the never-ending experience of ‘micro-aggressions’ that many people of color endure daily- often called ‘Death by a thousand paper cuts’. One of my many privileges is to not be subjected to these common and constant slights and, in fact, I don’t even have to notice them, if I don’t want to!
What’s more, I collude- usually unconsciously- with other whites around our racism, with other men around our sexism and with other straights around our heterosexism.
Just last week, I was at a meeting with about 60 certified leaders of the ManKind Project (mkp.org), an organization I love dearly and have been involved with for over 25 years. My best friend, a Black man (let’s call him Ray) who is also my partner in many of my multicultural trainings, was upset that the white chair of the meeting (another close friend- John, who also aspires to be a multicultural trainer) would not simply declare a review of my friend’s mistake as ‘done’. It had dragged on for over 6 weeks and Ray was concerned that this review would impact a process he was a participant in the next day. Ray said to John, “If this review comes back to bite me yet again, you’re going to have one angry Black man in that room!” I was party to this comment. Ray then left for home.
A few minutes later, John came to me, obviously upset at Ray’s anger, and said to me, “Jeez, where is Ray’s maturity? How can he carry on like that?” I was stunned at John’s characterization of a Black men’s anger as “immature”. I stated to John, “Perhaps Ray’s maturity is that he has not taken your and my heads off during his service to this organization the past 25 years!” And…I let it go.
That night, I didn’t sleep. I knew I had whimped out, yet again, and colluded with my white friend and mentee. Yes, I had confronted his comment in a way, but I did not state clearly, “John, that seems racist to me to call Henry’s anger immature. I wish you’d take a deep look at that attitude, which I believe comes from an age old fear white men have of Black men’s anger- the “Angry Black man Syndrome. I will not collude with you, or anyone else, any more by ignoring or allowing these types of behaviors!”
Later that night, as I tossed and turned, I realized the next step in my awakening was to stop my collusion at a deep level. I felt much better and fell asleep. The next day, when I saw Ray, I shared with him the comment John had made and my intervention…along with my realization that I had abandoned him by allowing myself to collude with John. I apologized and committed to taking this to John ASAP, which I did. I disclosed his comments without his permission, which he took for betrayal. In doing so, I likely lost John as a friend and mentee. A price I’m willing to pay.
I also shared my learning around collusion with the entire group at that meeting and invited all of us to begin to notice how we collude to perpetuate the oppressions that so define our culture. I asked these aware men to please help me by calling me out if they hear me colluding again.
Is that enough? No, of course not! But, it’s a start. And…. it is deep work that requires constant vigilance. My friends, I invite you all to join me in a pledge to root out your collusion. Pay attention. I don’t get a ‘pass’! Neither do you! Call it out in yourself, your friends and your organizations. We CAN make a difference! Thanks.