5 Things that Make Racism Unforgivable

Photo credit: Kendra Berglund

1.Racism makes you think you're crazy, losing your mind. This questioning of one's sanity comes from the gas-lighting that so often accompanies microaggressions. When my colleagues used the n-word and the others sat there without saying anything, it made me wonder, was I foolish for being upset? What was wrong with me that I was transported to another place, where I was no longer at a meeting for work but unsafe? Why wasn't I able to keep it together and join the conversation? Why was I fighting to hold back tears? Then I realized, if I felt scared maybe they did as well. Maybe they were just as petrified as I was but in that moment I saw their silence as control. Like they were stronger than me and I was overreacting.  That's one of the reasons I posted it to social media right away, to receive a perception check, were my feelings valid? At a local Author Fair, where I was lucky enough to be accepted to present some of my books, one of the people hosting the event refused to shake my hand. After I'd made a show of moving the box of books I was holding out of my hand so I could extend it for a greeting this person looked at it and refused to make her free hand available for me to touch. One of the people I was with was quick to explain that I hyper-focus and make racism happen to me by being so expectant of it so again I swallowed my discomfort and thought that I was hyperbolizing (creating a problem) because after all, I couldn't remember if she had shaken other author's hands. Maybe it had nothing to do with race, maybe it was a germ thing. Here's the thing that I tell my students, whether it is racism or sexual assault, it comes down to feelings. There is no line that says this is racist or this is sexual violence, the line is how you feel. If you're uncomfortable, that's a enough to demand an apology, to excuse yourself, to ask for clarification. Abusers and bigots know this. They know that if they don't call you a racial slur or leave a physical mark than they are in the clear because then they can introduce doubt. Not only from the people that their victim may tell, but also on the victim themselves. There have been times where I have been the only black person in the room and a racial joke was made. I felt powerless to say anything because I didn't want to be labeled as overly sensitive or lame or lose those friendships. Guess what, if people are making racial jokes in your presence or worse waiting until you've left the room to make racial jokes, they aren't your friends. They are racists that are trying to make you doubt who you are and what your value is. If you are living this right now I want you to know that there are better people out there who will love you and accept you. You are not losing your mind, you are a survivor of a horribly outdated but still ever present system of oppression.

2. Racism is exhausting. Teaching about social justice each day in my classes is extremely rewarding at this point in the semester because my students have come a long way and they now have empathy and compassion towards others. But in the beginning there was a lot of push back, where I was accused of reverse racism  (which isn't real), where they asked, "Why did I have to make affirmative action about race?," where they were quoting Nazis in their papers in order to defend their hatred of transgender people and that wears on me.  That doesn't begin to explain the daily dose of microaggressions I receive for being a black woman.  So yes, racism makes me lethargic and worn out and more susceptible to getting sick.  Not to mention that multiple studies show that racism literally makes people of color sick and shortens their lifespan. It's important to have a home life where you are surrounded by people who are going to remind you that what you are doing is worth it and that it's okay to cry scream and yell as long as you don't give up.

3. Racism makes you fearful. Not only of the obvious of being killed, imprisoned, shot at or wrongfully accused but of daily perceptions. "When I walk into this room and am the only black person am I going to be perceived as such or will they see me for who I am?" When I was single something that I would think about, "will this person find me attractive?" "Will they fetishsize me or do they even like black girls?" This fear is in every interaction, every step I take and if you think, "well that's on you, you should change it." Consider that our country had laws calling black people 3/5ths of a person, that miscegenation laws were on the books in some states until the 2000's and that legal segregation didn't end until the 60s, so my fear isn't me being a hypochondriac but actually rooted in historical fact and present day comments from the president.

4. Racism makes you quit. Much like sexual assault, racism will make you quit a job, lose a scholarship, or just drop out of life because it is that hard. Defending oneself all the time is to fight to exist every day especially when you are the token in your field, school, or workplace. After 35 years of affirmative action blacks and Hispanics are still underrepresented at top colleges and people love to say, "that's because they don't apply," "that's because they can't afford it," but here's my take. If you've ever been the only woman, only wheel chair bond person, or the first of anything, you understand the level of loneliness and how much of yourself you hide away and change just to be accepted so that your very presence isn't questioned or revoked. "Oh did you just get in cuz you're a minority?" "Did you sleep with someone to get here?" "You're receiving special privilege cuz you're other." That gets old really fast and if you don't have anyone to help you navigate this new place it is very hard to stay because of numbers 1-3.

5. Racism is fixable. Probably the most frustrating and painful part about racism is that it can be obliterated but we have so much invested in it that it remains and grows stronger. The hatred with which it was created continues to infiltrate society and it's so annoying because I see it in my students, how they begin to grow and change and realize that their biases were just that, biases that they can reconstruct and remove but so many people cling to them as if they are all-knowing and proven. It's what makes this work such a catch 22. To work on changing perceptions is just that, work and so many of us aren't willing to do it. We would rather watch black and brown people be shot and killed by police.  Watch them be detained and deported. See families get split up due to unfair prison sentences and poor immigration laws than change our perceptions. That's what makes racism so despicable and vile, the fact that it is 100% preventable if we only try.