Leaning Into Discomfort: We're Not All Just Walking Each Other Home.
Updated: May 9, 2020
I had an experience my first semester of grad school that really shook me. Alongside other classmates I attended a small, yet intense, open-forum discussion at my university centered around the topic of social justice and recent racial discrimination that had been occurring on campus. There were maybe around 30 participants- half being white half being people of color (POC), mostly African American. There had been multiple instances of racial slurring and racist graffiti happening on campus. I attend Appalachian State University- and although the Boone area is known for it's beautiful mountain landscapes and artsy, small town feel- it's also known for not being the most racially diverse small town. The faculty of my grad school felt it was important for our community members of color to have a safe space to process and discuss the recent racial slander that had been recently happening on campus.
I had no reservations in my mind to attend this forum. I've always considered myself an open-minded, kind-hearted, nonjudgemental individual. I have friends of all races, genders, backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. I grew up in Charlotte, NC and spent the first years of my elementary school experience in a downtown school that had a lot of diversity. This was before the city lines had been drawn to send kids to public schools connected with their home neighborhoods. My mom worked downtown at the time and thought it would be more convenient for me to attend a downtown school so that she could easily pick me up and drop me off around her schedule. Since I was going to school downtown there happened to be just as many kids of color in my classes as white kids, which at the time felt completely normal. Charlotte began to change the school district lines and I was redirected to a school closer to my neighborhood upon starting my third grade year. It was a modest, South Charlotte elementary school about seven minutes from my neighborhood. I still remember so clearly getting off the bus after my first day of classes and greeting my mom at the bus stop. When she asked how my first day at a new school was the first thing to come out of my mouth was, " it was good, but there were no black people." I look back to this day and realize how much of an impact it had on me. I wouldn't say I grew up wealthy by any means, but I clearly grew up in an area that was primarily white (which became very clear once the city started dividing what school a kid would go to based off the neighborhood they lived in.) The fact that as a third grader I immediately realized that there were very few people of color, and truly felt confused by it, speaks volumes to the true segregation that still exists in our world today. Although that was almost two decades ago, segregation and racial inequality is still a very serious and prevalent issue.
Because of my upbringing and being exposed to schooling with other races at an early age I never considered myself racist by any means. I've always operated under the belief that we are all equal and all deserving of the same rights and opportunities. However, I've come to realize how completely ignorant this concept actually is. During that social justice forum at my university I chose to speak up. In the moment I thought my words and contribution would be seen as compassionate- would showcase how I am not a racist white individual because I truly feel we all are all equal. I spoke up about this opinion of mine by quoting a Ram Dass quote, "we're all just walking each other home." This quote had always resonated peacefully with me and brought me hope. But of course it would, because i'm a white individual living in America. A professor at my university, an African American male, spoke up in response to the quote. He acknowledged my attempt, but simply stated, "I get what you're trying to say, but there's nobody walking me home." He went on to explain how as an educated professor employed by the school, he still has gotten stopped on campus by cops while waking to his car after a full day of teaching merely because he is a black male. He went on to explain how no matter the amount of education he's attained, the credentials he holds- he is still a black man who poses an undeserved "threat and questioning" merely because his skin is not white. At that moment I wasn't sure if I was going to faint, run out the door, burst into tears, or vomit. I felt the most uncomfortable sensations of embarrassment and confusion. I somehow mustered the ability to thank him for his response and stay quiet the rest of the forum. Afterwards I ran to the bathroom and broke down harder than I had in a while. I was at a loss. At the time I didn't understand what just happened. How could my offering of acceptance and equality have stirred such an intense and emotional response. I felt like I truly offended him, and ever other human of color in that room. I felt so ashamed and sick to my stomach. My intentions were so pure- but what caused this unexpected disruption? That's where I bring us to the present. I've been following this really incredible African American woman on Instagram for a few months now named Rachel Cargle. I found her via a few other incredible activists, authors, and motivational speakers whom I also follow. Rachel has deemed herself the "Beyonce of academia" and she has devoted her platform to mainly informing white woman about their innate privileges in relation to women of color. Rachel is well spoken, informed, confident and extremely passionate. I've personally learned so much from following her and only wish I had been given this resource before my experience at the forum. However, all things truly do happen for a certain reason. Had I not have been completely and utterly humiliated and mortified by my experience at the forum I may have not been given the gracious chance to really see and feel first hand how much my white privilege has clearly blinded me to the realities of what humans of color face day to day. Us individuals born into white skin are given a "golden ticket" from the get go. We don't naturally wake up and question, "wow, is the color of my skin going to effect whether or not I get the job today. Whether or not the waitress is kind to me today. Whether or not I get pulled over by a cop today?" And so on. We are SO BLIND half the time. Thinking that our sweet little mantras and kind-hearted quotes about love and us all being equal are going to cause real change in this extremely biased and segregated society. No. Not at all. The greatest gift and teaching I learned from the humiliating yet transformative moment when I spoke up at the forum is that it's OKAY to speak up and share- because if it's not correct you will be corrected and that's sometimes the greatest way to learn. Had I had not spoke up I a) wouldn't have been impacted by this experience to the level I did, b) wouldn't have learned the truth of my unintentional and unknown ignorance in such a raw and impacting way and c) it wouldn't have led to the deep, real, heart-wrenching truths that that professor chose to share in response to mine. I'm going to leave this post with a link to the podcast between Rachel Cargle and Rachel Brathen that I listened to this morning. It shares a truth about racial inequality that I feel like is easy to digest and is extremely beneficial to listen to, especially for white individuals. We need to put our own egos aside and realize that racism is still alive and very much an issue. People of color struggle with this system, which is not designed to be in their favor, every freaking day and it is our duty as white humans to step aside, let them speak, listen, educate ourself, and provide accountability for our contributions (even if it was not intended.) White privilege is a REAL thing, and many POC are still suffering. This isn't "history"- this is still recent day struggle. Please take a moment to listen to the podcast i've posted below. Regardless of it being primarily about white woman and black woman as the focus- it's still prevalent and shares a lot about the issues for all humans. Thank you for taking the time to read this! A bit heavy, yes, but so is life and these issues. Staying informed, voting for the right representatives, not being afraid of the discomfort and talking about these issues is the only way to initiate change. Much love to you. Here's the podcast. Thank you for taking the time to read this post & listen to these words.