Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lovely and Amazing

I’ve stolen this title from a 2001 movie about a mother and three daughters who are self-absorbed, neurotic, confused, and weirdly endearing. Two of my all-time favorite actresses, Catherine Keener and Brenda Blethyn, are the leaders of this far-from-merry band, each of whom is struggling (in a highly exaggerated, this-could-only-happen-in-a-movie sort of way) with the kind of self-esteem and insecurity issues that plague—well—most of the women I know.

The title popped into my head as I was drying my hair and contemplating writing this post. It didn’t really seem appropriate, so I tried to dismiss it. But it's not going away. As I write that sentence, it dawns on me that maybe that’s exactly why it’s perfect. Because I’m writing about something that may not be appropriate but definitely isn’t going away: racism.

Back story: I work for the YWCA, whose mission is “Eliminating Racism and Empowering Women.” When I took the job three years ago, I was all about empowering women and eager to work for an organization that was dedicated to making that happen. But in the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t really think the racism thing had anything to do with me. I wasn’t a racist. Never had been. And I didn’t spend much—okay, any—time thinking about the state of racism in America today. Fast-forward to this week and I can say two things without hesitation: I am a racist, and the issue of eliminating racism is definitely part of my consciousness.

I wondered if writing about this was fitting for a blog dedicated to all things amazing, surprising and/or delightful. Here’s what then popped into my brain:

1. Bloggers aren’t supposed to worry about what people will think.
2. None of the characters in the movie censored themselves—and I loved that!
3. Racism involves censorship of all kinds.

So here goes. This week I participated in a two-day “eliminating racism” training that was surprising and amazing. For those who feel the urge to check out as they read this, not to worry. I’m not going to go on about my newfound self-awareness or how uncomfortable it is to look my biases square in the eye. I won’t try to explain the guilt and shame I felt sitting in a circle with people of color and listening as they spoke about how they live racism every day, while I can choose not to think about it anytime I want. Together we created a list of stereotypes about white people and POC, then read it aloud. Many of the words I used to describe the movie could be applied to that experience: self-absorbed, highly exaggerated, this-could-only-happen-in-a-movie, confused. I’ll add surprised, angry, sad, and daunting to the list.

I also feel hope, powered by the realization that it’s imperative to question everything. Not to accept what I'm told at face value. I’ve been lazy about some things in my life that require focus, energy, and hard work. I’ve been afraid to speak up and challenge assumptions because I didn’t have facts to back me up. But I feel lucky to have reached a point in my life where I’m willing to dig deeper. And I’ve learned that it’s not necessary to have all of the facts in order to take action.

One of the facilitators used the metaphor that racism is like the “people movers” we see in airports: we don’t have to do anything to make it happen. As white people in America, we inherit it. She explained that the first step towards change is to turn around on the people mover and face the other way.

Despite my rule-follower reputation, I’ve made the choice to turn around. I’ll admit it was easy to do while sitting in a room with 30 other people who felt equally inspired. And right now, sitting here alone in the comfort of my studio, it feels both lovely and amazing. But I’m no fool. Just like the women in the movie, I’ve got a boatload of insecurities, confusion and fear—and standing up against racism brings them all to the surface. That’s the cool thing about enlightenment, though: there ain’t no “Off” switch.

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