Lately, I’ve been thinking about Spensora, a large black woman, who came to iron once a week when I was a child. She’d set up the ironing board in our narrow kitchen, plant her feet wide and dance her arm back and forth across my father’s cotton shirts. My mother was always nice, still I knew from the way her voice lost its warmth and her shoulders locked up that Spensora would never sit down at the table with us.
Then there was the day I saw two girls jump rope in the street, one black, the other white.
‘I’d jump rope with that girl,’ I thought. Imagining myself as some kind of hero.
Like my mother, I’d prided myself on being a good person, nice and well-intentioned. The pride, I now understand was a veneer for my unconscious entitled sense of superiority and desire to ‘save those less fortunate.’
Like my mother, I inherited this culture of racism, a structure rooted both in overt acts of violence and covert acts of complicit silence. It’s in my bones, in the air I breathe, in the cells of my imagination. This does not excuse me from my collusion. But it does give me perspective. And reminds me that my unexamined thoughts have the power to cinch the ropes that hold cultural and structural racism in place.
When my judgments solidify, I mistake them for truths. (‘What’s the (black) man doing next to that car?’ ‘Wow, that (black) woman is really smart.’ ‘How did that (black) man become so self-assured.’)
Several years ago, a dear (white) friend told me that he was exploring his own racist thoughts, beliefs and actions. I waved him away—‘that’s great, not really my cause, so glad you’re doing it.’ I used the word Cause, as though human beings were some kind of project to be assembled or a banner to be waved.
“My work is with the climate crisis—which will impact everybody and everything.” I told him with a certain arrogance.
I ignored my friend and kept up my climate work.
Until something shifted. Until I understood that the climate crisis and racism grew from the same soil—domination of people, the earth and all her creatures coupled with the inability to understand the interconnectedness of all things.
If we don’t dig deep into the roots and shift the way we consciously and unconsciously think, believe, and act—toward one another and the earth—no set of laws (to govern human beings or the climate) will make a lasting difference. The climate crisis and racism are inextricably linked. To address one without addressing the other is short-sighted.
I have work to do and choices to make. I can slip back into the comfort and safety of silence. Or I can step out onto the edge, look myself in the eye, and tell some hard truths. Starting right now.