I was the first woman in my family to choose breast feeding for two generations. I liked being rebellious. But I had no idea what I was doing so I went to a support group. They were upper middle class white women. I felt nervous with that crowd. I was white, but we were artists and did social work as the "day job", so we were poor. And my husband was black. I was still pregnant so there was no brown baby as obvious evidence. I hoped no one would say something stupid but of course someone did.
The woman who led the group shared a story about her latest birth. She referred to the "nigger" nurse at the hospital. She said it so quick and calm it caught me off guard. Did this woman, so demurely nursing her baby really say that? I was stunned. The time had passed to react naturally. If I suddenly raged I would appear as crazy as I felt. She asked if anyone could host the next meeting in their home. I volunteered.
By then my beautiful brown son was born. The leader arrived first. She looked apprehensive. Our home was modest and small. At 5'2" I could stretch on tip toes and touch the ceiling. She gave a quick scan of the house and said "Well, small houses are easier to keep clean. Nothing like mine. Now let me see your baby." He was sleeping in the converted closet off the kitchen. She looked at him and made a barely audible gasp. Then my husband came out of our bedroom, ready to leave for work. He gave us his customary, tender good-bye kisses. She looked like she needed to sit down.
The rest of the women began to arrive. I saw her pull one of the others aside. The conversation was animated but quiet. She left. The woman she talked with said she would lead the group today. Their faithful leader wasn't feeling well. Something had disagreed with her stomach.
Dr. Joy Degruy, a psychologist and educator who has written and lectured on "Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome", talks about one of the most disturbed and angry men she ever met was so white you could not tell he was African American. And because he looked "white" he heard what his darker brothers and sisters did not. He knew how whites talked when they thought it was safe. He saw that racist remarks and jokes were rarely challenged. If another white didn't like it, they might show discomfort, but seldom outrage. I know that to be true. I've done it myself.
As insulting and infuriating I find racists, I do not react the way I feel. Sometimes I offer another viewpoint. Or I tell them I don't appreciate those remarks and leave. Or I ignore what they say and later show them pictures of my family... watch how they turn red, squirm and retrace in their minds what they already spewed.
I reason if I return hatred they win. If I react respectfully it is not what they expect from someone like me, a "traitor" to her race. When what is expected does not happen, it sets up incongruity which can force people to question their thinking. They can dismiss it, of course. Always an option. But if enough incongruous experiences happen, the greater the chance minds will change. That is my rationale for being reasonable and nice. I don't always agree with it myself. Sometimes I think I'm just not courageous enough. Those are the nights I don't sleep so well.
I have never been satisfied with my response to white racism. With countless words and endless combinations spoken by millions of people throughout the world, there must be the right words, placed in the right sequence, spoken in the right way, that will end racism….make it so unavoidably clear it is a horrid, repugnant, revolting disease that causes more ache and despair than this country can bear and it is time to release its hold on us. All of us.
I want to find those words.
They've got to be out there somewhere.
Dr. Joy Degruy's website
"Be The Healing"