I’m reading a book called Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. There are questions at the end of each chapter. I decided to write my answers in an effort to dig a little deeper. Writing helps me clarify my thinking. I’m writing for myself, but decided to share as blog posts in case someone else might find my wandering thoughts interesting or useful. But it’s really for myself that I’m doing it.
Waking Up White
What stereotypes about people from another race do you remember hearing as a child? Were you ever taught to question stereotypes?
As a child, pictures of the Vietnam War flickered across my television screen. The nightly news brought black and white images of pain and death – soldiers slaughtering whole communities, entire villages burning to the ground, terrified people running in all directions, screaming and crying, faces of anguish. The horror didn’t make sense in the context of my young life, which was safe and warm and comfortable. There was so much death. People watched their families die. Children lost their parents. Parents lost their children. How did anyone live like that?
On a commercial break, I turned to my mother to ask how could these people stand it? How could they not go mad?
My mother answered me with a “fact” that she had been taught and clearly believed — the people of Vietnam were different from us. They did not value human life in the same way we did.
I accepted that explanation without question. Actually, it made sense to me. If they felt the same as I did, if we had a shared humanity, then their lives would truly be unbearable. Since I didn’t want their lives to be unbearable, they must not care. It was an explanation I could accept. I was a child. I believed what my mother told me and I didn’t think critically to question an explanation that was clearly racist and immoral, as well as expedient. Of course the answer was that they didn’t value life in the same way we did. If they did, we might have to care that our government was systematically murdering thousands of men, women, and children. Since they were clearly different, clearly the other, I didn’t need to feel pain as I watched a six-year old girl on fire, running desperately toward her grandmother.
No one taught me to question those stereotypes until I was much older, taking history classes in college, and I realized the people of Vietnam had no choice. They were trapped in a war not of their own making. Caught in the middle of a global political battle, they were trying to survive, trying to live and protect their children. Of course, the people of Vietnam valued life in the same way I did; it was the colonizers coming into their country who did not value their lives.
As I think back on those vivid pictures of war and death as well as the stereotypes perpetuated through ignorance and fear, I feel sad that the world has changed very little in the last fifty years. I am no longer a child, but I see the same images still flickering, now on my computer screen instead of my television. People in pain, running, hiding, suffering, and dying because of global politics, oil, greed, and wars they had nothing to do with starting.
People are still fleeing for their lives. And mothers are still telling their daughters the same convenient lies my mother told me, focusing on the same stereotypes that continue to support white supremacy. I see those lies and distortions in the news articles, comment sections, and social media posts that are all directed on turning whole groups of people into the “other.” People simply searching for safety, drawn by the promise of a better life, are called invaders, parasites, and animals. The memes say they don’t care about their children in the same way Americans do, instead of acknowledging that, of course they love their children. They are frantically trying to protect their children, just the way my mother or any mother would if they’d been born in Syria or Central America instead of the United States. Mothers trying desperately to protect their children then have those same children ripped from their arms. I believe it is only possible for guards to put children in cages, because they truly believe the children are not human in the same way they are.
The world hasn’t changed, but I have. I feel sad but not hopeless. I have learned and continued to learn about racism and stereotypes and the evils of white supremacy. I have a greater understanding of the evils of white supremacy, as well as my responsibility as a white person to work to end systemic racism. I try to act on what I’ve learned, always cognizant that I’m going to make mistakes. I’m grateful for everyone willing to teach me, correct me, call me in when I’m not doing my part. The opportunity to join others working toward a more equitable world gives me hope and keeps me moving forward and gives me hope to continue.