Unlearning Racism, Learning Love — the Ongoing Hope of A Southern Gal

This is the answer to every problem we’ve ever had. But First, we have to learn to use it….

Being a white woman in the American south has its own unique challenges. We’re still so ass backwards, I don’t know how I’m allowed any agency of my own. Plus, there’s a lot of learning and unlearning to be done at this point in my adult life. So much of what I had been promised as a child has been a carrot on a stick all along. So much of what I knew has been lies and I have to sort the true from the false by myself, on my own time, while being ridiculed for making the effort.

Because, of course, things are fine as they are. It’s 2019, but there’s still a pervasive feeling in my beloved city that a little woman like myself has no place rocking the boat. We would never admit it out loud, its not polite conversation; but deep under our hearts, we can all feel it, and we mostly choose to quietly act on it because its easier than having to change the way we’ve been for centuries.

I think a lot about the crows from Dumbo. I remember when people first began pointing out horrifically normalized instances of blackface in old media and thinking to myself, “Wow, that is so uncool of anyone, like, just, wow.” And I remember the day, sometime later, that someone pointed out that the crows are, in fact, just an animated instance of the practice.

I had to do a double take. And I saw for the first time that it was so, even though I had been aware of the issue for a while. Fact is, it took so long to click because where I’ve always lived, that’s just how people talk. I’ve always known white people who talk like that. To me, that was completely normal.

In the 1990’s, that was still normal, and not worth talking about. Surely my parents knew the crows for what they were; but they had also grown up in Texas, Oklahoma, Central America, and right here in South Carolina. My mother had a mammy, for cornsake. Maybe they knew, but it was still so familiar and normal to them that they didn’t think to bring it up to my brothers and I.

And so it wasn’t until well past college that I found out how much information I had been cheated of my whole life. I felt betrayed and used and lied to. #BlackLivesMatter was beginning to take off around this time, and to me it was a duh — my premise being that to Jesus, it is an even bigger duh. I wanted to aid the cause. I wanted to be an ally, and to help make black lives everywhere better, because there is no reason in the world not to be. It should have been easy…

Except I’ve been lied to all my life, and so were my parents, and so were my grandparents. Through no personal fault of my own, I’ve been set up to cause my human brothers and sisters far more problems than to help them solve. I want to be the very best version of myself I can possibly be. I want to help others with their problems. I want to be a blessing to my human family, and I’ve been subtly taught from my grandmother’s womb to be a curse instead.

I effing hate that with all my being. Now I have to unlearn generations of senseless violence before I can be of use to anyone, and unlearning shit that’s been in your blood for centuries takes time. It can take generations to bleed that gunk out entirely, but I must start somewhere. I’ll do it. I want to do it. I’ll cast those demons out of my family, starting with myself. For the sake of other human beings made in the image of my God, I have no other choice.

But I have been put at a massive disadvantage by people way back down the line, and it isn’t fair. Not to me, or my white southern sisters who have been taught just as thoroughly, and certainly not our brothers and sisters of color who now have to take time from their struggle to teach us how to just be decent people. I’m a grown ass woman. No one should have to teach me how to be a basically decent person, I should just be one by now. But here I am, willing to learn to to treat human beings like human beings.

It’s the micro-aggression I’ve been encouraged to commit, its not like its hurting anyone. It’s the slurs we’ve always used, until they just became turns of phrase we don’t know the origins of. It’s the dismissive insistence that black people prefer to be separate from white people, and live in the red zones completely by choice, don’t question it. It’s the way that we learned how our first presidents owned slaves from PBS Kids, not the classroom.

It’s the way I still see a black person pass me on the street and I immediately think, “Stupid.” “Broke.” “Ugly.” “Dirty.” “Druggie.” “Bad parent.” “Lazy.” When I know this is not true! But it was what I was silently told from the cradle. Its what the mosquitos always hummed in my ears, and what the wind over the rivers whispered over the marshes. It’s what the seagulls called, and the cicadas sang, and the ocean hissed in the summertime, and what the cold winds and rains of February pounded into us all over a lifetime, because nature sees and remembers. It was the same story our last cobblestone streets had to tell us, and one which the Battery and the plantations on highway 17 agreed was true, because walls and stones have ears, too.

We were told before we could speak or think that this is who we are, and who they are, and that it was perfectly okay that way. And because we were children with no way to know better, we believed it, never knowing how much more we could be.

But this is not how many of us are, now. Many of us have grown up, woken up, and learned better. We know this is not who we truly are. Sometimes, though, those terrible, hateful thoughts spring to mind faster than the truth because, well… It’s psychological at this point. Those roots are much older — deeper, stronger, more familiar, undeservedly comfortable. That’s no longer the spirit thinking, but the basest part of the reptile brain. We may have learned it too well to overcome, this far into life.

I’ve heard it said that your first thought in a split second is how you’ve been conditioned to behave, but your next thoughts are who you really are, and which you choose to act on proves your character to everyone. Thank goodness for that, because the first thoughts that still spring to my mind in meeting a person of color make me want to cry. How much joy and all the easy friendships I’ve been robbed of, and have robbed from others, makes me hate myself a little. The thoughts that follow immediately after — of how this person is a beloved child of God, and kin to me by way of being human, and must have so many talents and hobbies and hopes and dreams — give me hope for the future.

The way I’ve been told be be is not who I really am. 300 years of evil don’t have to define the next steps of the journey, but they can provide a stark and chilling example to learn from. A cautionary tale of what happens when someone decides that some people are less people than others, and how long it takes for that disease to run its course, so that we never deliberately contract it again.

I will someday teach my children as best I can to treat all men and women equally in all circumstances; but I still fear that hatred will reach their minds faster than love, simply because of the environment no one can help. But maybe it will spring to their minds with a little less readiness than it sprang to mine, and they will react faster to love than I ever learned to, and that will be a victory. A real step forward, no more pretending that jogging in place to honor our forefathers is the same as going somewhere.

And maybe, I will set a chain of events in motion to where all hatred is bled out of my line. Whether eight or 80 mothers from now, there may come a generation where so much hatred isn’t planted to be unlearned later in the first place. Where love doesn’t have to race to win second place in mind, because love is all there is.

But it must start somewhere, and so let it start with me. Let it start with us. And let it start with love.

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Emily Rose

Emily Rose

Just sitting here, making waves… #ramblingrose