Growing up with red hair and freckles in the early 1970s, I am no stranger to being “the other.” While now there seems to be an abundance of ginger kids running around, back in the day I felt like a freak – and other kids were happy to contribute a long list of names and phrases that only confirmed that I was. (I’d rather be dead than red on the head…)
I gravitated toward other “others,” and my childhood cycle of ‘best’ friends included a Chilean immigrant and the only African American kid in my school. Everyone was OK in my book. I knew what it was like to be an outsider, so we were alike, right? Imagine my surprise then, when as an adult I learned that I am racist.
In her book Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race, author Debby Irving says that growing up in an all white community in New England, she didn’t even realize that white was a race. Raised in what she refers to as a “culture of niceness,” race never came up as a topic in polite conversation.
Setting out in the world as a adult determined to be a good person and to help the less fortunate, she puzzled at the tension she felt around people of other races and cultures in her worry not to offend them; and at the same time wondered why her efforts at diversity in arts administration never seemed to have much effect. A personal epiphany, her “waking up,” as she calls it, began a journey where Irving now devotes her life to writing and education of racial justice.
“Learning about how racism works didn’t challenge me just because it was new information,” Irving writes. “It was completely contradictory information, a 180-degree paradigm reversal, flying in the face of everything I’d been taught as a child and had believed up to this moment.”
Moving along through my adulthood hand in hand with the “others” of society and trying to love my neighbor as myself, when I learned in Anti-Racism training that all white people are, in fact, racist, the words were like a lightning jolt to my psyche. My gut reaction was one of self-defense – I’m not like that! But slowly, slowly, my ears opened, and I had my own waking up. I came to understand that I was born into and was operating in a system of privilege that is set up for me to have opportunity after opportunity to succeed – all based on the color of my skin. Just because I had no real awareness of that system doesn’t make it any less true, or me any less a part of it. And now that I am aware, I am duty-bound to work to change that very system.
As humans, we all have our biases. Our bias toward another may be based on race, culture, religious belief, sexual orientation or appearance, or may be as little as not being able to see eye to eye with them – and in our mind we delegate them to the “other” category. But the very definition of reconcile is “to make (oneself or another) no longer opposed; to become friendly with (someone) after estrangement or to re-establish friendly relations between two or more people.” And for that to happen, one of the people in the relationship has to change.
“Self-examination and the courage to admit to bias and unhelpful inherited behaviors may be our greatest tools of change,” says Irving. Truly listening and discovering an ugly truth about yourself – that’s where the journey toward reconciliation can begin.
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Julie Murray serves as Associate Director of Communications for the Diocese of Southern Ohio and editor of Connections. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.