I spend much of my time on the road, speaking to large audiences. Since Charleston, I promised myself that I’d bring up race and white privilege as often as possible. I do it awkwardly and imperfectly, but I do it. Since I’ve started speaking about this, one thing that I’ve had to resist is shutting down and shutting up in response to this refrain: BUT I’M NOT RACIST. I AM NOT PREJUDICED. I WAS RAISED BETTER THAN THAT. I need you to please try to hear me on this.
We are raised by our families, but we are also raised by our culture.
I am a feminist. At my heart, I am a fierce, bold advocate for women. But I was raised in a sexist culture. I was raised in a world that tried to convince me through media, through certain religious organizations, through inadequate history books and through the beauty industry – that female bodies are worth less than male bodies- and that certain types of female bodies (thin, tall young) are worth more than other types of female bodies.
YOU CAN BE ANTI-RACIST AND STILL HAVE PREJUDICE RUNNING THROUGH YOUR VEINS. YOU CAN BE ONE THING AND YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS CAN BE ANOTHER THING.
The daily deluge of images of women’s bodies for sale and the onslaught of emaciated women’s bodies held up as the pinnacle of female achievement and the pervasive message that women exist to please men was the air I breathed decade after decade. I was a radiation canary living in a mine and the toxins were misogyny. I got sick from it. Not because I’m a bad, sexist person but because I was just breathing sexist air.
I became bulimic and it’s taken a lifetime to recover. It is harder to unlearn than it is to learn. And it is very, very difficult for a woman to be healthy in a world that is still so very sick. It is the ultimate victory to love yourself in a world that is promising you a million times a day that you have no right to. It is a victory that requires constant attention. So I’m working hard at health and wholeness every day. I’m taking every thought hostage and examining it for truth. And now I’m an advocate for women’s equality with a fierce heart for women- I know that women are equal. I know what my body is for. It’s not for selling things. It’s for loving and learning and resting in beauty and fighting for justice. I know that every body on this Earth has equal, unsurpassable worth.
I still have the poison in me. I still have all the biases that were instilled in me for decades. Because we are what we consume. We become the air we breathe. So subconsciously – I would likely still judge a thinner, younger woman to be worth more than a heavy, older woman. My mind and heart would correct that misguided snap judgment- but it would take a deliberate moment.
When I was thirty-five, I noticed that the wrinkles on my forehead were deepening and I found myself driving to a doctor’s office and paying HUNDREDS of dollars to have Botox (POISON) PAINFULLY injected into my forehead. To make my face worth as much as the younger, smoother faces on TV. I LITERALLY knew better. But my subconscious did not know better. My subconscious had not yet caught up with my mind and my heart, because it was (is) still poisoned. It took a deliberate moment to stop poisoning myself. To stop letting the poison in the air crawl underneath my skin.
I am a fierce, forever feminist. But I still have sexism and misogyny running through my veins. It takes a lifetime to clear these out. You can be one thing and your subconscious can be another thing.
This is what we’re talking about when we talk about prejudice. About white privilege. Our culture has taught me to be prejudiced against older women, wrinkly women, heavy women, and even thin women (hate them, they’re better than you).
And our culture has also taught me to be prejudiced against black people.
How many images of black bodies being thrown to the ground have I ingested? How many news reports have I inhaled passively – how many images of jails filled with black bodies? How many casually racist jokes have I swallowed? Over the decades and centuries and days, we’ve breathed in countless images meant to convince us that black men are dangerous and that black women are dispensable and that all black bodies are worth less than white bodies. We have just been breathing.
We must be humble about what we have become.
We do not have a black problem. We do not have a white problem. Identity in blackness or whiteness alone is a problem. WE HAVE A HUMAN FAMILY PROBLEM.
Listen. We can be good, kind, justice loving, anti-racist people in our hearts and minds – but if we’re living here – we’re still canaries raised in a racist mine. We’ve still been breathing the air – and we’ve been conditioned. So our knee jerk reaction to a black man approaching us might be fear. Our subconscious might kick in before our mind and heart can catch up. And we might pull that trigger faster than we would if the body approaching us was white. And that black girl not responding to our request to stand up – well we might take her down faster than we’d ever take down a white body. Because our subconscious has been trained to believe she’s belligerent, disrespectful, dangerous and dispensable.
You can be anti-racist and still have prejudice running through your veins. You can be one thing and your subconscious can be another thing.
We must be humble about what we have become.
We do not have a black problem. We do not have a white problem. Identity in blackness or whiteness alone is a problem. We have a Human Family problem. We are all being poisoned, and so are our children. We have got to come together to help clear the air so we can all breathe. This is going to require serious people who are humble about what they have become.
This moment is not asking us: are we racist or not?
This moment in our country’s history is asking us: Are we humble or not? Do we have eyes to see what we have become and the courage it takes to unbecome?
Glennon Doyle Melton is the New York Times Bestselling Author of the Books for a Better Life Best Relationships Book of the Year: Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life. She is founder of the award-winning blog Momastery and the non-profit Together Rising. Follow Glennon on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest & Instagram.