It took me 30+ years to fully understand how I’m seen in the world and how drastically that differs from how I see myself. This has become more true in the post-George-Floyd’s-murder-consciousness around race relations in America. Through that reaction, coupled with a careful look at societal messaging I have received throughout my life, I have discovered that essentially, I betray an expectation of me and others who look like me in almost all circumstances. To say that the sensitivity required to navigate my survival in that reality is exhausting would be an understatement.
Unworthiness, invisibility, loss of intimacy, isolation, neglected intuition, lack of love, intense fear, overwhelming distrust, and a loss of voice—all life-threatening symptoms of the disease of systemic oppression.Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender
With all of the conversations around dismantling white supremacy, ending systemic racism and oppression as well as the important and necessary commitment to anti-racism work, I have been reflecting on my own relationship with white supremacy. A relationship that I would call a close one. And while it could be my entire life‘s work to try and understand what white supremacy has taught me, it felt important to begin naming what it has revealed thus far—and it’s a lot.
According to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, “White supremacy is an ideology where white people are believed to be superior to nonwhite people. This fallacy is rooted in the same scientific racism and pseudo-science used to justify slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and genocide at various times in throughout history. White supremacist ideologies and their followers continue to perpetuate the myth of white racial superiority.”
I’m using the words “White Supremacy” because the concept isn’t just about the KKK or skinheads or neo-Nazis. While these displays of extremism exist and are terrifying, white supremacy is actually mainstream and embedded in the fabric of this country, the spaces we navigate and social conditioning.
As a Black woman living in the U.S., here are the top things that our white supremacist society has taught me:
That my parents’ early education advocacy was to prepare me for a lifelong journey to advocate for myself in all the situations where people underestimate me
That people are often uncomfortable when I express big or negative feelings
That me “Talking White” is surprisingly both comforting to some while being incredibly suspicious to others
That in the same way I felt more eyes on me learning about slaves in elementary school, I feel more eyes on me during Black History Month
That I’m more likely to have an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness than my white friends
That I will have to work harder to get less recognition than my white colleagues and peers
That doctors think I’m stupid and don’t know my own body
That apologies from white people who have caused me harm are infrequent
That I can get pulled over despite not even violating any driving law
That when I walk in a store I might be followed
That I will constantly be underestimated
That I am often the only marginalized person in the room
That I am often expected to speak on behalf of all Black people
That a high school college counselor told me that I wouldn’t get into college (even though all my classes were honors/AP courses, I graduated on the honor roll, and I was a varsity athlete)
Black and brown scientists are few and far between and that pursuing science as a WOC meant being met with resistance and almost no support to succeed
That people in my residential building don’t think I live there but that I work there
That I am more likely to die during childbirth than any other race
The most troubling part of this list is the idea of “white centering”— which is the belief that white culture, values, and norms ARE the normal center of the world. This has led to many complex thoughts around my identity and sense of belonging. It’s easy to understand why or how this could happen in spaces and environments where there are zero to few Black and brown bodies. But what is the reason that white centering or normalizing whiteness when spaces and environments are inclusive and representative of other races ? And what does it look like to and how might we systematically INCLUDE the marginalized voice? What would be possible if there wasn’t a feeling of “normal” that predicated belonging? What if belonging was systematically honoring difference?
It is almost impossible to feel belonging when one feels inferior. So perhaps, in response, I could say, “I’m not going to play this game anymore. I’m not going to exist on this earth as if I am inferior and assume (certain) white people are superior to me. I’m not going to subscribe to a white majority definition of normal.” I think it is clear that it is a bit more complicated than that.
Because like every human being, I feel the full range of my humanity which at times can feel like imposter syndrome. It can feel like insecurity. Or it can feel like the comparison game. It can feel like exclusion, perfectionism, or having to work much harder to be recognized or even worse— to have credit taken from me or to in some other way not have my contribution efforts honored. And far too often that has left me with an unsettling feeling that something is wrong with me. Knowing that this is my humanness sometimes helps. And knowing that it is a part of my experience existing in a Black and Brown body and that I am often made to feel that way by my environment also helps to keep things into perspective.
What happens to a hurt people? We forget that we are butterflies bearing up in the wild winds. We forget that we are tender from the suffering.Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender
The mindfulness teacher in me knows that I am not my feelings. And while my feelings are valid and deserve the full range of their feeling, I can choose to not internalize what has been enforced by the environment around me. I do not need to believe what the construct says about me or anyone else. I can, instead, pause and ask myself about the truth of my experience. Likely what I will find is that my experiences reveal that belonging is a wild, (s)heroic, incredible on-going journey— one that simply starts with meeting myself with tenderness and loving-kindness, and then returning back to her over and over again with grace, love, and rigor.