One of my greatest, personal challenges is to acknowledge and correct a fundamental part of who I am – a racist.
It’s not like I put on a white hood and roam around fire bombing black churches. No, what I am talking about is an unconscious thing, and something more systemic, more enabling of the racism that caused George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last week and Christian Cooper’s encounter with a racist white woman in Central Park that could have ended the same. It relates to the fundamental problem we face in America – believing the myth of equal opportunity.
As a tall, blonde, white guy, I wake up every morning, go out into the world and feel safe and validated, thinking that’s the way it is for everyone. Why would I think any differently?
I’m incapable of truly understanding what it means to leave my home each day and feel less than when:
a teacher skips over me, time and time again, picking other students to answer the questions;
I say I’m a scientist and people look incredulously, responding, “Wow! How did you end up doing that?”;
I get pulled over by a cop for looking like a suspect – as people of color experience over and over again;
being mistaken for the janitor.
It is inconceivable to me that I would ever be questioned watching birds in a park, like Christian Cooper was by Amy Cooper. I can not imagine having a cop’s knee on my neck for nearly nine minutes. I can’t imagine being George Floyd.
Therein lies the problem, the racism. I will never truly understand what it means to be a person of color in a white world. I can imagine, but I will never really be able to feel it deeply. As a consequence, I will forever struggle with recognizing the pains of racism, and being aware of the privilege that allows me to go out into the world without feeling invalidated by countless daily facial shifts when people look at me, the condescending words, or a final knee on my neck. It is when I take for granted my privilege, fail to recognize and do what I can to heal the wounds people of color have reopened everyday, that I allow racism to poison my life.
Although racism is, by definition, having the power to actualize personal bias and bigotry against others, as the police officer who killed George Floyd had, we enable that power by our silence.
Racism is similar to any addiction, in terms of its intractable presence in your life. You didn’t seek it out. It happened to you. But once it becomes part of your mind and body, by upbringing or societal conditioning, it’s always there. It requires constant vigilance to keep at bay. You have to admit you have a problem, recognize its triggers, and work at staying sober. Without doing so, the symptoms of the underlying disease will come back when you least expect it. When you let your guard down. That comment that slips out. That person you don’t invite. That vote you cast. That feeling you have when one of them shows up. The neck you place your knee on.
This is what the racist within looks like.
When was the last time you had a person of color at your home for dinner? When was the last time you have had a person of color spend the weekend with you?
Drew Lanham, an ornithologist at Clemson University, was the first person who helped me recognize the inner racist within. He was the one who helped me recognize that organizations should be embarrassed, ashamed, when there are no people of color in attendance at their events.
I met Drew after his keynote at the 2016 Society for Conservation Biology convention, in Madison, Wisconsin. Out of about 600 attendees in the room, he was the only black person I saw. I didn’t notice that before his talk. I notice it all the time now. Noticing – the first step to curing the racism within.
Drew showed a video he produced as part of his keynote. It helps explain that what happened to Christian Cooper, the black birdwatcher, is nothing new – to people of color.
For me, the most influential part of Drew’s presentation happened afterwards, while he was talking with with a group of about six students – mostly people of color. I sat nearby and listened. The point that struck me was when he said there is a heaviness to a person, a weight they carry, when he or she has to constantly think about who they are and how they don’t fit into the society in which they live – when they walk into a conservation conference and see only white faces. Or when they see flashing red lights in their rear-view mirror.
So why were there so few people of color in attendance at a conference that celebrated Nature, biology, and investigating the wonders of the natural world? I never asked before. I do now. It’s a question that needs to be asked, always, followed up by a committed solution.
The same absence occurred at the 2018 California Native Plant Society (CNPS) conference in Los Angeles. I invited a good friend, John Sanders, to be part of our special session on chaparral. He was the only black man that I noticed in attendance. I met John at the 2016 Association for Environmental & Outdoor Education conference in Malibu. Yes, he was the only black man there too. He was sitting at a picnic table, alone, having lunch. Hundreds of other people were there too, at other tables.
John gave an excellent presentation at the CNPS conference about his work educating young people at Camp Keep, an outdoor education program in San Luis Obispo, and his own program he runs over the summer, the Delphinus School of Natural History.
Lots of people came up to John afterwards, including CNPS organizers. It was like he was a celebrity. Lots of promises of collaboration were made. First came an offer to write an article for a CNPS publication. This was supposed to be followed by further outreach efforts. The article was published, but nothing has transpired since. Unfortunately, this failure to follow through is not uncommon. The novelty of having a black man help diversify an organization wears off easily. The initial intent was sincere, it’s just that racism is forever working. (Addendum – CNPS did follow up with John in 2022 and he is now helping to organize the next conference).
In my efforts to diversify our own programs, my privilege has continually gotten in the way. In a chaparral field guide we produced, I described dodder, a California native plant that is a somewhat friendly parasite on other native plants like buckwheat and laurel sumac, as having “flesh-colored” threads. If you can’t figure out what’s wrong with that, ask a person of color. I couldn’t at the time I wrote it. The newer addition removed the racism. As I was driving through what I saw as a beautiful oak woodland with a friend, I continually pointed out how inspiring it all was. My friend turned to me and said the place was terrifying. “Those are the trees where they lynch people like me.” My friend has indigenous Guatemalan blood running through his veins and has the beautiful, dark, brown skin to match. While describing the benefits of Nature to a group of docents at Topanga State Park in the Santa Monica Mountains, I said, “Nature relaxes the soul, it provides a safe place to discover your true self.” A ranger in attendance reminded me that while my perspective was certainly true, it was only true for people in the dominant culture. She described the first thing she has to do with groups of kids from inner city schools who are visiting the park. She has to help them not be frightened of Nature, of snakes, of dirt. After all, this is a wild place, a rural place, a place where white people are. It’s where white people have taken people of color to be lynched.
Bringing Nature to kids of color is going to take a lot more than outdoor education grants for inner city schools and and a diversity coordinator who is often one of the only people of color to be found in organizations. It is going to take guts for white people, rich or poor, to look in the mirror and say, “My name is…, and I’m a racist.” Admitting this does not mean you’re acknowledging your KKK membership. What is means is that you are acknowledging the inherent bias that you contribute as being part of the dominant culture, and are aware that you need treatment to help cure the disease, no matter what form it takes.
Taking privilege for granted, marginalizing the “other,” minimizing the sacredness of life, forcing your knee into the neck of a black man, all are manifestations of the same poison, the same delusion, the same ignorance that is fed by myth of the dominant culture, the myth of superiority. And in the United States, this myth is ever more powerful because it’s shrouded by another, the myth of equality. It’s a poison that allows normally nice people to do horrible things.
And dare I say it is the poison that causes the same blindness allowing people, bureaucracies, corporations, and organizations to ignore, dismiss, or be ignorant of the sacredness of non-human life, be it wolves, gophers, or entire living ecosystems. It goes by many names: “processing,” “taking,” “mitigation,” “clearance.” Anything that gets in the way of the dominant culture is subject to removal. Let’s just cut the Orwellian bullshit and call it what it is – the destruction of life.
Equal opportunity programs, legislation, participating in polarizing discussions on internet platforms designed to encourage rage, or donations to your favorite cause are not going to neutralize the poison of racism or the myth of superiority. It is going to take individual action. You are going to need to make the conscious effort to move beyond your social group, to get to know the “other,” until the other no longer exists as other. You are going to need to recognize the racist within, admit it, and do the hard inner work you need to do to heal.
This post is dedicated to Sammy, the wonderful human being who took care of our family’s yard when I was a kid. He started his gardening business after he was released from the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp.