One of the “Good White People”, written by Nancy Lemon
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - September 28, 2020
I grew up being told that we were the good, non-racist white people, unlike those bad, racist white people (often from the South) who supported the KKK and lynching, and opposed busing for integrated schools and integrating neighborhoods.
In the 1950’s my father, a minister, hosted a prominent African American gospel singer, who planned to stay in our home in rural Illinois after her concert. I now realize this arrangement was in part because there was no hotel that would rent a room to her. My father told me that the police chief came to meet with him and tell him the singer had to leave town before nightfall, under the Sundown Laws/practices. My father, raised in Chicago, was shocked and refused to agree to tell the singer to leave. Fortunately, there were no negative consequences for the singer or for our family.
In the early 1960’s we came to California. Our family and friends supported the civil rights movement, marched with MLK Jr., and my parents worked with the Black Panthers in Richmond to help create breakfast programs, fix sewers, etc. At one point my parents heard there were death threats against the Panthers by local racist people (the “bad white people”). In response, my parents and brother served as human shields at the next Panthers meeting, sitting between the Panthers and the street so the would-be killers would have to shoot them first. There was no shooting that night. My dad also marched with the Farmworkers Union and Cesar Chavez, and we boycotted table grapes and lettuce for years. My father was fired from his job as a minister by his mostly White congregation for these actions, and due to his public opposition to and preaching against the Vietnam War.
While I admire my parents for their anti-racist values and deeds, I was also given the message that because we were the Good White People, we were incapable of acting in racist ways. The non-KKK version of racism in our family and sub-culture was not acknowledged. And while my parents stood up against racism in many ways, and had a close friend who was an immigrant from the Philippines, they did not have close friends who were African American or Latina/o. Neither did I, and my elementary schools had few students of the global majority.
In junior high and high school (late 1960’s to 1971), most of the African American students I encountered were starting to discover the Black Power movement and to take pride in their heritage. They were often angry and rejecting of White people. This made it hard for me to make friends with Black students, and I started to assume that no Black person wanted to be close to me so I didn’t try very hard. Nor did the adults help us build relationships at school – in junior high there were many more Black students around me than before, but there was no discussion in classes or at home about how we were all doing with this. So the cafeteria was pretty segregated.
My college, UCSC, was also overwhelmingly white. It wasn’t until law school that I got to make good friends with Black students, and invited some to go on dates.
In the early 1980’s I became active in Re-Evaluation Counseling, or RC (www.rc.org), a peer counseling organization where we were starting to talk about racism and how to undo its effects on White people as well as on People of Color. One of the leaders talked about “unlearning racism,” to underscore that racism is not inherent in human beings, but is learned and can be unlearned. We’re also using the term People of the Global Majority, partly to remind everyone that in fact we White people are the minority if one uses a world-wide lens. Those insights have been helpful for me.
At one point another White RCer and I decided to work on racism by having monthly phone meetings where we each set our own goals and then counseled on what could get in the way of achieving them. I realized that my assumption that Black people didn’t want to be close to me was actually not true, and that I wanted to make friends with some of the Black people I knew casually. So each month I would set a goal of calling a particular person, suggesting a lunch date, etc. and then checking in with my counselor on how things went, what feelings came up for me in the process, and setting new goals. This process helped me come to realize that there were actually many Black people in my life who were happy to be my friend, a realization that has changed my life.
But I still sometimes find myself carrying around an invisible “White goodness/innocent of racism” certificate, and essentially asking Black friends and colleagues to sign it, as described by the leader of the Unlearning Racism workshops. That is one of the forms of racism that we “Good White People” embody, usually without an awareness that we are acting racist in the process. When I was invited to write this blog, I felt honored to be asked, but also realized that the old messages I grew up with could twist the invitation into a stamp of approval on my Innocence Certificate, so I’m trying to be honest here about my journey toward allyship.
I remember a Black colleague in the DV movement telling me in 1981 that when I suggested sending a critical letter so there would be “a black mark” on a police officer’s record for not responding well to a DV survivor, this was racist since it equated blackness with being bad. While I stopped using that term from that day on and apologized, I remember feeling defensive inside: “What? Me? But I’m one of the Good White People!”
That thought still comes up sometimes when Black people close enough to me care enough to tell me when I have said something that feels racist to them. I have learned that my intent is irrelevant — what matters is how they perceived the words or actions. These incidents are good topics for me to counsel on with other White people in RC sessions. (See www.unitedtoendracism.org)
I have also realized that it is impossible for me to hide from all my friends and colleagues of the global majority every racist thought or message I have internalized, and that my prior belief that I could do so was itself racist, as it is based on the assumption that my POGM friends and colleagues are not intelligent enough to see the whole me. This came up sometimes when I recruited and taught a 2-year RC class of 9 women of the global majority, including 3 Black women, and 3 white women, including myself. There was no way for me to do this successfully without being completely open with everyone in the class, and to encourage them to do the same. Being completely open includes acknowledging that sometimes I have racist thoughts and actions.
Some of us are still meeting as a support group. I am the only White woman, and I invariably go last as we use an RC practice called Speaking Order, where People of the Global Majority are always invited to speak first. This practice is a continual reminder for me to notice in other settings how often we White people dominate the conversation – we like to jump in first. I recommend that we DV advocates use Speaking Order in our meetings to contradict that conditioning.
When George Floyd was murdered, I called a close friend who is Black and asked how she was doing. I told her I was shocked, and she said that this sort of brutality was happening every day. I realized that I thought I was aware of the anti-Black racism around me — after all, I am one of the “Good White People” — but that in fact I had not seen the reality that she has lived with her whole life. This is another form that racism has taken in my own life.
Since then she has sent me more videos, petitions, etc. about Black people being brutalized by police and has asked me to share them with other White people. Sometimes it’s very painful for me to watch the videos and I take time in RC sessions to cry about the fact that racism is still alive and well in 2020 in this country. But while it’s painful to face this reality, I am glad to be her friend as well as friends with other People of the Global Majority, and to participate in this key struggle in every way I can, in my professional life and in my personal life.
It’s been important to me to remember that while I have figured out some things about racism and have taken some steps to end it, allyship is never a destination, but always a journey.