I grew up in Port Townsend in the 1980s and ‘90s and moved back in my 30’s to raise a family. I am white, and I was taught by my well-meaning white liberal parents that the path to …
I grew up in Port Townsend in the 1980s and ‘90s and moved back in my 30’s to raise a family. I am white, and I was taught by my well-meaning white liberal parents that the path to equality was through not “seeing” race and being “color blind.” These teachings were a product of their time, and I understand where their hearts were at. But I now know these teachings are wrong and incredibly harmful.
I didn’t know that growing up. As a kid I was taught to stand up against injustice, that all gender identities and sexual orientations are equal and deserve respect, that small rural creative communities like ours can be vibrant places of discourse. But my education around race was sorely lacking. I honestly thought racism was something from the past that occasionally reared up in the present in the form of hate crimes perpetrated by extremist groups.
I was very wrong. I am racist because I was created and exist in a society that benefits me, solely because of my race, over others. I can’t avoid it by being “not racist.” I have to be anti-racist. This was a term I learned when someone pointed out how white the authors on my bookshelf were. I started reading Black authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (“Americanah”) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Between the World and Me”) and later Ijeoma Oluo (“So You Want to Talk About Race”). Suddenly my passion for social justice seemed hollow as I recognized my ignorance. I was complicit in white supremacy and I didn’t even know it.
This was the start of my anti-racist re-education. Those authors cracked open a dam of powerful literature that my white-centered education had hidden from me. And once I started seeing racism, of course it was everywhere. It was in me. At first that felt awful and I wanted to deny it. Then I read about white fragility and how people of color have had to tamp down their negative experiences and reactions to protect white people’s feelings, even with tragedy after tragedy. And that shook me up. There is no universe where it is OK for my discomfort to be more important than another person’s life. I had to do better.
It was time to look at all the ways whiteness was centered in my life and all the ways I ignored systemic racism. Who was I following on social media and where did I spend and donate money? Who got promoted at my workplace? Who was on the cover of the magazines I bought? Who was missing from the discussions in my local government? What did the characters look like in the books I read to my children? Who was I speaking over inadvertently in meetings? These questions led me to have conversations with friends, teachers, family members, co-workers, my parents, my husband, my children. It completely changed the lens I viewed the world through.
I have so much more to learn. I mess up all the time. The work is often hard and uncomfortable. But it’s also empowering and humbling and joyful and absolutely necessary. Once I accepted I was part of the problem I could finally start making meaningful strides to improve. I now see how I benefit daily from white supremacist systems. That is my white privilege. I see how I perpetuate harm when I deny that fact. In bumbling fits and starts, I seek to dismantle my own internalized biases and stereotypes. I try to center and follow the words and leadership of people of color and put my time, energy, and money where my heart and mouth is.
I invite you, if you consider yourself a “non-racist” white person, to join in this work. Join the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) who are already organizing in our community. The Jefferson County Anti-Racist Fund gathers donations and re-allocates financial resources to our BIPOC community members. They also do so much more. If you’d like to sign up for their newsletter, volunteer, learn more, or make a donation, visit www.jcarf.org. You can follow them on social media and find other actions in our area.
It’s time. Do it for George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Tony McDade. Stonechild Chiefstick. Sandra Bland. Korryn Gaines. And a horrific number of others. Do it for our community, so we can embody the values we say we endorse in our yard signs and at our peace rallies. Do it for the next generation. Do it for your own humanity. Anti-racist work makes us all more fully human.
The local Racial Justice Book Club is open to new members. They are currently meeting on Zoom. If you’d like to learn more, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. The summer read is “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
(KaiLea Wallin is a writer, parent, Jefferson County resident and a member of the Port Townsend High Class of 2001).