Learning from the Experiences of Others
By C.H. Armstrong
The race-related events of the last few months have left our nation shaken. In Minnesota, the killing of 46-year-old George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer hits especially close to home. The officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, ignoring Floyd pleading, “I can’t breathe.” In the aftermath, many of us are struggling to understand how this could happen in our own backyard.
As a white woman, I have never experienced racism firsthand. I have never walked into a room where the majority of those assembled didn’t look like me. I’ve never jogged through a nice neighborhood and been asked who I’m visiting. I’ve never had to consider how best to put others at ease so I appear less threatening. And, most importantly, I’ve never had to have “the talk” that Black Americans have every day with their children on how to behave when detained by authority figures.
I recognize that I have white privilege, and I won’t lie—I hate it. I’m uncomfortable with the fact that the color of my skin means I can live my life without thinking ahead and deciding how I might handle various situations. But it’s a fact. The color of my skin means there are things I take for granted every day. But being aware of my privilege and going out of my way to treat all people the same does not prevent me from being racist. Because it’s not enough to be not racist. In order to affect change, I need to learn to be anti-racist. And there is a difference.
Becoming anti-racist involves understanding that we are all raised with certain biases that are inherent to our upbringing, our unique culture, the part of the country we’re from or even the neighborhood we live in. And those biases aren’t one-sided—we all have inherent biases.
To become anti-racist, we first need to accept that we have biases, then learn as much as we can about the experiences of others. In Harper Lee’s well-loved novel, Atticus Finch tells his daughter, Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
For me, the best way to understand the world from another’s perspective is to read and read widely.
A RECOMMENDED READING LIST
In recent weeks, I’ve had a particular need to better understand my own experiences in contrast to those of my neighbors and friends of color, so I’ve picked up a variety of books that allow me to step into those shoes for a while. Some of these books I’ve read, others are still on my “To Read List,” and still others are books that are highly recommended as a means of understanding. I hope you find this list helpful as we come together as a community, embracing our differences and lending our voices for those who are often unheard.
One of the best books I’ve read in any genre is “Dear Martin” by Nic Stone. Loosely based on a series of actual events, it tells the story of a young Black boy attending a mostly white private school on scholarship. Through Stone’s writing, the reader sees the world from the perspective of Justyce, who writes letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. in an attempt to channel the civil rights leader’s patience in dealing with his white friends not understanding his struggles. This is an amazing book that should be, in my opinion, in every middle and high school classroom and read by adults as well.
Other titles, also in the category of young adult, which cover similar topics and are equally as good (either in my opinion or based upon reviews) are “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, “Tyler Johnson Was Here” by Jay Coles, “I’m Not Dying with You Tonight” by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal, “Stamped” by Jason Reynolds and “For Black Girls Like Me” by Mariama Lockington.
In terms of picture books and middle-grade books, try these Top-Five Rated Books from Amazon: “We’re Different, We’re the Same” by Bobbie Kates, “Antiracist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi, “The Day You Begin” by Jacqueline Woodson, “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson and “New Kid” by Jerry Craft.
For adults, I recommend “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” by Ibram X. Kendi and “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi.
I sincerely hope this list gives you a good starting place and allows you to climb into the skin of another and walk around in it for a while. Together we can make a difference.