Another quote as a title. Oh well.
Look. One of the most insidious parts of marginalization of all sorts is that it makes you believe the marginalization is the fault of the marginalized. Narrowing to my own focus, white supremacy and racism make you feel like you deserve to be subjugated. If you’re guilty by virtue of your group membership, then those in power never have to renegotiate their own gleeful or, at best, complicit behavior. You can see this in every argument, particularly in the common refrain that blacks are lazy and would have erased the racial disparities if they had just worked harder like those Asians do. And so on.
But that’s the societal level. Thinking about my individual history, I spent all of my young life telling myself that the things I now recognize as subtle forms of racial discrimination and white supremacy were not untoward or targeted because, the story in my head went, I deserved the treatment.
It was especially easy to tell myself these lies because it wasn’t exactly having nooses drawn on my locker or anything. I knew well enough that That Kind Of Racism was bad. My white friends knew it too, even the ones who, in retrospect, said some pretty jacked-up stuff (I’ll tell you the stories if you ask). And my dad told me to tell him if I thought I or the few other black students were being treated differently because of our race. I was singled out a fair amount - not gravely, not suspended or anything - but any time it happened, my brain told me it was just because I’d earned the punishment. I deserved it, after all.
Even now, I can’t say all this without feeling guilty complaining. As I said the other time, we had enough money to send me to such schools and put me in such environments. The times I was the only black person were themselves examples of privilege. Yeah, I was almost always the only black guy, but I was the only black guy on a summer exchange in Paris! If anything my life was a testament to what achievements black people could have in this day and age. I may have been the one black kid, but I was the black kid that got to do things most white people never would. Racism, the story goes, was not a factor because my circumstances meant I was immune.
So to come to the present day, having done some real work at uncovering and disentangling a lot of nonsense in my head, it’s clear to me that this is really just a deliberate lie perpetuated upon us by those who aren’t ready to let their power go. And unfortunately, lying to myself and accepting this lie really did damage to me, as it does to most of us, whether or not we want to come to terms with it.
And when I wasn’t aware of this, when I still thought every example of racism was my own fault if there wasn’t a slur or a confederate flag involved, I was a pretty angry person. I was easily irritated and emotionally volatile to the point where a friend in Korea had a tactic for distracting me until I could arrest what, in retrospect, was a flare of anxiety. (He gave me two actors and told me to connect them via shared movies.)
I wanted so much to be part of the group. I wasn’t stupid; I knew I stood out. But I wanted to be part of it. In every single situation I was in, I tried so hard to get included, I failed, then I ran in the other direction and was demonstrably “weird” so I could at least claim I had some agency. But it all left me feeling isolated and upset. And there was no way out of it without acknowledging the reality of how I felt, something that took me a very long time to figure out, with the help of lots and lots and lots of miles and races, and the compassion of supporters.
All of this is why I have finally come around to focusing my life’s work on this issue. Yes, it’s within the scope of English Language Teaching, but that’s what I know how to do, and it’s a place where more needs to be said. As I said last week, the only way out is through: I thought I could achieve my way to acceptance and, as I now know, protection from white supremacy, but the only way I can fully cauterize the wounds is to work on having some small impact in tearing the institution down.
I don’t think anyone deserves anything other than compassion. No one, not even the people who have done the very worst things, deserves cruelty. I certainly wasn’t kind to everyone when I was in the throes of all of these things, and I regret it every day. And I just have to sit with that.
Unfortunately, in order to sell the lies that built this country, we had to be told we deserved our inferior status, and a lot of us believed it. In a way, I never believed I was worse because of my skin, but I certainly thought that the situations I encountered were just the price I deserved to pay for the privileges I had. I had been spared the stereotypical black life, so I deserved every bit I got.
I don’t know if I’ll succeed in my work. I mean, we know white supremacy isn’t going away, but ELT could well continue to grow and change, and I could be a part of that. And I think the only way I’ll be at peace, fully and truly, is to face the happy lies I told myself and admit the racism that has always been hiding in the couch cushions of my memories.
It’s a shame, to have your past reframed in ways that make it less fun to remember. But this reckoning is the only way forward.