I have never been so aware of the color of my skin.
That was my main reflection after spending a day of YAV orientation in New York City.
My time as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) started with all 48 YAVs gathering for orientation, or as it is affectionately called “Dis-orientation.” There was no time wasted in disorienting us! We jumped into Crossroads Antiracism training on the first day which focused training people to have the tools to dismantle racism.
As one of the first activities, we were asked to work in our small groups to write a six word essay about why it was important to have these conversations about race before we go out to do a year of service. One group wrote “Because white supremacy isn’t extinct yet.”
This statement first stuck out to me because the use of the word “yet” reminded me of an inside joke. But as we continued this training, my thoughts kept coming back to that sentence. Even though I am guilty of thinking it is a thing of the past, white supremacy isn’t extinct. But it can be.
During training, we discussed what characteristics, abilities, and qualities are valued and seen as good or the norm. Some examples were white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, English speaking, educated, healthy, employed, well dressed, clean. These characteristics allow people to be in the center of society.
From there we dove into the harder question: What characteristics don’t fall into this narrative that we have painted to be right and good? Who are the people that we cast into the borderlands, the outskirts of society? Maybe you are already thinking of some. The qualities that make you uncomfortable and put people on the outskirts of society. Things that we tend to view as bad or wrong. A few of the examples we used were: brown or black skin, overweight, uneducated, having an accent, not speaking English, illiterate, depressed, unwealthy, old, weak.
That may have been hard to read. But it’s real. And one thing I learned from this is to not brush away the hard feelings, but to lament.
We are built around a center of white supremacy and that leaves many people in the borderlands-the area that surrounds this center of norms. Not just in this country, but around the world. There are characteristics that are seen as good and bad and the value of people is based around how well they fit into the center of our social hierarchy. And the center of this system is white.
It’s okay for it to be hard to hear this. Its okay for this to be bringing up a lot of feelings. It did for me. I had so many hard feelings while doing this training. All of them in a big jumbled mess to the point where I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling or thinking. I still don’t know if I can. I know that there is anger toward our systems of oppression, sadness for the pain and trauma white people have caused throughout history and today, and guilt for my complacency in seeing problems but doing nothing about them.
But white guilt and shame gets us nowhere. White supremacy isn’t extinct yet. It can be, but it isn’t an easy road to get there.
I sat in this training wanting to do something about all of this but not knowing what to do. I was hoping the facilitators would tell us how we can fix it. I wanted to have a checklist of things I can do to make me not be racist and to fight systemic racism.
But that is not how this works.
New York City
We took a trip to New York City the day after we officially completed the Crossroads Antiracism training, but the discussions of race had not stopped there. The excursion was to help us put into practice some of what we had been learning and notice the systems of White Supremacy all around us.
I was very aware of my white skin the entire time. The fact that I have lived for 24 years never having to think about how my skin color is affecting me and those around me shows how White Supremacy is ingrained as a norm. I was aware of my whiteness as I sat on the subway and walked through the streets.
I was aware of my white skin as my group walked into a small visitors center and gift shop to use the restrooms. The employee at the counter happily greeted us and talked with us. As we milled about waiting to use the restrooms but buying nothing, our presence of eight white adults did not seem to be an issue for him. Would it have been the same story if eight black young adults walked in off the street in search of a bathroom? I think not.
I don’t want to make this seem like I am saying I am now so aware of my white skin and I am ready and equipped to fight racism in every way. I am so far from perfect. I mess up. I messed up less than 24 hours out from this training as we were in New York City.
As we walked down the streets of Harlem, we saw a black man laying on the sidewalk, obviously in pain and needing help. There were two people who had stopped to help him and were calling an ambulance. Many people were walking right past him with little regard for what was happening. Classic bystander effect.
As we walked toward him on the sidewalk, I had time to think of what I was going to do. When we got to him, laying on the sidewalk in pain, I did nothing. I kept walking. Didn’t ask if I could help in any way.
I was thinking about being white and walking through a predominantly black neighborhood. I didn’t want to be seen as a white savior. I was so hyper aware of my white skin, aware of all the harm that white people have done trying to fix things. I knew I didn’t want to fall into that category, so I did nothing.
Two weeks later I am still thinking of that specific moment and feeling the same thing for how I acted. I feel ashamed and sad that I did nothing. It makes me feel sick.
Inaction is an action
After learning what I have, I cannot be complacent in this unjust world any longer.
With the constant reminder that white supremacy isn’t extinct yet, I am spurred to take action. I can’t go back and change that moment in Harlem, but I can change how I react in this world of white supremacy each day going forward.
It is hard to think about, but I would rather acknowledge that I have benefited from my ancestors oppressing people and work to fix that rather than ignore the damage that was caused and keep the unjust systems going.
Two weeks after this training, it is still fresh in my brain. I hope it stays there for the rest of my time as a YAV and long into my life. Taking action to break down the borders that oppress people is the only way I see to move forward and that’s what I plan to do during this year.