I am racist, and so are you.

And the sooner we both acknowledge this, the sooner we can begin to address the problem. So let’s talk.

“Wait just a minute here, Rachel. You’re like, the least racist person I know. You’re always sharing stuff about race and racism. You couldn’t possibly be racist.”

Here’s the deal. Racism isn’t just guys in white robes and Paula Deen shouting racial slurs. Racism is subtle, racism is insidious, and our culture is so deeply steeped in it that it’s impossible to grow up in the US and not be racist. It’s a kind of brainwashing: a set of default configuration files that come with the culture. It’s a filter, built up from birth, that alters our perception of the world. (Literally–racial bias makes people see weapons that aren’t there.) Racism isn’t just conscious actions; it’s judgements that happen so fast that we may not even be aware of them. Even people who are horrified by the idea of racism see through this lens, have this default programming. Even you. Even me.

Especially me.

How do I know that I’m racist?

Once, while living alone, I heard a noise that I took to be someone attempting to break in to my house. Instead of transforming into the valkyrie I’d always imagined I’d be in such a situation, I proceeded to have the kind of reaction I usually reserve for brown recluse spiders. Which is to say, I hid and called my boyfriend to come rescue me. When he arrived, finding the only other occupant of my house to be my wildly overactive imagination, he asked me, “What were you so afraid of?”

Unbidden, the image of a tall, young black man popped into my head. I don’t remember what answer I gave my boyfriend, but I doubt it was “young black men”.

Several years later, I’m walking home from the train. A black man I pass tries to get my attention, and I ignore him, as is my policy when approached by male strangers. He tries to get my attention again. Heart pounding, I turn to acknowledge him. He asks me for directions to the library, which I of course give him. I walk home with adrenaline surging through my veins and shame churning in my stomach.

Several years later, I’m walking across the street. It’s the middle of sunny afternoon at a busy intersection near my apartment. Three tall, broad black men in baggy tees and baseball caps, walk past me in the opposite direction. They don’t look at me, approach me, or interact with me in any way. And yet, I realized suddenly, I felt a flush of fear as they passed.

I don’t know what it was about this third interaction that made me recognize my racism for what it was. Perhaps it was because I’d been reading a lot of feminist writings about race and racism. Perhaps the third time was simply the charm. Perhaps it was how utterly and completely inculpable those three guys were in my rush of fear. They hadn’t even acknowledged my existence, and here I was, pulse spiking because I’d fucking walked past them.

“Hang on, though, Rachel.” I can hear you now. “Just because you’re afraid of black male strangers doesn’t mean you’re racist. Have you considered that your fear of black men is justified?”

Why yes, I have considered that. It would be awfully convenient, after all. But according to the Criminal Victimization Tables released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics [pdf], white people, who comprise 72% of the population of the US, commit 69% of the violent crime against white people, whereas black people, who comprise 13% of the population, commit 13% of the violent crime against white people. Not only does this mean that I am much more likely to be victimized by a white person than a black person, it also suggests that violent offenders who victimize white people are uniformly distributed across races. So, given this knowledge, why am I not more afraid of white men? Why is it that my brain conjures images of black men to embody my fears?

Upon recognizing my fear for what it was–racism–all I could think was, “Oh my god, Rachel, how fucking cliche is that? You’re the lily white blonde girl, afraid of black men. What, were you born on the set of King Kong?”

No, I was born in America. American media and mythos have been peddling the idea of violent and aggressive black people since the beginning of their enslavement at our hands hundreds of years ago; the fear we feel is a tool that has been leveraged to oppress, profit from, and destroy black bodies. The fear persists. Duncan (1976, PDF here) found that when performing the exact same action, black men are perceived as more violent than white men. Sagar and Schofield (1980, Google cache of PDF here) found that both white and black 6th graders rate actions as more mean and threatening when the person taking the action is black. Madriz (1997, PDF here) found that women of a variety of socio-economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds had similar perceptions of criminals–they feared victimization by black and latino men. The research goes on and on–Americans are afraid of black people, especially black men. This fear, the legacy of hundreds of years of subjugation and racism, is part of our cultural heritage just like hot dogs and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

However, unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, this fear kills people.

Mike Brown. Renisha McBride. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner.  These are only a handful of the hundreds of people killed each year because of white people’s fear. Because of fear like mine. Because of racism like mine.

The media will tell you that those people asked for it. They weren’t properly respectful. They were thugs or drunks or in some way unacceptable (as though that gives us license to murder them?!). We must recognize that as bullshit. They’re soothing, irrelevant, lies that we white people tell ourselves to avoid naming our fears for what they are–racism. We would rather slander the dead than admit to ourselves that our irrational fears are rooted deeply in this country’s history of enslaving, oppressing, and murdering black people. It is easier to cling to any justification of our our fear, even the flimsiest, most transparent justifications, than it is to probe how our own fears contributed to their murder.

We cannot continue to take the easy way out. This cannot be allowed to continue. People are dying, because white people have not stepped up to the plate and addressed the racism that has wormed its tendrils through our souls.

It is our turn at bat.

“I dunno, Rach. Maybe you’re racist, but I’m certainly not. I’m not afraid of black men, for instance.”

Really? You sure about that? Maybe you aren’t afraid of black men, but that example is only the most relevant and easily described way in which I have found my racism to manifest. There are a myriad of other areas in which our racism colors our perception, all requiring hard thinking and serious mindfulness to identify. Mine was so subtle it took years to even notice it.

So are you really sure you harbor no racism? How much time have you spent thinking about and examining your possible biases? How much do you listen to and learn about the experiences of black people from black people themselves? How often do you read about racism and structural inequality? Just how sure are you that you have somehow, miraculously, been able to avoid soaking up the racism that American culture is swimming in?

Look, I’m not here to condemn you. Condemning you, after all, would condemn me as well. I’m here to tell you that it’s not us against the racists. We’re not fighting a battle with the Paula Deens of the world. If only it were that simple, that cut and dried. The battle is instead us against racism, and that racism resides in each of us. This war begins within.

On the bright side, that means we have the home court advantage. How do we get started, though?

First, we read. Hundreds of people, brighter and more well-studied than I am, have been writing about these things for years. For longer than I’ve been alive. I’ll put a bunch of links at the bottom of this post to give you a good place to start.

Second, we must interrogate our discomfort. Reading will be hard. You will learn things you do not want to know. You will read things that make you want to lash out in your own defense, to shout, “Not all white people! Certainly not me!” Don’t shout that. Especially don’t shout that at a black person who is telling you about their lived experiences. If you absolutely cannot restrain yourself, and you must proclaim your innocence to someone, you can send me an email. I will say comforting and soothing things about how this is a necessary step on your journey to getting a passing grade in Decent Human Being, and how I expect you to suck it the hell up because as I said earlier PEOPLE ARE DYING and that’s more important than either your feelings or mine. This is going to be uncomfortable. It will make you feel sick to your stomach. It will make your heart ache. It will make your scalp tingle and your blood pound in your ears and you will want so desperately to stop and go back to the time when you existed, oblivious, in a blissful bubble of white privilege and YOU MUST KEEP GOING ANYWAY. Your temporary discomfort is a small price when weighed against the lives of millions of people. Sit with your discomfort. Befriend your discomfort. Let your discomfort guide you–where there is discomfort, there is likely unexamined bias. When you feel uncomfortable, ask yourself why. “Why does that make me uncomfortable? What is it about that that makes me feel this way? What are the beliefs that I hold that are conflicting with what I am reading?” You will survive your discomfort–black children do not survive being gunned down by cops.

Third, we must cultivate a perspective of belief. As I said, racism is a filter through which we view everything, whether we want to or not. It’s like being born wearing tinted glasses–certain colors are filtered out of our perception. The filter of our racism creates makes it very difficult to see the racism at first. We must be trained to see it by the people who experience it more directly. So as you’re reading, and making friends with your discomfort, remember: if someone tells you that some event is because of racism, believe them. It may be a long time before you’re able to see racism with clarity. Until that point, it is an entirely reasonable default position to believe the people who have been observing it longer. You are not objective in this regard; you must proactively correct for your own cognitive bias.

Fourth, we must be gentle with ourselves. We accomplish nothing by doing more violence to our pysches than our system has already done. You are not a bad person because you are racist. I am not a bad person because I am racist. We are just people, products of a racist culture that we didn’t choose but got stuck with anyway. It is, however, our responsibility, our ethical obligation, to address our own racism. We cannot change a racist system–a system that oppresses and brutalizes black people and other people of color–without first changing ourselves.

Finally, we must realize that the battle with our racism will never be over. You don’t just wake up one morning and say, “I guess I’m done being racist!” Over time, we’ll improve, of course. We’ll succeed in building new mental pathways that overwrite parts of our racist programming. But we will struggle. We will grapple with pernicious racist beliefs so ingrained that our minds have carved canyons down those planes of thought. It will frustrate us, how quickly our brains find the racist answer, like marbles rolling to a low spot in the floor. And when we succeed in leveling that floor, we’ll find new pockets of racism that we didn’t even know existed. We will never win–but we must press on in the struggle.

I know you can do this.

I know we can do this.

I know we can do this, because we must do this.

Articles to read:

Publications to Read:

Books to Read:

Scholarly Research:

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Recipe: Garlicky Baked Cheese Grits

Cheese grits are awesome. This is my adaptation of Paula Deen’s Baked Cheese Grits recipe. They’re great brunch food. I like to serve them with kale. But then again, what don’t I like to serve with kale?

Baked Cheese Grits (Serves 6):

Splash of olive oil
3-10 cloves of garlic, minced
1 1/2 c. chicken broth
1 1/2 c. light-colored beer, dry white wine or dry cider
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 c. regular grits or polenta
8 oz sharp cheddar, shredded
1/4 c. milk
2 large eggs
1/4 cup (1/2 a stick) butter, cut into pieces
4 oz grated sharp white cheddar

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Grease an 8 or 9 inch pie tin, or other oven-safe vessel of similar volume.
  3. Heat the garlic and olive oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat, until the garlic is soft.
  4. Add the broth, beer, and Worcestershire sauce to the saucepan and bring it to a boil.
  5. Stir in the grits and whisk until combined.
  6. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the grits are thick. The grits have a tendency to spit while they’re thickening, so a splatter guard might be a nice thing to cover the pan with.
  7.  Add 8 oz of shredded cheddar to the grits, and stir until melted.
  8. Beat the eggs and the milk together until thoroughly combined.
  9. Now, here you can either temper the eggs and milk to forestall any potential pre-cooking of the eggs, or you can just dump the eggs and milk into the pan with the grits and cheese and stir. If you want to temper the eggs: add a tablespoon of the hot grits/cheese mixture to the egg/milk mixture. Stir to combine. Repeat until you’ve added 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) of the grits mixture to the egg/milk mixture. Then add the tempered mix of eggs, milk, and grits to the rest of the grits mixture.
  10.  Add the butter to the grits mixture, and stir until melted.
  11. Pour into the oven-safe vessel you prepared in step 2! Top with the remaining grated sharp white cheddar!
  12. Bake 35-40 minutes until set.

Notes: If you’re of a mind for something spicy, you can chop a jalapeno or serrano pepper and stir it into the grits in step 10. Or, if you want to make them half spicy/half regular, pour the grits into the pan and then carefully stir the diced pepper into half of the pan.

If you’re mostly a fan of the crusty cheese part, reduce the cheese that’s stirred into the grits from 8 oz to 4 oz, and bake the grits in a wider, flatter vessel (I have used a baking sheet with a rim to good effect). Then increase the cheese you sprinkle on top from 4 oz to 8 oz. This will provide you with flatter, more cheese-crusty grits.

If you want more solid grits, leave out the butter in step 10. Including the butter gives a more spoonable texture: leaving it out gives you something more sliceable.

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When the Cherries Come

In the dark days of winter
–not quite the shortest, but close–
I fell into the couch and dreamed
of a cherry tree
heavy with fruit
firm and dark like blood.
The sky behind it boiled
the green gray of tornadoes
The fruit skin stretched taut
snapped under my teeth
My fingers dripped crimson.
I woke in December,
confused.

But in June, when the cherries come
firm and dark like blood,
or golden and blushing,
Pickle some.

Then, when you wake in winter,
confused in the dark days,
spread a silly cheese,
like a triple cream cheese,
on sturdy crackers.

Pry open that jar from June
and fish out the cherries with your fingers.
Place a cherry
one
per
cracker
on the spread of creamy, silly cheese

eat;
delight

(Editors note: I used Triscuits, and the Bloomy cheese from Jacobs Creamery. The cheese might be life-changing.)

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Meal Plan Dec 22-28, 2013

It’s been a long time since I posted a meal plan.

I am pleased at the inclusion of two vegan nights (Friday and Saturday, unless the black bean skillet is topped with yogurt). There would be four vegetarian nights instead of three, but I will probably end up adding bacon to the black eyed peas and kale. I will probably have to move the black bean skillet up in the week, as the avocados that came with the grocery order are ready to be eaten basically immediately.

 

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December Farmer’s Market in Portland

Twenty-five degrees.
That’s -4 to everyone else.
And yet, unreasonably sunny.
Isn’t it supposed to rain here?
I wore jeans (I do own one pair).
Actually zipped my coat (Blue leather instead of shabby gold corduroy)
Surely, it’s not cold enough for scarf and gloves.
It’s only a few blocks. To jaywalk or not?
I watch the jaywalkers and second-guess my decisions.
Sign two petitions–global warming (against) and gay marriage (for)
A sample cup of hot cider makes my cold teeth hurt.
My bacon dealer is missing. Missing!
An empty space where their stand is always.
I walk one loop–no vegetables I need, just eggs.
The egg vendor gently scolds me for not bringing cartons
She talks me into bloomy cheese
And butter she churned herself yesterday.
I like to buy butter from her because
once, in the green of summer,
she let me feel her churning bicep.

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Unknown Unknowns

Rarely do I see eye-to-eye with Donald Rumsfeld, but there is something he said once that resonates with me. In a press conference over the Iraq war, he said:

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

Now, this has been called an abuse of language, but to me it is a piece of great genius and wisdom. In my experience, especially my recent experience, it is the unknown unknowns that cause the problems. Those are the ones that will sneak up and chomp you on the ass.

Many of the unknown unknowns I have recently encountered have involved adventures. Like when Shanna and I followed Google’s directions to Bagby Hot Springs, only to find ourselves 10 miles up a logging road with no civilization in sight1. Or when Zack and I signed up for a “Moonlight Kayak Tour of Ross Island”, advertised as a no-experience required glide along the river, only to find ourselves locked into a five-mile slog, paddling desperately to keep up with the guide and our more experienced tour-mates.

The unknown unknown that I have been grappling with most recently is that of my kitchen floor. Thursday evening, as I was tidying up the kitchen in my new apartment, I decided to be extra thorough so as to be properly warm for my evening swim. I swept the floor, and pulled out the steam mop to take care of a stubborn sticky place or two. Things were going well until I got to the stubbornest sticky spot, which required longer than I expected to clean.

After a few seconds, I noticed something weird. The floor was actually getting stickier.

There must be some kind of dried-on film of dirt, I thought. So I continued mopping away.

Then, the film of dirt started to pill up, like a jersey-knit skirt that’s been worn a few too many times. This, I decided, was not normal floor behavior. So I switched off the mop and headed off to ask the Internet.

Unfortunately, the internet held no wisdom for me, beyond a thorough scolding for using a steam mop on a wood floor. Since it was too late to undo that part, I returned to more closely inspect the floor. Maybe I could just widen the area I was mopping and everything would be fine.

Upon lifting the mop, however, I met with another unpleasant surprise. The area under the mop had turned a ghostly white. I touched it, and it separated from the floor. It, and the surrounding area, peeled off the floor like dried glue on the hand of a fourth grader, like a bad sunburn.

I didn’t know what to do, so naturally I kept peeling the whatever-it-is off my floor, hoping that I could just remove it from the whole floor and everything would be dandy. After all, the wood underneath the plastic-y film looked just fine! Soon, though, as the difficulty in peeling an entire floor became apparent, I returned to asking the Internet, terrified that I had already damaged this apartment after only three weeks of residence.

The internet’s best guess seemed to be that this was an acrylic floor wax, but I lacked ammonia to test this hypothesis for sure. So Friday afternoon I gathered up a few peels of floor skin and made a pilgrimage to Home Depot. Surely, someone there could solve my mystery. Surely, someone could identify this substance and tell me how to remove it safely.

No such luck. I had hoped to live a long time without stumping my local home improvement folks, but alas, that dream was shattered. The gentleman in flooring had no idea what it was, or why anyone would apply it to their floor. His best guest–my worst nightmare in this scenario–was that I had actually melted the top layer off of a laminate floor. He gave me samples of both laminate and hardwood flooring, and instructed me to go home and check.

At home again, I compared the edge of the flooring to the samples, determining–to my great relief–that I did not have a laminate floor. (This determination was made after spending at least half an hour on my belly in the kitchen, searching for repeating patterns in the woodgrain, like a madwoman or a particularly blessed individual from the later books in the Ender’s Game series). Further, the floor in the hall, made of the same wood, was not coated in the… whatever it is. Unfortunately, I forgot to buy ammonia, so I still have not conclusively determined the provenance of the weird floor skin. Doubly unfortunate, the building’s annual maintenance inspections happen tomorrow, so I may be putting down a throw rug over the section of my kitchen that looks like a computer scientist’s back a week after a trip to the Bahamas.

At least, however, my unknown unknown is now a known unknown. Known unknowns are much less troublesome. You can ask questions about them. You can find people who have more information who may be able to help you. You can read and search and maybe–hopefully–make your known unknowns a known known.

As for the unknown unknowns–I guess the only antidote to those is experience. Hopefully other people’s experience, but, failing that, your own. Well, good time or good story, right?

[1]Other unknown unknowns about Bagby that made our trip there more on the good story side of the good time/good story continuum: the hot springs is a 1.5 mile hike from the parking lot; you have to carry 5 gallon buckets of cold water across the slippery decks to mix with the hot springs water in order to not boil yourself alive; and the corks that hold water in the tubs often leak, so after you’ve hiked a mile and a half through the rain and schlepped 30 gallons of cold water into your tub, you may be stuck in a tub that will only fill to your ankles.

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Come Back, Baby

I wrote this waaay back in mid October. But here it is now!

The past few weeks have been the kind of glorious fall weather that I have dreamed of my entire life. The mornings were cool, with just enough chill to make that cup of tea seem extra nice. The clouds hung low over the city in the early hours, enticing you to stay in bed, to stay wrapped up in your own white comforter, but once you crossed the hills west of Portland the blue sky opened up overhead. Demure velvety carpets of fog hovered over the fields in Hillsboro, leaving the foot or so above the golden ground strangely clear. The morning chill would eventually give way to glorious afternoons: just warm enough to draw you outside, and just cool enough to make you appreciate the sunshine. It was perfect for sitting in the courtyard in a sunbeam. The treas, at first unsure, started changing their dressings a few leaves at a time. First one branch would turn, slowly, tentatively shifting from green to red and gold and orange. Then its neighbors, perhaps inspired by the first branch’s boldness, or maybe just envious of its finery, would join in.

The fallen leaves crunched under foot, and swirled behind the cars like a beautifully mastered but not particularly creative car commercial.

It was gorgeous.

And then, suddenly, it was gone.

I didn’t know it would be leaving so soon. “The good weather lasts from July 4th through October”, the locals told me. I thought that included October! But here it is, not even half-way through October, and the forecast shows only rain for the foreseeable future.

This came as a shock to me, as I am not in the habit of checking the forecast. Tomorrow, I kept telling myself. Tomorrow I will remember to bring my camera, and capture all the glorious leaves and astounding blue sky. Tomorrow, I will pack a picnic lunch, and eat outside. Tomorrow, I will bring a jacket and eat in the courtyard.

I did not realize that hypothetical tomorrow would not be coming. I did not realize that once the rains start here, they don’t stop for six months. I did not realize that the sunshine was so, so precious.

Now that it’s gone, my desperation is clawing its way out of my chest. The end of any relationship is painful, of course, but I am taking this breakup particularly badly. I am that ex that makes you cringe.

Come back, baby, I say to the sunshine. If you just come back, I’ll be better. I’ll do it right this time–I’ll do right by you, I promise. I will eat dinner on the roof garden every night, even though it’s a hassle to bring the dishes down. I will eat every lunch in the courtyard at work, tossing crumbs to the scrub jay. I’ll drive to the beach every weekend! I’ll go kayaking, I’ll go hiking, I’ll go swimming; I’ll do all of the things I wanted to do but put off in favor of stupid things like cleaning and watching trashy supernatural dramas. I will go out even when I think it’s too hot, even though I hate wearing sunscreen, even though I am tired.

I cling desperately to the hope that this is just a trial separation. I believe–I know we can still work out our problems. I didn’t appreciate the sunshine when it was here–that’s on me, and I’m so sorry. I’m going to do better! We can make this work, if only the sunshine would give me another chance.

But deep down, I know. I know that it’s over. The sunshine took her toothbrush, and her record collection, and that stupid cat throw pillow. I even hear someone saw her out in New Mexico, drinking a beer and throwing darts with someone new.

Well, fine, if that’s the way it’s going to be. Two people can play that game. I can find someone new, too. In fact, I think I might even have met someone today. He’s different, certainly. A little less ostentatious, a little more reserved. He’d just as soon stay in as go to the beach with your friends. He says he likes warm soups and long baths, candlelight and reading, board games and crafts. He’s coming over this weekend. And, you know? I think I might even like him a little.

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