I am not the smartest cookie commenting on this issue, I know that. Please go find other smart people and read their stuff. What I do know is that I have confronted my own ageism, sexism, and racism and I am becoming less of those things. Classism and New England-ism I am still working on (see below).
There is a way to change our behavior, to end oppression and the ‘-isms’- and like anything else, it will take time and practice. We have to change, though- the alternative is inhumane.
I write this because, as a white woman, I have been both the victim and the aggressor in the ‘-ist’ wars. And I am trying to work on being neither.
I also write this because all the ‘-ists’ hurt me. They hurt my heart. Because the ‘-ists’ are a kind of suffering we do not have to perpetrate on each other. We don’t have to do it. And I hope this tragedy might help some people take one more step forward in ending this suffering.
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Ferguson happened. And now the grand jury on that terrible, sad incident has happened. And it is a big fucking mess.
People from every corner are calling for change.
There is lots of information out there for people like me to read.
White people who want to help but don’t know what to do.
(Want those resources? Check out Jezebel, Everyday Feminism, and UpWorthy. Subscribe, peeps!)
But here is the deal I know from my own experience.
This is how I have ended (or, at least started to end) all my own ‘-isms.’
Step One: Admit You Are an ‘-ist’
Pick your poison.
I, myself, am I a New England-ist. I automatically assume New Englanders are small-minded, nepotistic, poor drivers, and not open to new ideas.
I am also a racist. I grew up in a fairly diverse place, but I still have my prejudices in some shadow spots inside myself.
I am much more of a classist. I may have been around ethnic diversity, but we were all pretty much middle-class. Poor people and rich people still freak me out. (You can read about my other ‘-isms’ here.)
To end racism, we must all admit we are – to some extent – racists.
There is absolutely no way to end this mindset if we don’t admit to having it.
Step Two: Feel the (likely, Uncomfortable) Feelings
Here is the big deal point about admitting your shadow:
you will feel something when you admit this.
I’m an asshole.
I’m not a racist/ageist/sexist/homophobe.
Dear god, I am.
How am I ever going to be a better person?!?
When you feel this, please do as the wicked-smart Bridget Pilloud suggests: feel it.
This is not just about feelings associated with Ferguson, it is great advice for any difficult or overwhelming feelings.
When you feel your feelings, you set them free.
Your feelings will not be in the way of you getting over racism anymore.
Be honest with yourself. Feel it.
This is part of the healing that is necessary if you want to move on from your own racism/sexism/ageism, etc.
Step Three: Recognize Where The ‘-ism’ Comes From
The research is clear, and my own experience validates this: pretty much all oppressive behavior (which is what ‘-isms’ are) comes from fear.
When we are frightened of something, when we don’t understand it, we often give it a label of ‘other’ or ‘not me’ and push it away from ourselves.
This is what fear does.
It wants to get away, as quickly as possible.
It is a normal, human feeling.
But it cannot rule your actions.
Once you know your ‘-isms’ come from fear, it’s your job to educate yourself and get over the fears.
We are not born racist (research is clear here), but we do understand that some people are ‘different than me’ from a very early age. Whether that understanding is developed into racism or not depends on your culture- parents, community, etc.
But after the age of 24 or so, you choose to continue those fears.
You choose to continue being racist, ageist, sexist, homophobic, etc.
If you want to end these things, you must choose to not be them anymore.
You must choose not to fear anymore.
The great and wonderful Lisa Lister over at Sassyology.com knows that women and men are afraid of women’s power- especially when it comes to hormonal and cyclical mood changes. Instead of being afraid of them, and thereby oppressing women (because, yes, we are fucking powerful!) she helped educate her partner about what her cycle was like so he could understand it and what she needed. And when he understood, he could be supportive (instead of frightened or oppressive. Although, I doubt he was ever oppressive. I am using that word in the metaphor for racism).
Educate yourself on whatever or whoever it is that you are afraid of.
Go to the library.
Talk to friends.
Seek out wise people who have done this.
If you need help, find a therapist.
They are trained to help you uncover your fears, work through them, and behave differently.
Step Four: Empathize.
My excellent friend, Kimberley Jones, says this:
Once you know what shadows lurk in you,
and once you can admit them and feel whatever comes up,
you can then educate yourself,
and start to behave differently.
Empathy is the starting point for acting differently.
Empathy is possible because we can imagine the experience of another person because we have gone through it (or something similar).
You can smile at the person of a different skin color in line at the coffee shop.
(Which might be a huge step for some people.)
You can stop staring at the person who’s body is different than yours.
You can seek out the opinion and ideas of those who don’t normally have power (in your organization, your community, your work, your parking lot).
When you truly empathize, you begin to understand: I am likely oppressed, too.
My favorite group to hate on is middle class white dudes.
They have got it fucking made.
From the outside.
But middle class white dudes, even with all their power and privilege, are stuck, too.
They are stuck to old stories about emotional behavior (don’t be emotional, man!).
They are stuck to oppressive ideas about working themselves to the bone.
They are forced to digest stories about their inability to love and nurture children, that they can’t be sweet, that they can’t be fully sexual and have it be healthy.
We are all oppressed.
And when you can empathize with another’s oppression, you are sowing the seeds of understanding, kindness, and the desire for ending oppression.
Step Five: Stop Being a Cliche, Start Being Better.
If you want to end racism, sexism, or any other ‘-ism’ within yourself or your culture, you must move beyond being a cliche.
You want to ‘be the change?’
Then be the fucking change.
Don’t just use it as a quote in your email signature.
You want to ‘find the solution at a different level than the problem?’
Then get to another level.
Start acting differently.
Be the self who is not afraid anymore.
Be the one who starts ending oppression, in small daily ways.
Is this hard?
Yes, my friends, changing your identity is always hard.
But it can be done.
Small steps, baby.
Lots of support.
Therapeutic help if needed.
Because none of this oppression will end until we identify with our shadows, accept and heal them, and then rectify them by our behavior.
Racism can end.
All the ‘-isms’ can end.
It starts with each of us.