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Overcoming Racism: A White Girl’s Journey

multi-colored flowers
Photo by oatsy40

by Sara DeHoff © 1997 Performed onstage as part of the Unity Works ensemble

Last night, I couldn’t sleep. What had happened?! This conference that had started off so beautifully had turned into such a painful experience. Was the facilitator right? Had I really made all those assumptions?

Painfully, I went through my own thought process as I’d prepared for the role play. One by one, I recalled the images that had sprung to mind when I read the scenario. One by one, I had to admit—I had made those very assumptions that had glared at me from the white board.

I had always considered myself a liberal-minded person—I thought I had come so far! But suddenly I realized how far I had yet to go. I recalled the words of Shoghi Effendi I had been reading:

Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority… ~ Shoghi Effendi

In horror, I realized that my every word, every deed, every thought, every gesture has the potential to hurt someone. Because I’m not aware of these attitudes—because they are unconscious—they can come out in any place, at any time: at a conference for community development.

I shuddered. I felt like crawling under the bed and never speaking again. But that passed and I knew that the only way through it was through it. I would probably go through many more such painful experiences before my heart was free of these prejudices.

During the conference, it was assumed that the white folks in the room had not begun to examine their prejudices and so needed to be forced to look at them. But how do you know? How can you be sure I have not yet begun this journey? If you see me make an ignorant comment about a certain race of people, does that prove I have never examined my attitudes at all? You can’t see the thousands of assumptions I have already perceived and conquered. They’re no longer a part of me. You only see what I have yet to accomplish. And if you jump on me for my mistake, how much more courage must it take for me rise up and face the next one?

What greater punishment is there than to be the perpetrator of the crime? If you receive from me a patronizing comment, you hurt once. But when I realize what I’ve done, I hurt twice: I feel your pain, and I know that I am the one who caused it.

If indeed, it was true that there were no white people making any efforts at all to face their prejudices, then perhaps harshness would be necessary to force them to see what they are doing. But there are those who are making efforts and they deserve compassion. For, it is a horrifying realization to know that, without being aware of it, I am very likely to hurt someone by what I say or do. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to reach out anyway and extend the hand of friendship.

But even as these thoughts passed through my mind, I realized that I cannot ask compassion of anyone, least of all from those who have suffered so much at the hands of my own people. My thoughts turned to the woman who had lead the discussion and, in the midst of my pain and anger, my heart went out to her.

My friend, I can ask nothing of you, neither patience, nor forgiveness, nor understanding. You have borne enough already.

What I can do is listen. Not defensively, not superficially, not to find the ultimate argument that absolves me of responsibility. But to really listen, to hear your story and to allow it to sink in… all the way in—until the pain reaches my heart and the tears start to flow. Then I begin to understand. Then my soul whispers, “You found us at last.”

The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord. If you meet those of different race and colour from yourself, do not mistrust them and withdraw yourself into your shell of conventionality, but rather be glad and show them kindness. Think of them as different coloured roses growing in the beautiful garden of humanity, and rejoice to be among them. ~ Abdu’l-Baha
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