Unlearning racism as a non-black person of color
The first time I heard about the history of race and racism in America was during my freshman year of college, when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book between the world and me. Before that, I had had a lot of courses on running, but none of them had ever taken place in class.
Growing up as a mixed-race Iranian-American girl in the Midwestern suburbs, being the target of racism was as integral to my upbringing as learning to read. As a child, my skin was much darker than it is today, and in my predominantly white class, I was generally one of the brownest and undoubtedly the most shaggy kids.
My race has always been ambiguous, but my hairiness has earned me the name “Bigfoot” from some of my classmates. Some who knew of my racial background opted for more targeted slurs, such as “terrorist” and “Muslim freak” – despite seeing me receive communion at the whole school’s weekly mass.
Those 18 years of “field experience” taught me everything I thought I needed to know about the breed. So when I sat down at a panel discussion at my predominantly white college during my freshman year to discuss Coates’ book, I felt like an expert.
Although the book is written as a letter from Coates to his teenage son about the realities of being black in America, I felt that my experience of dealing with racial slurs in elementary school combined with the fear associated with people of Middle Eastern descent gave me a level of understanding that my classmates could never understand. They had to read Coates’ book to learn second-hand what they could never learn from experience. What was this book supposed to teach me that years of first-hand experience hadn’t already done?
Experiencing racism is not Make anything to fight it.
I kept that attitude for most of college. I had mastered the subject and understood what race and racism were in America. I believed in the importance of racial justice and held that belief silently, but I didn’t have to read books or be an activist. It was not my responsibility.
I was wrong.
In 2020, after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I was, like many people, angry. Angry at how people of color, and black people in particular, have been killed without repercussions, incarcerated at an alarming rate, and perpetually denied the promise of American meritocracy. But mostly, I was angry because white people just now seemed to understand the racist nature of our society.
“Why do you care so much all of a sudden?” Everyone acts like they just found out about racism,” I said. “It’s all the rage now, but in a few weeks no one will care.”
But my friend reassured me otherwise. “It’s just different this time. I can’t say what the others will do, but I know I’m not going to give up this time,” he promised.
Yes indeed, I was thinking. Maybe these new “activists” would go to a protest or two, read a book or watch a documentary, but the novelty would wear off within a month.
Tired or not, they still worked on educating themselves, however brief that lesson. Fighting for social change is still fighting for social change, even if it is short-lived. What had I ended?
Experiencing racism is not Make anything to fight it. The experience is simply a by-product of the system that I have never made the effort to thwart. How could I mock and blame white people for just now starting to push for social justice when I myself had taken no action?
To be complicit is to commit to disrupting our current system of oppression.
In an attempt more to avoid hypocrisy than to educate myself, I read the book So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo. I expected him to tell me things I already knew. Instead, it taught me that I knew nothing.
Oluo writes, “When we identify where our privilege intersects with someone else’s oppression, we will find our opportunities to effect real change.” Until then, I had spent my whole life focused on identities that denied me privilege, but the lack of privilege in one area does not negate the privilege I enjoyed in another.
Although being a mixed-race Iranian-American creates certain disadvantages, being half-white and generally presenting as white (as an adult), being able-bodied and belonging to a middle-class family offers immense privileges. These privileges intersect with the systemic oppression of others, black Americans in particular. A system that I had confused with black and white was actually superimposed on color.
In June 2020, I attended a Black Lives Matter protest in my hometown of St. Charles, Illinois. Me and over 1,000 other protesters gathered in a downtown park across from my elementary school, the place I thought taught me everything I needed to know about racism.
The demographics of the protesters matched that of my city: overwhelmingly white. We were together in the same park where the kids had made my skin color the basis of their taunts, but none of those memories mattered. As I walked alongside my white neighbors, these experiences did not give me the upper hand. We all had a lot to learn, and I had just as much responsibility to learn it.
As a non-black person of color, I wasn’t the only one to embrace a new call to action in the wake of the 2020 racial justice movements. Over 700 Japanese Americans signing a pledge to end anti-black racism to Native American groups show solidarity by participating in demonstrationswe have collectively realized our role in the fight against racial injustice through a myriad of actions.
In May and June 2020, support for the Black Lives Matter movement in non-black communities of color increased more than among white people. According to civilians data, from before Breonna Taylor’s death in March to after that of George Floyd in May, support for Black Lives Matter rose from 54% to 69% among the Hispanic and Latino population, and from 48% to 60% among all other non-black communities of color, while among whites, support fell from 33% to 43%. Me and other non-black people of color realized we couldn’t be complacent anymore. We had to become accomplices.
To be complicit is to commit to disrupting our current system of oppression. This disruption comes through education, actively listening to others, and accepting that we are far from being experts. There was an uncomfortable confrontation when I realized that I could be both the underdog and the oppressor. It’s an intersection I will always navigate, but now I know where to find the tools to disrupt racial injustice and the courage to encourage others to do the same.
Since June 2020, I have been trying to continue fighting for social justice in the communities I am part of. At my university, I worked with professors to create a Writing for Protest group to encourage others to use their voice to write letters to the editor and their representatives, and even to write creatively about the social justice. Now that I have graduated, I am looking for ways to get involved in equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives in my workplace.
The activist path is not linear. There are times when I fall back into the old comfort of indifference. Even now, as I write this essay, I realize how often I fail in my activism. Enthusiasm for racial justice is waning; the same Civiqs poll shows Hispanic and Latino support for Black Lives Matter has dropped 12 percentage points since June 2020, 9 percentage points among all other non-black people of color, and 9 percentage points among white people.
While these numbers reflect support for only one movement – the Movement for Black Lives – as activist Lilla Watson puts it, our liberation is intertwined. As non-black people of color, we are not exempt from the responsibility to participate simply because we have experienced oppression. While our experiences can be devastating, it’s time to acknowledge that the experience of being Black in America is an entirely different experience that we will never truly understand.
Last year the marching drums rang out with demands for change. Today they have diminished to a gentle pulse, but I believe the steady beat is still there and it takes a gradient of people to keep it alive. This means we must continue to educate ourselves about racism in America, get involved in our communities’ social justice efforts, and come forward in any way we can to bring about change.
is an emerging writer from the Chicago area. As a half-Iranian woman, much of her work explores multiculturalism, identity and race. Gabrielle has work published or forthcoming by Blue Marble Review, Non-White and Woman and various local news outlets. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English writing from Illinois Wesleyan University. She can be reached via her website: https://gabrielleghaderi.com and her email: [email protected]