Reflections on my Black history — the water we swim in

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I invite you to read this even if you think you don’t want to. I promise it will be relevant to you.

Before Black History Month ends, I thought I better ‘fess up to my own Black history. Yes, I’m a EuroAmerican white woman. No, I have no Black ancestors (that I’m aware of). However, over the last several years, I’ve done some deep digging into the roots of my own racism. Yup, I said it; that word, racism. It’s the water we swim in, the air we breathe. That doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. Admitting it and then working on it is actually a prolific sign of a person who is attempting to grow into an anti-racist.

As I’ve looked back in history, whether it be family, community, or nation, I have learned that there are some small (and very large) pockets of racism woven throughout my make-up. Those might look more subtle now since I’ve been doing my anti-racism work, but they’re still there in my psyche and body, impossible to completely eradicate.

One of the startling roots I found was when I was writing a self-reflection paper in seminary in a course about Identity, Power, and Difference. I recalled a memory of my grandmother singing to me in her rocking chair. One line kept repeating in my head, “Go to sleep, my little...” (an offensive word referring to a Black baby). It’s been in my dreams throughout childhood and beyond, and I always thought it was so sweet of my grandmother to sing to me what she had sung to my mom when she was a baby. Little did I know that she was repeating lyrics that were offensive and downright racist. My own grandmother, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) who had handed down her beautiful quilt to me from the Civil War period, had been sowing words of harm in my ear.

At first, I was saddened and ashamed that there was such blatant racism in my own family. But I also had to recognize that she was most likely just singing a song that had been sung to her, without thinking about the words as she sang. And I’m not going to discredit all the other wonderful things she did for me and taught me. But I am now more conscious of what intentions and words are in the songs I’m singing.

For me, I feel it is important that with every Black History Month, I review and reflect on where my own racism resides and then intentionally work against it in my current life. For the sake of my family and my future grandchildren, I can’t stop at an annual time each year. I need to be conscious and aware of my thoughts, words, and behaviors every day and embody a life of anti-racism. It doesn’t mean I need to beat myself up, dwell in guilt, or harbor self-resentment. It doesn’t mean I’m not a good person. It just means that I’m a white human who’s lived in a country built on the backs of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. I know better now. I can do better now.

What do you have in your Black history? How are you working to be anti-racist?

Former Colorado state senator, now with a master’s in Social Justice and Ethics from Iliff School of Theology, Linda Newell is a writer, speaker, facilitator, and conflict/DEI consultant. Senlindanewell@gmail.com, www.lindanewell.org, www.senlindanewell.com, @sennewell on Twitter, Senator Linda Newell or @TheLastBill on Facebook.

Linda Newell

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