by Didi A.Devapriya
Virginia Blackburn was a powerful and beautiful black African American woman working as a social worker at a women’s centre in a poor inner-city neighbourhood in the Midwest. She was a close friend and wise mentor for me in my early twenties. She invited me to different workshops on themes such as overcoming racism, classism, sexism and other types of isms. I was shocked to discover how these barriers had limited my ability to feel close and connected to others. I considered myself a liberal, open minded person. I had grown up in a multi-ethnic highschool and most of my best friends were non-whites – Korean, Chinese, Indian. I had even gone to a formal dance with a black friend as my date, and had to cringingly endure the loud and embarrassing comments of my somewhat deaf French-Canadian grandfather like “ Oh he is good looking for a black guy!” I was a good person and I was dedicated to principles of equality for all. I certainly didn’t see myself as a racist and would never consciously participate in hurting anyone because of their identity. And yet, in the workshops I discovered the extent to which I had still internalised racism and other isms.
Though it wasn’t expressing itself in the open forms of hatred and discrimination that we most often associate with the ugly word racism – it was present in the isolation and fears I felt around connecting to my African American brothers and sisters. I admired them, and yet felt distant. I wanted to connect, yet felt awkward and clumsy and feared ridicule and rejection.
My relationship with Viriginia was one of the first in which I felt close and comfortable enough to find out about her experiences of how the double burdens of racism and sexism had hurt her, as well as to explore and overcome these barriers formed by my own timidity and ungrounded fears. It was such an enormous relief to be able to discuss these things openly – and to find out what she really thought and felt. It turned out to be extremely easy to feel close and connected to Virginia, and that relationship gave me confidence to reach out to more minority people and become a better friend and ally. Up until that point, though I was close and connected to people from Asian minorities, they were already well integrated into the suburban intellectual elites that I was a part of, whereas the African American kids were not only a different ethnicity – but often part of a different social class which doubled the distance.
Virginia taught me some fundamental truths for overcoming the barriers that racism and classism form unconsciously between people. First of all, to recognise and accept that all over the world, the patterns that create barriers between human beings are recorded very early in life, and so we have all been influenced by racism and other isms in their many forms. It is not our fault. We were little and growing up in a racist, classist, sexist world. Our innate sense of humanity resisted the best we could – but in the face of the powerful influences of the adult world, we internalised messages about who is important and who is not, who is like me and who is not. As children, our natural, spontaneous connection to everyone around us was limited by different forms of fear.
The good news is that we are more than these patterns, and we can work to become aware of them and overcome their hold on us. But in the meantime, until we are completely free of those patterns – how should we act? How should we act to people who are different than us? How to act with people with disabilities, from other ethnicities, other social classes, other religions? Maybe we will say the wrong things, maybe we will accidentally insult them, maybe they will reject our awkward attempts, maybe they will laugh at us… Maybe. These fears are all direct results of the conditioning that keeps these very isms in place by keeping us distant from each other.
Virginia’s advice was disarmingly simple: “If are busy being loving, you won’t have time to be racist.” Authentic human relationships are a vital key to overcoming barriers. There is no replacement for friendships. We may even be activists, work for human rights or think of ourselves as fair and balanced people. But until we have close, warm, open friendships – we are probably still unconsciously allowing those barriers to continue to operate.
When we really care about another human being, we may make mistakes, we may say the wrong things – but we can talk about it. We can talk about our fears, our clumsiness – we can ask for help, we can find out what the other person really thinks, what their experience is like. We don’t have to guess anymore. We don’t have to try and pretend that we don’t have barriers and fears – but we can be determined to go beyond them, together. This becomes a shared journey, an exploration, a discovery that is always unique, human and enriching.
Perhaps some of you may be thinking that my story is an interesting one but that it only applies to Americans. Often the very word racism has become associated with the terrible things that we white Americans have done to African Americans throughout history – the slavery, the hate crimes and persecution.
However, the insights that Virginia shared with me – and the closeness that was created in our relationship is something that helped me to feel closer to people across all sorts of cultural divides. I think it is why I can claim Romania as my home, and why I feel honoured to have close relationships with people from so many different cultural backgrounds – whether Romanian, Roma, Hungarian, Indian, Finnish or Dutch.
I remember many years ago, applying this principle when meeting a Russian sister who I instantly connected with – her warm sense of humour made me feel as if I had known her for years within the first days that I met her. We had both grown up during the Cold War period – and soon we were close enough to be able to share and laugh about the different demonised stereotypes we had grown up with – me imagining all Communist Russians as wearing grey and looking grim and serious, she imagining all Capitalist Americans to be fat, irresponsible, overindulgent and greedy. At the same time it was fascinating to explore of what was actually beyond those stereotypes – our authentic stories of ourvchildhood memories.
Naturally, different forms of isms creep into every culture – whether as a dominant culture or an oppressed culture and are transmitted in early childhood. Of course, the ways that this happens, and the culture background is unique in each country or subculture. Yet, many elements of oppressions and isms are remarkably similar. When I first came to Romania and became aware of the Roma population – it was something completely new for me, as I had never realised that words “Gypsy” referred to a real ethnicity – I naively thought it was just referring to a particular type of free lifestyle. Yet soon, I recognised many of the same characteristics of any oppressed group. The internalised sense of hopelessness and marginalisation – expressing itself in so many familiar forms and behaviours. I was so surprised to find that even people that I considered to be well-educated, liberal and open minded, making statements about how socially deviant behaviours such as stealing, trickery (schmekeria) or begging are “genetic” in the Roma. Or similar comments referring to their “genetic” increased sexuality and consequent fears of Roma overpopulation.
Having the advantage of having not been raised in a culture that had any particular stereotypes or assumptions about the Roma – it was relatively easy for me to see past these expressions of racism and to form a close relationship with the Roma woman I had hired into the organisation. Listening to her personal experience of the racism she had endured confirmed my observation, that indeed – the patterns were very similar to those Virginia and other friends experienced and that I had seen in the US.
We may feel overwhelmed and guilty when we first become aware of the extent to which racism is affecting our whole culture. Yet reaching out across barriers, and having the courage to step outside of your own comfort zone, rather than asking those already in a minority position to step out of their already smaller and more fragile comfort zone to come into yours is an important step. Fears will certainly come up “ But how should I talk with Roma? “ “What if they tell me I should get out of their neighbourhood? “ etc. Like any fear- a fear can only control you if you let it. The minute that you face a fear and challenge it – it often dissipates – just as darkness disappears when we switch on the light.
In reality, the moment in which we manage to overcome artificially constructed barriers and create a human connection – most people will be delighted and readily reciprocate our extension of friendship, attention, respect and caring. If we do meet with suspicion, distrust or coolness then we shouldn’t be surprised and it is important to be able to continue to stay relaxed, flexible and empathetic.
We shouldn’t expect that all members of any group that has been historically oppressed for generations by our ancestors to be without some scars from this experience. But if we are committed enough to being loving – to overcoming such barriers – we won’t get confused – we can expect that and not take it personally.
I was once was in the Gara de Nord train station, when a little girl of Roma ethnicity came up to me asking for money. Such situations are usually so uncomfortable leading to either ignoring the person or giving something so they will leave – in both cases the interaction leaves the feeling of a big gap. However, this child was shining with a lovely, bouncy smile that hadn’t yet become an act.
She was only about 4 years old and reminded me of the children in the kindergarten. I came down to her eye level and said in a warm and playful way –„How old are you? „ she was suprised and looked a bit shy but I continued to stay relaxed and interested „Are you f1our?” and then she melted into a smile and said „Yes I am four years old!” „Si cum te cheama?” „Maria” she said rocking from side to side. For a few seconds, a human contact had been formed that went outside of the usual pattern and we were both delighted. However, the person next to me suddenly pulled out a candy and gave it to Maria and she skipped off. The spell was broken and the usual pattern restablished itself immediately.
Being a good ally means being ready to also listen and empathize with the frustrations our friends that experience discrimination, without taking it personally or trying to deny the problem. For example, I was in an airport with a friend of mine who is Roma and we were about to leave luggage pick up area when one of the customs guards stopped her and asked her to open her luggage. She became very reactive and angry as he looked through her bag, and implied that he was doing so only because she was Roma. While I wasn’t sure that he had picked her out because of her skin color because I had also been randomly selected for similar checks when coming back from the US, it wasn’t the moment to deny her experience. Rather, I offered empathy – „You are angry because you think he picked you out because you are Roma?” She just about exploded as all of her frustration and tensions were able to be expressed fully. I listened and rather than debating whether or not the person was indeed discriminating against her or just doing his job, I again affirmed her experience „It must be really frustrating to feel that people discriminate you for superficial reasons like your skin color”. As allies, we need to give permission to our friends to get out these tensions and feelings within the context of an understanding relationship.
Discrimination creates isolation and alienation – whereas friendship and understanding create support and break through the usual patterns. They help the person to then be able to think more clearly and freely.
So what does it mean to “get busy being loving”?
First of all – question yourself honestly – do you have any close Roma friends? Not just superficial working acquaintances – which could include coworkers or people that you meet as parents but – but real, equal, open relationships where you feel close and connected. If not – find some! Even one – it is a start, and it may even be that parent or coworker that you are in contact with but don’t know so deeply. A relationship starts to get deeper when we show genuine interest in listening to a person’s story. Invite them to tell you about their life – and in particular, invite them to share what it is like being Roma. You can even ask how you can be a good ally and support them in specific situations where you may have seen them having to tolerate racist comments from other people in the environment.
To “ get busy being loving” means to challenge all of those barriers that keep us on just the surface level – anything that gets in the way of us feeling 100% comfortable and knowing that our friend feels 100% comfortable with us. It means to have the courage to talk about it – you are not being racist because you expose the racist conditioning that you have. It doesn’t go away or look less obvious only because we are not talking about it. If a person talks about the way racism has hurt them – they are not accusing you. Rather – bringing these issues into the open helps to demonstrate that your honesty and integrity and makes you more trustworthy. It gives space in the relationship for your friend to be able to safely express what it is like trying all the time to adjust to a dominant culture and be accepted on the dominant cultures terms. Any time that we give supportive, unconditional positive listening – we are helping that person and ourselves to be able to think more clearly, more rationally. It doesn’t mean that our whole relationship is about the fact that the person is Roma or part of a minority. Naturally, you will see your friend as a human being, not as a representative of a category. That is positive! But it is important also not to try to erase differences that make us feel uncomfortable. Real friends shouldn’t have to feel that they have to act, talk and think “like us” to be able to be close. Friendship shouldn’t be on “our terms” even in unconscious ways. Allowing those differences to exist and recognising them, being curious about them in respectful, interested ways, on the other hand enrich our experience. Getting busy being loving also means to commit to being an ally to all Roma and minority people. Remaining quiet when they have to endure racist comments means we are colluding with the racism ourselves. Even if we get mis-interpreted as over reactive or if others ridicule us etc – it is more important that our Roma friends know we are not going to abandon them to face racism alone. It is better to be known as being intolerant of racism than to risk accidentally participating in it. It makes our friends feel safe with us. We also can invite them to share with us how they felt -and what we can do better in the future to support them.
Another aspect of being an ally – once you know more about what it is like on the inside for someone you are close to to feel isolated or vulnerable, you can be more confident in assuming that others probably feel similarly. Takes steps to notice when you are in a social group – whether at a meeting or in the workplace- are there any Roma or other minorities that are isolating themselves either in a smaller group or all alone? Go and socialise with them and ensure that they are included. Be proactive.
Though there may be distrust in the beginning – trust logic. If you are truly committing to being a sincere ally and friend to a Roma person – you are offering something that of course they also want. Allies are always a big source of support for any minority member. So have confidence that you are doing the right thing and make yourself trust-worthy. Try to imagine from the other’s perspective and think about how you can make yourself more safe. If we are even thinking in judgemental terms, others can feel it and it creates a barrier to safety.
As teachers this means – reaching out across barriers to Roma parents. Trust that they do love their children and want the best for them. You have the special opportunity to connect with them on something that most human beings consider as precious beyond measure – their children. Be curious, explore their hopes and dreams and connect on that. When working with children, it means ensuring that Roma children are well integrated into play and are not left isolated and alone. It means being an ally to them if other children express any type of racist remark. Do not let such remarks pass unchallenged. Children are watching not only what you do – but also what you do not do. Non-action in this case again – reinforces that the racist remark must be true.
Becoming an anti-bias teacher begins with our own personal experiences – and one of the single most powerful experiences that we can have that will help us to be good allies to minority children and parents, is to form authentic, warm, close human relationships across these barriers. Start being curious and interested in finding out more about the human beings in your world – especially those in minority situations. Once those relationships are in place – it will become easier and more intuitive to know the “right ways” to act so that we are not reinforcing but rather undoing the bondages of isms. We become more and more free, fearless and loving as a result – and thus able to transmit the same to the children that we work with.