I’m always looking for interesting new formats and approaches to the blog, partially as a way to challenge myself as an author and partially to keep my readers interested. This week I thought it would be fun to publish a piece by a friend and ally, and throughout the piece, I would pose the questions and thoughts that came up for me as I read it the first time. Below you will find Josh Friedberg’s piece and my reflections in text boxes. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the piece in the comments section below!
Josh Friedberg is an emerging essayist, music historian, and singer-songwriter. A recent graduate of Earlham College, he looks forward to attending graduate school and publishing an essay on racism in narratives of rock music history. You can check out Josh’s blog by visiting Stuff Joshua D. Friedberg Does.
It’s funny how much things can change in a few years. I don’t know if a person can go from being racist to not being racist anymore, but I hope I have. God knows what I used to believe about black people, about affirmative action, about what some call “ebonics”–my beliefs were racist as hell. And I have, I hope, sufficiently questioned those beliefs to uproot them permanently. I just hope I never go back to believing what I used to believe, in bitterness over anything. I really hope I’ve changed for good, for real, forever.
But I must confront my past. I must acknowledge where I come from. I’ve learned a lot about Black history in the last few years. I’ve learned to quash a lot of anxiety I used to have seeing Black people on the street; I’m much more comfortable now with myself and others, too. But I shouldn’t forget how far I’ve come and where I started.
I remember when I was younger, when I thought I understood what W. E. B. Du Bois meant when he wrote what he called the unasked question — “How does it feel to be a problem?” — because I am Socially Disabled and Gay. My thinking I understood most definitely denied that Black Gay and Disabled people exist, people who don’t have the privilege of making racialized analogies because they already suffer from racial oppression. Wow, thank God I stumbled upon Allan Bérubé’s “How Gay Stays White, and What Kind of White It Stays” as a freshman in college, hopefully permanently altering my understanding of how privilege and oppression can coincide and overlap.
I remember posing a racist question, asking a black female professor essentially to explain racism to me in front of a few dozen people at an event showing a documentary about race. Wow, thank God I learned to read and learn about racism on my own.
I remember the summer of 2007, when after my first year at college, I took a course on opinion writing as a visiting student at a university near my hometown. I remember writing a piece railing against affirmative action for reasons that were racist. Knowing very few Black students at Earlham College, a private liberal arts institution I attended, I thought Black students who spoke in ebonics weren’t qualified to attend “my school” because their way of speaking meant that “they” uniformly didn’t care about education. Wow, thank God I learned about White privilege and came to see a lot more White students who actually didn’t care about education and a lot more Black students who cared about education in ways that I never had.
And this writing seminar was just weeks before I started my second year at college by taking three African & African American Studies classes. I give myself credit for being willing to learn about cultures and histories that were not my own, but I did not anticipate how fundamentally my experiences in these classes would change my beliefs.
I learned a lot about White privilege. In addition to learning a lot about Black history, I learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of questioning as a thinker. The main thing that knocked me on my ass was how a number of the Black students who I would have previously dismissed as “unqualified” cared more about their education than I cared about my own, making me realize that I was the one who had taken education for granted. I had attended a tremendously beneficial series of private schools over my lifetime where I’d received the kind of help and personal attention that I needed, but not that not everyone–with or without the social disability and other problems I had–could afford. I was extremely lucky, and I don’t ever want to forget that.
Flash forward a couple of years. I remember August of 2009, attending my friend Jamie Utt’s presentation “The Wall,” in which he spoke about confronting his own racism and sexism. I remember crying because I felt I had done everything he encourages people to do to confront their prejudice and bigotry, and I felt I had not changed inside, that I was still guilty of perpetuating a lot of practices that encourage racism, instead of encouraging much that was good.
I remember realizing once again that I didn’t love me and that I felt broken.
I remember May of 2010, by which point I had written a number of social justice-related opinion pieces for my school paper, including one based off of that Allan Bérubé piece that got posted on a national blog on race, Stuff White People Do. I remember not having much time to prepare for the graduation ceremony where I was going to walk, given that I was taking 18 credits that semester, the maximum course load my college allowed. And I remember stepping on that stage once my name was called and my jaw dropping when I saw all of these people from my class giving me a standing ovation. I didn’t expect that to happen in a million years, especially after the first 18 years of my life, when I had no real friends my age and remember people specifically cheering for others when they wouldn’t cheer for me at events, and calling me things like “faggot,” “retard,” and so forth.
That day taught me that, really, I make a difference, and I had made a difference for a lot of people at my college, including in confronting my own racism. I remember a Black student who thanked me for my appreciation of him and his gifts, especially how much I respect how he appreciates education. I remember people coming up to me saying things like, “You’ve made a big impact here,” “I love you,” and “I just want you to know how much everyone appreciates you.”
I don’t ever want to forget how far I’ve come and how far my life has come, though, like anyone, I still have a ways to go before I reach anything close to where I want to be. I hope I can be an example for others to confront their own fear, prejudice, bigotry, and hate.
And now the SNCC Freedom Singers’ version of “We Shall Overcome,” recorded in the 1960s, is playing in my headphones, and I truly hope that, in an admittedly different context, I have overcome the obstacles in my life.
We all can overcome our hurt, our pasts, and other apparent obstacles to personal fulfillment, and become better, more whole people as a result. I have confronted past hurt, past shame, and past guilt to move forward. Whatever your fears and prejudices are, I know you can, too, and one day you will say something like, “Wow, I’m so glad I took action to confront my own pain and the pain I perpetuated against others.”
And that’s something to be proud of.