My comfort zone is a familiar, cozy, assuring, easy, soothing and calm place. When I’m outside my comfort zone I feel uneasy, distressed, anxious and worried. It’s a time of nervousness but it’s also a time of excitement, curiosity and new learning, I feel stretched. There is also a danger zone where my very life-my physical, mental and spiritual self-is threatened and at risk of being permanently harmed.
I grew up in a family of five girls and I find myself comfortable in the loving and nurturing environments created by black women. I am most comfortable when I find myself snuggled in the heart of a black community. I find life easiest among the black families who see themselves as creative, honest, hard working, spiritual beings who believe in a good education, and raise their children so that they can have a better life. In this community “push for excellence” is a common theme and the children are raised to be proud of their heritage and know their history. The people also value a strong spiritual interconnectedness.
I feel out of my comfort zone when in predominately white institutions. At times, I find myself with well-intended, good meaning white people who have no clue about individual, cultural or institutional racism. Many people operate from a colorblind mentality-“I don’t see your color.” Some believe that even acknowledging the differences of people of color or talking about race and racism is racist.
Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race by Frances E. Kendall
Privilege Revealed by Stephanie M. Wildman with Adrienne D. Davis
Silent Racism by Barbara Trepagnier
“Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum
When I am with colorblind people I find myself having to repeatedly prove my professionalism, worth and value as a human being. This is not to say that people should not be critical of my opinions and analyze them with care-but there are often underlying assumptions among white people that I should think, dress, talk, behave and act just like them. If I do not, and express different ideas and ways of knowing and doing things, it means something is wrong with me and I should be disciplined, dismissed or re-educated.
Colorblind white people don’t see this and in fact would deny it even happens because they have been taught everybody is the same-“same” being white as the norm. Therefore, if I act like white people I too can be normal-so long as they approve. But no matter how much I try to fit in I am never fully accepted. At the end of the day I am still black and all the macro- and micro-privileges that have been reserved for whites only are still reserved for whites only through institutionalized systemic racism. And all the micro- and macro-aggressions that people of color experience-I still experience.
I am outside of my comfort zone when I am around people who “do” understand institutional racism and use their knowledge to distort, deny, confuse and manage diversity in order to maintain white supremacy. Their coded language advocates for privatization and the “war” on poverty (poor people), Affirmative Action (people of color), and labor unions (working-class people). Often their hatred, prejudices and discrimination are codified in law-such as the laws that give “crack users” longer sentences then “cocaine users”-laws that can take years and thousands of dollars to overturn. People who operate from this knowledge base are ruthless and will destroy anyone who does not agree with their ideology. Negotiating life in this arena takes me out of my comfort zone and into the danger zone.
I think many white people intrinsically know they are racist although they may not admit it and don’t fully understand how, when or why they became racist. In fact, many white people don’t know how “not” to be racist-and why would they? How often and where is white identity taught in ways that allow white people to fully, critically and accurately examine the historical, cultural, economic and spiritual impact of white supremacy on white people?
People have asked what do you do to create welcoming environments when people hate each other? Here’s what I do to maintain my sanity and create welcoming environments. I realize change starts with me-not someone else. I continue to grow my spiritual self. I seek transformation in my understanding about interconnectedness so my actions, who I “be” and what I “do” demonstrates my understanding of being connected to and sharing an interdependence with every other person and living being on the planet. I recognize my oneness with the planet and the universe. I practice loving unconditionally. I remain in continuous prayer. I have a bias for action.
Debra Leigh is the lead organizer for the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative at St. Cloud State University. www.stcloudstate.edu/care/