A frustrated student, a question suffused with anguish: “What are you trying to do to me, anyway?” – My head and heart were engaged one more time with a young white male struggling with his growing awareness of racism. Our conversation was tense, at times confrontive, ultimately rich.
My young friend was becoming aware of racism at several levels, and the one which troubled him was a new awareness that he was not immune, that racist notions and feelings had found their way into his thoughts, his feelings. The information presented in our class, through readings, lectures, discussions with other students, had backed him into a corner where he had to face himself. He was not happy with what he saw, wanting to explore more, scared to do so, and his frustration burst out at me, the messenger whom he felt as accuser. “What are you trying to do to me?”
My immediate response was, “I’m trying to get you to get off your seat to become an active anti-racist!” I hope that in the context of our relationship, I didn’t sound as cold and unforgiving as that sentence now hangs on the page! “Do something; don’t just wallow in your new awareness. If you feel deeply, now is the time to do something with that feeling … move … act your way to new status.”
As I think back to that encounter I have to look deeply into my own being, searching for why I responded to that student as I did. It doesn’t take me long. Almost daily I encounter people who are aware, but when I suggest actions in which they might become involved, they decline. I am grateful for awareness, but disillusioned by stubborn resistance to action. I can identify a number of reasons, rooted in the nature of racism, explaining why it is so hard for many whites to become active anti-racists, but I also know that to become active demands sometimes a simple resolution to do it. Thus the “aware no-doers” frustrate my strongest hope.
Not often enough does awareness lead to action! If all the people who have become more aware would become more active, we could make some real changes happen. If all the people who tell me of their increased awareness would join in the many actions to combat racism, we could make a difference. If all the people engaged in awareness training would do something with their awareness, we could make some things in our society turn around. Awareness training without action is Vanity Fair. Introspection becomes a reflection in a mirror which reveals an inner self, but too frequently ends up with images looking at each other, nothing more. “Look at us; see how aware we are!” Awareness is a new suit, pleasing to see. “Don’t we look good? … My, we are fine … We are clothed in a new awareness… We look good, must be good!”
Comes the call to actively oppose racism. The response is, too often, a deafening silence. In different places, for different people, the opportunities for becoming active differ. I must never allow myself the judgment that assumes that others are not active just because I don’t see their actions.
Still, my experience points to the difficulty of moving from awareness to action for many, many people.
At Community Change, the call for active involvement means: join us in working with the English Plus Coalition to resist English Only racism … join us in monitoring government wrong-doing in the harassment of black officials… join us in supportive efforts around the concerns of native peoples … join in creative ways to counter attacks on policies of affirmative action … join us in building multi-racial coalitions to build a new future … join us in action .. join us. From the call to action I look up and there are many of the aware ones, still proudly preening their insight. Awareness become a study in introspection, without movement beyond. That kind of awareness happens much too often. Awareness without action is moribund, fruitless.
So, there is my frustration laid bare! Rooted in an insatiable hope to see some changes in my receding lifetime, I cannot bear any training, any meeting, any gathering that does not have an action focus. I am impatient with mere awareness; unless it is going to do something, all the awareness in the world will not help. People need to expand awareness constantly, but they also need to move, to do something.
As I said to my young friend, “I want to see you get off whatever you are sitting on so comfortably, and become active!”