A Journey Beyond What I Have Been Taught: The Uncomfortable Truth of Unlearning and Learning

by Christie Shumate McElwee

As our world marches in the streets, I am sitting with the pain. Not my pain. Another’s pain. I am reading, thinking, and crying. I have no grand plans. I don’t know the answers. But maybe that IS the plan: for those of us who have no idea of the real pain to sit with the the pain of others. 

I sit with my squirmy white cognitive dissonance and begin to unlearn the narratives that have been fed to me since my youth. Those myths of good schools (white and rich), good neighborhoods (white), bad schools (mostly black), bad neighborhoods (black and poor), and the powerful danger in words and phrases like “articulate and well-spoken” and “thugs” and “black on black crime” and “playing the race card.” 

I was raised in a white neighborhood in the sixties and seventies. When the schools were integrated, I sat next to black boys and girls, but we rarely played together on the playground. Yes, I may have had pictures of The Jackson Five on my locker door, and the black girls thought that was cool, yet we never really became friends. There was always an invisible yet tangible wall between our worlds.

I was in third grade in the spring of 1968. We had one black girl in my class, and after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, she stayed home for a week. We all noticed her absence, but our teacher never talked to us about why she wasn’t there. Now, fifty-two years later, I think of that little girl and her family. I wish my nine-year old self could have at least sent her a card or held her hand or at very least sat with her pain during those terrible weeks. 

I sent my two boys to public schools in our hometown. Even though they had great teachers and had wonderful opportunities, at times, I often questioned my parenting choices. Should we have moved to a better (whiter?) district? Yet both of my boys have thanked me for sending them to these schools. They have told me they possess a wider and more expansive view of the world because of it.

I worked in predominately white upper class districts during most of my teaching career. I have no concept of the struggles that surround urban schools. In fact, I was often smugly grateful I didn’t have to deal with the unique and challenging issues those communities face. I patted myself on my privileged back for choosing a different (safer and easier) path.

I’ve always considered myself an open-minded liberal. I read black authors! I support the ACLU! I’ve voted Democrat since 1980! I taught books on the history of race in our country such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn! I’m aghast at Trump, Fox News, and what I consider narrow minded thinking. Yet…I have kept my mouth shut when someone has said a racial joke or made a racial slur or used racially charged language. I’ve played it safe with my writing, not wanting to anger or offend my conservative friends and family. I’ve remained silent when family members ranted about how those damn football players shouldn’t kneel during the national anthem, thinking I didn’t want to “rock the boat” or “I’ll never change their minds so what’s the point?”

The upheaval of the past two weeks have forced me to rethink and relearn. I’m listening. I’m reading. I’m pondering difficult questions. I’m examining the troubled and bloody history of this country: the theft of land, the bondage of others, the annihilation of cultures not like “ours,” the lynching of black bodies, the red-lining, the white flight, the “war on drugs,” the prison pipeline.

When I did an ancestry search last year, I discovered family members who owned slaves in Virginia, Kentucky, and the Caribbean. This is my history. This is my reckoning.

My oldest son is a police officer, and we have had deep, difficult conversations about how he is grappling with the role police play in our communities. He is also questioning and reading and pondering the violent, racist history of police in this country. I am proud of his journey.

My youngest son’s significant other is a black woman. He is planning a future with her. They’ve attended a demonstration in downtown Dallas in 100 degree heat amid throngs of masked protesters. I am proud of his journey.

Me? I’m a 61 year old privileged white woman whose journey has just begun. The path will be fraught with mistakes, that I know, but I am willing to take the risks. As a writer and former English teacher, I know the power of editing and rewriting, taking that red pen and crossing words out, rephrasing awkward sentences, and deleting entire sections. This is now my journey, looking carefully at what I’ve learned and done in the past and do the formidable work of becoming a better ally, to listen and read and understand. And often that means I will make mistakes, scribble ineligible liner notes, change the syntax, and even start over. I am willing to take this journey. 

Are you?

Here are a few books I have read and Instagram accounts I just started to follow that are shaking up my safe, white world:

Books:

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Between the World and Me by Ta-Hehisi Coates

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Lies My History Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen 

Instagram Accounts:

Ibram X. Kendi @ibramxk

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle @rachel.cargle

Layla F. Saad @laylafsaad

Showing Up for Racial Justice @ showingupforracialjustice

Audre Lorde Project @audrelordeproject

Books I have ordered but are out of stock at the moment:

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

White Fragility by Robin Diangelo

image from poets.org