The Plank in My Eye: Reflecting on the Racism I Learned

by Katie Douglass

As my kids get older, I have become aware of how challenging it is to be the ideal parent that I hope to be. I try to have my kids eat healthy, get to bed early, and brush their teeth daily. I also try to teach them to identify and work against the racism that is present in their world of children’s books, play dates, and preschool.

There are things I am consciously trying to pass on to them, but I know that there are also things I am unconsciously, or unintentionally passing on to them as well (Like my four year old’s perfect use of the word “idiot.”) As I try (and fail) in these areas, I have revisited some of the conversations my parents and I had. Like me, they were doing their best with what the resources they had at the time.

One conversation that stands out from my high school years exposes how easily we can pass on racism within our own families.

My parents, like all good, upstanding White parents in America in the 90s, taught me (their White daughter) that everyone should be treated the same way and that while we might look different on the outside, we are all the same on the inside. This is called being “color-blind” and in the 90s it was a step in the right direction, but leaders on anti-racism work now challenge us to see color, notice how people are treated differently because of their skin color, and then work toward equity - this is called “color consciousness.” For now, let’s head back to 1994 when I was in 9th grade.

In 9th grade, for 50 days, I dated Ben Jackson. Ben’s dad was a Juilliard-trained conductor and his mom had previously run a music school. Ben was one of two people in my graduating class who went on to an Ivy league college. He had lived in England for four years and Ben was Black. His dad was Black and his mom was White, and even today, he looks like he could be Barack Obama’s younger brother.

It is tempting to add this to my “look-at-how-not-racist-I-am” resume—and I must confess—I have played this card in the past.

The part of the story I don’t tell is the conversation that happened at home when we first started dating. My parents asked about our relationship, as they would about any high school romance. The one comment that was different, however, was, “…but Ben’s family comes from a different background...” When I pressed them as to what this meant, they told me it was hard to explain, but people who were Black came from a different cultural background which might make a dating relationship harder.

Ben was different. He was smarter, classier, and more worldly—he had lived overseas and gone to another state for science camp in junior high! Ben was wise. He was the first person to explain racism to me in an analogy that stuck. Ben explained, “It’s like a race, where the White people got to start 5 minutes early and then the Black people are expected to catch up.”

My parents loved Ben then and still admire him. It was only years later that we talked about this conversation and how their genuine concern and good intentions were a smoke screen of racism. That “white people and black people shouldn’t date” was something they had unconsciously learned and were unintentionally passing on… until we brought it to a conscious level, and intentionally chose to resist.

I have since talked to my parents about this and they have their own stories about the way their parents unintentionally passed on racism to them—including moments when they said to their parents, “That’s not right." Each generation in my family has made strides toward becoming less racist. A big part of this process has been talking about conversations and moments like these - bringing what is unconscious to a conscious level and changing our unintentional racism into intentional resistance to racism.

Our conversation ended up going something like this:

     Katie: “But you taught me to treat everyone the same.”

     Parents: “Um…yeah, we did...You know, I guess it’s okay to date Ben.”

After that conversation, Ben and I dated for 49 more days with the happy support of my parents. My parents and I did not have some big lightbulb flash moment of insight that day about racism, but we did do something very small, in our own home. We saw that there were bigger forces at work trying to separate people from one another based on skin color, and once we were conscious of it, we collectively agreed—that is not right.

In order to address racism in America I believe that those of us who are White need to shine the light on ourselves rather than looking for racism in others. I am a Christian, and in the Bible there is a verse in Matthew 7:3 that says, “Take the plank out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck in your brother's.”

It’s tempting to point out the glaring racism in someone else. This is easy. It’s obvious. Everyone sees it. What is much harder is looking within my own life and trying to dig ever deeper to actively remove the invasive weeds of racism that have burrowed so comfortably within my own life. It is really difficult to see the things that we do unconsciously or unintentionally: How can you see your blind-spots?

My effort to take the plank out of my own eye involves regularly asking myself the questions below. I have provided some of the answers to these to give you a sense of where I am growing in color consciousness and changing my actions:

  • How many of my friends (and my kids friends) are People of Color?

Most of my friends from high school, college, and graduate school are white with a few lovely People of Color sprinkled here and there. While living in Germany my husband and I were best friends with a latin couple from the US. They were a lot of fun and also spoke openly about race - which I confess, made me feel uncomfortable at first, but eventually made me feel like I was really loved and trusted since they were willing to talk about something that was so significant. Most of my friends today are still white, but the difference is that I am aware of it and am beginning to ask questions about why that is.

This past year, my oldest son’s kindergarten class had 10 Kids of Color and 12 White kids. We asked him who he wanted to invite to his birthday party and he said, “my whole class.” While I was honestly hoping he would pick just 3 or 4 kids, I was worried that he might pick only boys (which was a strange concern since he seems to get along better with the girls), or just the kids who were white. By inviting the whole class we were able to include everyone. We also try to have playdates with a variety of kids from class. This pattern has sunk in so deep that if I suggest inviting someone over for a second time our son will say, “We already invited them, let’s try someone new!” I am already aware of how he is better at inclusion that I am!

  • How do I talk about race with my kids?

We have a few children’s books that have fun names for skin color like “cinnamon,” “peach,” “chocolate,” and “ivory.” While reading I will ask them who we know who has those colors of skin and we talk about our own skin color as well. I have noticed that they are already more comfortable identifying people with their skin color, along with other features, than I am. This is one way to grow in “color consciousness” and is a step toward being able to identify racism and work toward fair opportunities for everyone.

  • What is the racial identity of the books I am reading to my kids—who are the heroes and she-roes?

We have an older hand-me-down book full of nursery rhymes and I recently noticed that almost all of the characters in the book are white, unless they are portrayed in a large group (then there are a few representative kids from other countries around the world) or they are portrayed in a servant role. I noticed this and talked to my husband about it - and he had noticed it too! We decided to stop reading that book to our kids and have chosen others. We love the racial diversity in the Magic School Bus series and, although it is teaching my kids every fart joke in the universe, we also appreciate how the story of Captain Underpants follows the friendship of one White and one Black boy.

  • What am I doing to learn the silent history (that is not in the main history books) of people of color in our country?

There is a lot being published about silent histories right now. I teach at Seattle Pacific University and two books that I use in class, which students love, are The Very Good Gospel, by Lisa Sharon Harper and Just Mercy, by Brian Stevenson. Both authors tell silent stories from US history, as well as their own lives, to show how pervasive racism in the US.

I am also trying to pay more attention to non-White cultures. I first read the comic book, then went to see the movie Black Panther, even though I am not a fan of comic books or superhero films. I am, however, a big musical theater fan, and recently saw the opera “Porgy and Bess.” I also recently read Pachinko, a fictional love story set in Korea and Japan between WWI and WWII  and I am hoping to see Crazy Rich Asians...anyone want to come babysit?

Some White people might think “these books and movies are about other people, not my people,” but I find them to be beautiful stories about humanity - we are connected - and I find myself connected to these stories as well. If I know a bit more about superhero culture, it helps me connect with my three boys, and I also enter into a deep and educational conversation about Blackness. When I learn the history of those who were living in the places where Americans have dropped bombs (in Pachinko,) it helps me understand (and grieve) another dimension of our international relationships - as well as the complicated relationship between people who are Korean and Japanese.

Watching a movie, seeing an opera, and reading a fictional love story did not feel like work at all, but were deep, heartwarming, and enjoyable. This is the easiest type of anti-racism work we can all do.

  • What books, in my field, do I read that are by People of Color?

You will have to send me an email to get the full list of theologians and educators, but I am currently reading (and quite excited about) Geneva Gay, bell hooks, and Willie James Jennings.

  • When are moments when I listen to (and believe) the stories that my Friends of Color have about racism that they have experienced?

Everyone has had the experience at some point when you were “the only one” and want someone to affirm that “that must have been hard” or ask, “what was that like” without the listener denying your experience. As a White person, I can listen to what my Friends of Color say about their experiences of race without talking about myself because I honestly don’t know what it’s like to experience racism, but I can learn by being a good listener and a faithful friend.

I also read articles and books about racism to try to understand how it works to divide people who belong together and then consider how I fit into the system the authors are explaining.

I have a few close friends of color who I sometimes ask, “I just did or said this thing…race is one of the factors involved…how do you think I could have responded better?” As a teacher, I have recently asked a colleague of color, (and I found money to pay her for her time and expertise) to give me feedback on how I can create a more inclusive learning environment.

I also have a few close White friends who are doing similar work in their own life. We help each other by sharing articles, pointing things out that might be hard to see, and encouraging one another. People keep telling me “this is a journey.” I agree, and I think it’s a hard one because of how vulnerable it makes us. But the time and space I devote to becoming conscious of my unconscious racism -- and changing my actions as a result -- pays off not just in making me less racist, but also by showing an example to my kids, who will learn from what I do more than what I say. A less racist world is something we owe to the next generation, and with time, I believe we can make it happen.