Last summer, during an equally hot stretch, I visited my son and daughter-in-law in Philadelphia. Because of triple-digit temperatures, we had to modify our plans. A hike became a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Another hike became a day at the Jersey shore. On the third day, we were determined to hike, as I was in training for my upcoming trip to the Canadian Rockies.
During our drive to Hawk Mountain a few hours north of the city, Andrew talked about the professional development session on race he was getting ready to lead with the teachers he coaches. Most of the teachers are white; virtually all of their students are kids of color.
He planned to start by asking them to write their racial autobiography, a reflection on personal experiences, memories, and learnings about race. “If I’m going to ask teachers to write theirs, I realized I needed to write my own,” he said.
Intrigued by the idea, I asked him to send me the template he was using. That fall and into winter and the pandemic, I began working on my racial autobiography.
Then George Floyd was murdered.
Suddenly race and racism competed with Covid-19 as the hot topic. In editorials and essays, letters and stories, there was a collective call for white people to look at our attitudes and name the privilege we’ve not just enjoyed but taken for granted, beginning with the color of our skin.
I urge you to write your own racial autobiography. A few things I’ve learned along the way may help:
• Keep it personal. You’re writing this not for an audience or publication. You’re writing it to document your life experiences that have shaped your attitudes about race.
• Take your time. There is no deadline or end point to writing your racial autobiography. In fact, it’s a fluid document that will evolve as your understanding does. The idea is not to get it done as much as it is to get it right, as in accurate. I recently reread a section in my racial autobiography about my childhood and realized I’d left out a significant memory. In the summer after church, my family would drive down to Maxwell Street on the south side of Chicago. On weekends the street became a kind of flea market, and we were often the only white people, the vendors predominantly Black people. We could have just as easily gone to the lakefront or a park. If only my parents were around to ask them why they chose Maxwell Street.
• Be honest. Writing your racial autobiography isn’t an exercise to fill up time—something Covid has given us plenty of. It’s an opportunity to reflect deeply, perhaps for the first time, on how racism plays out in our daily lives. My mother gave me a Black baby doll when I was five years old. I loved that doll more than my favorite stuffed animals. The doll slept in the crook of my arm every night. Looking back, I realized that my love for her was shadowed by sympathy because she was different. Even then, I sensed that difference meant disadvantage, laying the groundwork for whiteness being the norm, the standard for how I saw the world.
• Share what you discover. I know I said a racial autobiography is a personal exploration. But if you feel safe with a person or group, tell them what you learned along the way, the questions that you’re wrestling with. The conversations that follow can only help build our capacity for greater understanding—and less racism.
Four months into the pandemic, house projects are mostly done. Netflix will always be there. We’ve made enough cookies and breads to tip the scale. Gardens have no weeds, or are only weeds. No matter. What better time than now for white people—all of us—to reflect on how we came to this moment in our nation’s history, to see ourselves in racial terms (our whiteness, in other words), and to reckon with our past.
As Robin Diangelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, writes, we need to “practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity.”
Stamina, like training for a hiking trip, is not just helpful but necessary, because the path ahead is long and steep.