Robin DiAngelo, a well-known white speaker on antiracism, coined the phrase white fragility to describe the role we whites unconsciously play in systemic racism. During her workshops, she poses the question, “How has racism shaped your lives?’’ The answer for me was that it put me in the position of being the dominant race in my community giving me the privilege of being in the in-crowd with all the privileges that that entails. That puts people from other races automatically in the other category. Coming from a position of poverty where I shared a different kind of other with people from various backgrounds still meant that I was somehow in the border categories of same and that I might be on the edge but definitely not in the center of other. This meant that people in my community had compassion and tried to help me fit in and be successful by white standards. They were cheering for me. If I failed, they were always willing to give me another chance. I didn’t think about the other group. I just expected them to get with it and act white like me and there would be no problem. We could be colleagues and friends.
Within this cultural shelter, I never really understood what it meant to be other. I still don’t. Compassion does not come easily in our feelings for others. In fact, we usually do not feel the same level of caring when bad happens to them, believing that they somehow probably brought it upon themselves. Furthermore, we don’t put in the effort to understand why they think and behave the way they do, and finally, we believe there is really nothing we can do to help them unless they change the way they think and act.
It’s time to stop and try to put ourselves in their shoes. This poem is an attempt to understand systemic racism and what it might feel like to face the full impact of being other.
Black boots, I see black boots;
pairs of black boots surround me,
black boots, hard black boots,
white feet disguised in black boots,
black boots that kick,
black boots that can kill.
I fall down on my face
to escape the white feet in the black boots.
I seek the safety of the hot black pavement.
I seek the shelter of being here before.
I know the game; I know the score.
But this time it is different.
I see white faces, hot with hate.
One comes at me. He aims to hurt.
I know he aims to hurt.
I feel the black boot on my black neck.
I sense the angry white foot in the black boot,
pressing on my black neck.
I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
Oh mama, I can’t breathe.
One white man chatters
with another white man.
They smile; they laugh.
I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe;
Oh mama I can’t breathe.
The air leaves my body
Images flood my brain.
oh how I long for those open spaces.
I seek the shelter of the open spaces,
where the world is young again,
where the lion lies down with the lamb,
where you can open your lungs and breathe
the clean pure air never touched
by white men in shiny black boots.
And I am here; suddenly I am here.
There is no longer any need to disguise
my black feet in white canvas shoes.
I kick them off; I run free.
My bare black feet glide
through the green meadows.
I chase the white fluffy clouds.
They descend; they engulf me
with pure warm wet joy.
There is no pain.
There is no anger, no hate.
White boys with bare white feet
kick off their colored canvas shoes.
They run with me and we chatter
and laugh for joy.
White faces and black faces
run free, laugh, and play.
I am airborne
flying high, laughing, crying
in the shelter of the open skies,
so free, so free.
I am free at last.
I am free at last;
I am free at last.