Let’s Face Our White Fear

Former HFP parent and board member, Dana Buhl, posted this piece on Facebook. I sought her permission to share it on HFP’s blog. Dana is currently the Director of Social Justice at First Unitarian Church of Portland. 

I want to talk about white fear.

What I have to say is imperfect and incomplete, but I must get it out. These are not “my” original ideas. I can’t possibly take credit for writing about what has been witnessed, resisted, confronted, written about by countless Black and Indigenous people over the centuries. But I do take responsibility for unburying the truth that lives within my body. I ask my white family, friends, colleagues, peers, neighbors, fellow congregants to consider what I share.

Deep in the white american psyche is fear. Fear that was planted long before our birth. Fear that has been passed down generation to generation and reinforced in almost every corner of our lives whether or not we are aware of it. Fear that is cultivated, groomed, nurtured and that reaches back across oceans and centuries. Fear that has always been manipulated for the purpose of conquest, profit and control.

It is fear of blackness, specifically, of black people.

It is fear based on the lie that human beings can be ranked, assessed, understood, judged simply based on the color of their skin, the curliness of their hair, the shape of their eyes or noses or lips or any physical feature. And it is a fear that deeply distorts the guilt and remorse of white people’s participation in the kidnapping, rape, torture, poisoning, murder and terror of black people.

White fear has been manipulated and weaponized for centuries. Read Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi for a granular history of how this was done. In recent U.S. history, this fear has served as the basis of Stand Your Ground Laws used to justify murder and the core of the 1994 Crime Bill that continues to incarcerate millions. It is the fear that is manipulated to justify the arrest and prosecution of the 5 children in New York known as the Central Park Five (watch When they See Us) and the murder of Emmet Till and… Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray and Michael Brown and Philandro Castille and Matthew Burroughs and Andre Gladen and Keton Otis, and Aaron Campbell and Ahmaud Arbery and Quanice Hayes and Sean Reed and George Floyd and …

It is the cultivation and manipulation of that fear that gave Amy Cooper the reflexive knowledge that she could call 911 on the black man who asked her to put her dog on a leash. (Watch the video) Thank God no harm came to Christian Cooper, the African American man who took a video of her call to 911.

As long as I am in the grips of this unexamined fear, it takes hold of my actions and inactions and keeps me from doing what I know is morally, ethically and spiritually right. My white siblings, it is long passed time to examine our fear, be honest with ourselves and be courageous to decisively act.

It is the manipulation of white fear of black people that makes us more concerned about property damage than outraged at the state sanctioned killing of black people by police. It is the manipulation of fear that keeps pouring more and more and more money into militarizing our communities with rampant gun purchases and open carry laws and police forces armed to the teeth. It is the manipulation of white fear this is literally suffocating black people.

Manipulation of white fear is also the seed of “white fragility” (read Robin DiAngelo’s book by the same name.) Cultivated white fear keeps us so afraid of being called racist for the harm we cause — which we then weaponize by calling black people “angry,” “dangerous,” “thug,” — that we don’t take decisive steps to confront the systems that are quite literally killing Black people. The weapons we wield in our fear range from 911 calls of “suspicious” or “threatening” Black people to complaints at our workplaces that our Black colleagues are “too angry.” We wield our phones, our knees, our guns, our policies, our conversations, our silence, our laws and more to choke the life out of our black siblings.

I’m not asking us to “face our fear” of black people, as that continues to prove deadly. I’m asking us to look and feel ourselves. To be honest. To notice when our own impulses are exactly what Amy Cooper dramatized.

I’m asking us, as Resmaa Menakem does in My Grandmother’s Hands, to learn about the history of white supremacy in this land and put our own white bodies into the shoes of the people who owned, traded, lynched, beat, raped and stood by to watch the terrorizing of black and indigenous people. I want us to know that we would not be where we are today if our ancestors hadn’t participated in every aspect of this horror. I want us to listen to the ways that fear has been passed down to us and what messages we hold about black people and about what it means to confront the racist terrorism we continue to perpetuate and witness. What of our humanity have we sacrificed for a groomed and nourished fear based on lies? We keep admiring the “resilience” of black people in the face of 400 years of white american terror. How about if we get more resilient ourselves and free ourselves from the “bleaching of our souls” (credit Ruby Sales) through centuries of white supremacy?

I’m asking us to be vulnerable in admitting when we are acting out of that fear and learn how to regulate ourselves. To not just apologize when we hurt a black, indigenous or person of color with our racism, but to do better — to stop, to breathe, to notice and again to STOP!

I’m asking us to stop expecting black people to express themselves and their own grief, anger, disappointment in ways that allow us to maintain a distance and avoid confronting and regulating ourselves. I’m asking us to look at our own traumas — most likely passed down through our white families and ancestors or other white people in our lives — and do the hard work of healing so that our unexamined fears are not restimulated and weaponized. Through this healing, we can expand our own capacities for presence and be more equipped to regulate ourselves. And while we do that important work of healing, I am asking us to embrace our white families, friends, neighbors, colleagues with love, with listening and with a firm expectation for them to do the same.

It is heartening so see many more white people willing to look at the depth of internalized white body supremacy and, at minimum, show up in solidarity to say that we do not sanction the murder of black bodies. We do not sanction the use of the unjust laws that have protected police officers who murder people based on “objective reasonable fear” for their life. “Objective reasonable fear” as used to relieve police officers — and vigilantes — of culpability is a construct of white supremacy. (I note, there is no such thing as objective fear.)

However, I suspect that after our current eruption of justified protest nationwide, we white folks will slip back into complacency and expectation that things return to “the way they were.” In particular, I ask us, white progressives, how different is our desire for things to “return to normal” once the Covid-19 crisis is abated, or after the mass disruptions of nationwide protest, from the impulses the fuel the movement of MAGA (make america great again)? We are not different, and certainly not better.

Can I admit that I, too, am Amy Cooper? Can I put myself in her shoes from the moment she took her dog off the leash (I do this all the time), to the moment when she was asked by a black man to follow the rules? Can I notice what my impulses would be? What is the work that I need to do to respond differently so that I don’t even get to the impulse to look for “protection”?

James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.” Let us face ourselves with courage, with vulnerability, with honesty and with love. The lives of our Black siblings depend on it.

Day 51 of Quarantine: Glamping in the Living Room

Nichole Aldaheff, HFP Parent

Staying home with a young child has proven challenging during this time of quarantine but the warmer, dry weather has provided us with much more opportunity to stay busy. Not on Day 51. The sky was dark grey and solidly pouring with no end in sight. At this point, it was hard to think of anything new to do, especially inside for the next ten hours.

As I cooked breakfast, I watched T and her dad bring out a sleeping bag and pad and put them on the living room floor. Camping? I wondered if our summer plans would actually happen. I remembered when I bought my first tent as a teenager and set it up in my parents living room. I slept in it for days.

 

After a two minute ponder, we moved the furniture and the tent went up. I instructed that it would just be up for the day as it was taking up most of the living room. More mattresses and blankets came out and filled the tent. We colored, read books, played games, watched a movie, and ate popcorn within the walls. That night, T and I slept in it. The following day, she and her dad slept in it. We went back to our regular beds, but after a few days, we were back to sleeping in the tent.  It is day 7 and the tent is still in the living room.

When we look back on our quarantine experience, there will likely be many memories and feelings that pop up. Our week of “glamping” will surely be a highlight!

Remembering What Is Lost: A Parent Recognizes the Impact Physical Distancing Has On Her Child

Hillary Montouri, HFP alumni parent

I have recently had this feeling, that people I love are moving on without me. While there is absolutely a tally of parties and dates missed running in my mind, helpful or not, this feeling is larger and more abstract in nature; it is a sense of shared moments lost and connectivity breaking down.

Of course, I understand how physical distancing has created this feeling in me, and I imagine, in others. Although this feeling has some unique qualities, I feel lucky to be able to draw on coping strategies I developed in other times of isolation and social reorganization. I know how to lean in closer to my deep friendship. My brain and my heart remember that with hibernation comes spring and that spring is so beloved not in spite of, but because it is change at its most rich and tangible.

And then I remember that my children don’t have this wisdom of experience. We are the sleepy mama bears leading our cubs into those dens on their first full winter. They don’t remember spring, they just know to follow us.

Today I was playfully asking my 6 year old what he likes to do most with my mother, his grandmother. I suggested we write down his thoughts and create some watercolor art for her. Standing on the firm ground of adult memory, I assumed that my child would name one or two of the thousand things my mom has done with him over the last 6 years. Before we decided to stay physically distant from her 6 weeks ago, she would visit and play with my children twice a week.

My question literally brought my sweet child to his knees. He agonized over this question for a couple of minutes and then assumed a fetal position. He wouldn’t do the project, he couldn’t. I sat confused for longer than I wanted until it finally hit; he didn’t remember. My simple question unveiled a painful truth; he could not recall any specific enjoyable activity with one of the people he holds the closest. His relationship with his grandmother at this point in his life is ruled by physical contact and the reliability of her presence. Both important elements of their relationship have been indefinitely postponed. This archiving of his time spent with his grandmother is a great loss, of course. He doesn’t know when or even how their relationship will again have the effervescent, intimate quality that comes with being together in the same space.

After exploring his feelings and then validating his loss, there was little left for me to do. A facetime call or a long letter would be my coping strategy, but those stand-ins for togetherness are only powerful for me because I know spring and I know my own strength. That facetime call works because I know: many of my relationships will survive and some will not, I can lose someone I love without losing myself, and one day (perhaps in the distant future) I will likely hug my mom again.

To his credit, my little love, full of angst and fear, decided he did remember his grandmother’s favorite color and that she loves flowers. And so, we painted and painted. We remembered her favorite colors and we noted how she might like the wild designs of our flowers. We remembered her in the best way we could. We started to paint spring.

You’re Doing Just Fine- A Letter to Parents During the Pandemic

By Joanna Taffe, HFP Parent

Dear pandemic-surviving parents, 

On the best day, parenting is hard. Your preschooler takes a nap-day. You build an epic block tower that keeps the kids busy for hours- day. There has been minimum screen time day and the baby isn’t crying all day- day. 

The kind of days that seem to happen less often than the harder ones; but when they do, you are so proud of your parenting, but still exhausted… and it’s still hard.  Now throw in a pandemic, social distancing, and a kid or two… and hard doesn’t cover it. It’s almost not possible to feel like a champion parent. 

But I’m here to tell you (and myself) you are doing just fine. You are doing your best. You are loving your child and you are keeping you child(ren) safe and also teaching the social responsibility that comes with being a human… or should. 

I write this after a night waking up every twenty minutes to feed my newborn, while my 4 year- old is screaming that he is bored for the 1000th time today.  My head is pounding and the T.V. is about to go on for the fifth time. Along with that, I have guilt for not constantly stimulating my son’s growing brain and body. 

But I am trying to focus on the space between. The space between the guilt of things or the thought that I could be doing better: The flower petal “fight” we had earlier, the discussion on how mummification scared him, the shaving cream painting…

Not how I broke down in tears when he had his fourth meltdown and started saying he didn’t love me, or when I lost my temper and yelled (only to be responded to with laughter). I focus on the hug we shared after or putting his baby sister down for one minute for once, and holding him or playing trains for the 100th time, and watching him talk to the baby. 

I know this will end. Things will go back to normal- or maybe a new normal… I hope a new normal. And I will be able to take my preschooler to school, to hand him off to grandma for a couple hours, to do outings that make the day fly by and have play dates…. Oh play dates how I miss you.

But for now, I’m focusing on the good. I’m trying my hardest each day, as I’m sure you are. And honestly, you’re doing just fine. Hang in there! ❤️

Ode to Community

By Annah Yevelenko, HFP Parent

From the moment I discovered Hawthorne Family Playschool’s website, I felt a connection that I had hoped to find for my daughter’s path. And then we went to the open house a week later, where I was warmly greeted by everyone, my questions thoroughly answered, L’s excitement for all the activities peaked, my heart fluttering at the thought of my kid being given an opportunity to join this community.

Needless to say, I applied immediately and blew kisses to the universe in hopes of receiving a favorable answer. And as it goes – ask and you shall receive. We hopped on the bandwagon and haven’t looked back.

While reading over all of the receiving information, I won’t lie and say I didn’t shed a tear for how thoughtful and inclusive everything was. How forward thinking and organized everything was–with a focus on equity. How stoked I was that my child would be entering this school that embraced anti-bias education.

We were incredibly lucky to have her first day be a forest adventure, where she and I would meet the class, students and parents alike. Another warm experience. She was elated on our drive home. I couldn’t stop smiling. 

The following week she entered the classroom, where I stayed with her, to support her transition into this new role in her life. She couldn’t get enough of all the activities HFP had to offer, she was a little butterfly, fluttering around from station to station, marveling at everything with wide, unblinking eyes. And though she would have to learn the songs, and the routines, and the classroom agreements it was apparent that she belonged. 

The next two months were wonderful. L couldn’t wait to get back to class, and wouldn’t stop talking about the next time she’d be back the rest of the time. Every Tuesday and Thursday, post school, her mood was epic, to say the least. Her energy and excitement were unparalleled. Whereas she would normally protest going to her day care, her pull towards HFP was magnetic. “I love Teacher Susan” became a staple heard phrase in our home. She even started teaching her brothers to “breathe” like her yoga teacher Leslie taught her, which was another bonus we didn’t account for. 

And then the world changed. 

I was out of town on a job, and came back to homeschooling three kids, all in different schools, different ages, different needs. My husband would still be working. How was I going to do this with a toddler– while my tweens needed me to be there for their scholastic demands? How and what am I supposed to do with a toddler that has now tasted such an enriching program? Now that I would be with her at  home?

And then HFP swept in to save the day.

Our Zoom class meets, the blog posts, the story times, the group texts, the new one-on-one meets with Kimberley, the parent support meets, the personal texts in times of need, the IG stories with little walking assignments. All of it is a godsend. Truly. I keep talking to my friends around the globe, especially ones with young children, and their stories all end the same way: our preschool shut down and that’s the end of it. Zero support. Zero care. Zero understanding or compassion for parents going through these changes alone. So I send them to the HFP website and Instagram, and share all the resources we have been blessed with. 

Through a couple of the board meetings, I’ve been very lucky to sit in on the inner-workings of this operation. I’ve seen, first hand, how much everyone in this community cares for these kids as a whole, for this mission to continue, for the resources to continue to flow.  

As one of the newest members of this community, I am absolutely grateful for every morsel of support that HFP has provided our family. We look forward to every Zoom meet and story time. We sing Teacher Susan’s wacky rainbow song on every walk. We use HFP prompts for conversations during dinners. We have a better understanding of the play structure that we try to simulate at home. We now have allies, and don’t ever feel alone through this otherwise excruciatingly lonely period. We are hopeful and thoroughly excited to return with a newfound zest for all that HFP has to offer.