I really hate most of the activities related to keeping my house clean. I could say its the MS – that I don’t want to spend my limited energy on these chores. But, the fact is I have always hated doing these things. My solution is that when I clean, I do mostly surface cleaning. The problem with this method is that at some point, it loses effectiveness. Dust and dirt gets into the nooks and crannies where it puts up a serious front against the simple wipe-down.
In polar opposite is my love of reading. I was born into a family that modeled and encouraged reading. Books were plentiful and trips to the library frequent. For me reading is as good as watching a movie. Actually, it is very much like watching a movie. Words on the page translate into images in my head that flow just like images on a screen. Doesn’t matter if I’m reading fiction or nonfiction; the users manual for the lawnmower or perusing recipes. It all becomes flowing images. (I was in my twenties before I discovered this is not a universal reading experience.)
As I admired this beautiful piece of art by Sarah Jones, I realized something. Too often, when the words on the page translate themselves into the movie in my head, the main character is white. It doesn’t matter if the cover art shows a Black person. It doesn’t matter if I know the author is Black and that the majority of the time, their characters are Black. Unless the setting lends itself to primarily Black characters (The Color Purple, Beloved, Kindred), the movie in my head features a white person — at least until the character is described as Black in the book. And then, there is that moment of readjusting the character in my head to match the one on the page. Sometimes, I have to do this again and again at a later point(s) in the book before the image sticks.
For example, I am in the midst of reading Octavia Butler’s “Xenogenesis” series. I remember the first time the main character in “Dawn” was described as having black skin. It took a while to get her recalibrated in my mental movie. But, eventually, it stuck. I took a month off before starting the second book in the series, “Adulthood Rites.” And sure enough, the first time Lilith’s skin tone was mentioned, I realized she had once again, become white in my mental movie. A few days later I followed the link to the artwork for “Children of Virtue and Vengeance”. And as I stared at this image of Zelie (the book’s main character) the racism inherent in the lens through which I read really came to the surface. It was that moment when the unconscious becomes completely conscious and cannot be ignored.
Angela Davis said, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” Being antiracist is ongoing work. Racism isn’t just tikki torches, white sheets, and swastikas. It isn’t just the uncle who tells racist jokes or the person who blatantly yells the n-word. We live in a society permeated with white supremacy. And while the systems that uphold white supremacy remain in place, none of us escape unscathed. As a white person in this society, I have been conditioned to see the world through the lens of whiteness. In this case, it has tainted the way written narratives unfold into mental images. It has also conditioned me to see certain scenarios and settings as “the places” for Black characters. This is why I didn’t encounter this problem with the books noted above set in slavery or Jim Crow South.
These are examples of why white people must be committed to ongoing self-reflection and self-searching. And to building the resolve necessary to sit in the discomfort of what we discover. Because not all racism is on the surface. Sometimes its buried deep. Sometimes its in the nooks and crannies.