Seisen Saunders

There was almost no education about racism in my early education. I lived in a segregated environment in Billings Montana. There were no African Americans in Billings. The Crow people who were the original inhabitants of the land were segregated on nearby reservations (as they still are to a large degree). However, one teacher talked about slavery when I was in primary school. She put one of the children on a chair, pretended to sell her and asked us to look at how a slave market made us feel. That teaching was the moment that I first experienced a tiny piece of the horror and cruelty of racism. Maybe she spent a half hour giving us a direct experience of what it would be like to be chattel.  The rest of my Billings education was around “the civil war was about states’ rights”, “in many ways the Africans fared better as slaves”, etc. That one moment of truth shaped my understanding.

Later, teenager me, I stumbled across James Baldwin at the local bookstore. His words were transforming for me in how I thought about race.  In college, I participated in the “Third World Strike” at UC Berkeley starting in 1967. The Third World Liberation Front’s main goal was to establish “ethic studies” at Berkeley and San Francisco State. Amazing to think today that at that time there was almost no education about racism.

Just by chance, really, I worked in a factory canning peaches in Oakland where I was the only white worker (the supervisors were white) and I shared a lab with the Berkeley Black Student Union. Also, I have had several African Americans as close friends. So I have considered myself to have a lot of credentials as “not a racist”.

Basically, my understanding was along the lines of “we are all the same–just different amounts of melanin”

It was watching the movie “Dear White People” that I had a tiny woke moment. Waking up to the incredibly complex and subtle ways that I carry my privilege. All of the ways that I say and do things with the people of color in my life that are hurtful and ignorant. And how I do not stand up and fight for racial justice.

Now my personal anti-racism practice consists of (at least) three aspects.

Education. I am aware that the half hour a teacher spent showing white children the horror of slavery, may have informed my whole life. I vow to educate myself about the Black experience. I vow to grok the physical, spiritual and economic injustices towards people of color. Here is a very short video that explains how the economic disparity happened.
Personal mindfulness. Noticing when I have a racist thought or am insensitive to the inequalities that have created harm. Abandoning the practice of “only think of positive things”, and allowing myself to experience the feelings of awkwardness, guilt and shame by becoming more and more aware of the harm I cause through my ideas and stereotyping of others.
Action. I recognize that it will take some very big action to make the changes that need to be made to achieve some kind of justice. But for me I am doing the best I can with the ingredients that I have (as influenced by Bernie). Listening rather than explaining. Cultivating relationships with non-white friends. Speaking up when I can to help change minds. Like sharing that video I posted in #1 with people who say “all lives matter”. Here is a list of 75 things white people can do for racial justice that I review every now and again and see if there is another one of these I can do.

Thanks for listening
Seisen Saunders



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