The Journey Out of Ignorance — How Scales Fell From My Eyes on My Own Racism (MaryBeth Ingram)

Image Description: A road is leading toward sunlight. Trees line the road on either side. Public domain image.

 

I’m grateful to invite my friend, MaryBeth Ingram, to share a story with us today as a guest blogger. I appreciate her candor, insight, and compassion toward the work of anti-racism. Thank you, MaryBeth.

 

It was January 2017, just a few months after starting to attend at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Westerville Ohio, when I joined a Wednesday night study group on anti-racism. Frankly, I don’t remember thinking that I had a lot to learn. I was simply curious.

We were led by Cherie Bridges Patrick, a woman of color with a PhD in Leadership and a Masters in Social Work and who possesses a deep faith. Her husband was part of the group. Cherie began to reveal parts of racist history that were new to me. In fact, I wasn’t sure I even agreed with some of what she was presenting. You see, I was a good white person, raised in a good white family, living in a good white neighborhood. I was skeptical but willing to listen and learn.

 

As part of our study, Cherie suggested we all go online and take the Harvard implicit bias test (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html). Sure, why not! If you have ever taken such a test, you know how these work.  It’s natural to try to outsmart the these tests if for no other reason than to make sure you get a good result. I was full of confidence as I began. I thought I was doing great. So imagine my surprise when my results came out “you have a strong preference for white.”

At our next session, Cherie asked if anyone had taken the test and I volunteered that I had and also confessed my results. I was truly mortified. I was embarrassed. But no sooner had I said to the group, “The test showed I have a strong preference for white” than Cherie’s husband forward looking straight at me and said, “Don’t worry MaryBeth, so do I.” Amazement stacked on amazement! And that’s when real learning began for me.

Like scales falling from my eyes I listened as he went on to describe growing up as a Black kid, and even now as a Black man, came the messages he internalized – messages of white superiority, the same ones that formed me but with entirely different consequences to our psychesHe went on to share his own story of being Black in America and the impact of those ‘inferior’ messages that he learned, absorbed, and lived with most of his life.  I don’t know how to pass along the visceral understanding that began to take place as Cherie’s husband shared, and has continued to this day to share his lived experience with me. Cherie and her husband are ‘allies of color’ who purposely enter unsafe white spaces to inform and educate. Only recently have some, not all, white people discovered how harmful it is to ask a person of color to “teach them” about racism. You are asking people to relive pain for your benefit!  What a perfect example of white superiority!  Instead of me doing my own work, you teach me. We are used to having things delivered and not having to go digging for it ourselves.
 

One more moment in my journey … another embarrassing moment and one I fought, so much so that the moment has never disappeared from my memory.  In 2005 I used the phrase “black as sin”.  A person called me on it, “MaryBeth, that’s racist.”  My first reaction was dismay – how did we veer off to that?  So I just said, “What?”  It was further explained to me that what I had said was racist and what I heard was a judgment, “You are racist” and so that was my response, “but I’m not racist.  That’s just an expression.  My mother used it and I’ve heard it all my life.  It’s just an expression like white as snow” said my unaware self. My kind friend proceeded to ask me how I would feel if every morning when I looked in the mirror to comb my hair or brush my teeth I heard the message, “black as sin”.  How would I, he asked, feel to be associated with sin because of the color of my skin?  I really didn’t get it.  I still felt accused of being a racist.  But that exchange has never left me.  I often used it as proof of how silly my friend was and how he called me a racist.  That’s how hard whiteness stood its ground in me.  By the way, another way to say “white as snow” is “pure as the driven snow” – now hold that up to the light.  Not pretty.  White equals pure.  Black equals sin.

There are so many layers to my journey. As Robin DiAngelo said in a recent interview, “I can’t say I’m ‘woke’ – I’m waking up.”  She’s right … I’m waking up and I never expect to be ‘woke’ if for no other reason than my lived experience can never be Black. I will work every day to learn and understand more, call out racism and a privilege system that advantages some while purposely withholding privilege to others. Dismantling that system is the goal.

-MaryBeth Ingram

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