Letter to the editor: A Way Forward for Our Community
Dear White friends and community,
I am a white woman in my 60s, but my family is not. My twin, adult daughters are biracial - Black and Latinx. My spouse immigrated from Mexico. Spanish is his first language. We have lived here for almost 10 years. I love the towns of Dexter and Chelsea for their quaint charm and surrounding forests, farms, and lakes. We have some lovely neighbors who have embraced the diversity in our family in an otherwise homogeneous neighborhood.
When my children were little, they charmed everyone, everywhere with their adorable, nonthreatening, giggling cuteness. Now they are adults, both beautiful, sporting gender-neutral clothing, and tattoos. Sadly, instead of smiles, their presence often triggers the implicit racial bias that afflicts us all.
Before Christmas, my daughter experienced racial disparity from a local store clerk in my favorite store, while buying me a present. I felt so bad for her that I followed up to find that the clerk’s comment was, of course, “not intentional”, yet impactful. Denial, minimization, and claims that the receiver of the macroaggression (an unconscious and often unintentional racialized comment) has misperceived the situation, are common ways that we as white people, who don’t identify as “racist”, respond to having these mistakes brought to our attention. It doesn’t matter if we are Democrats or Republicans, “woke”, or not; We all have implicit bias. In this case, the clerk could not even remember the exchange with my daughter. As white people, in white spaces, we are often so unaware because of the privilege and comfort with which we move in our world. We can easily not notice or forget these exchanges. They don’t even register because implicit bias is just that – “implicit”. But to the receiver, my daughter, they explicitly hurt.
My spouse has been in the US for 23 years and is doing great with English. With his brown skin and thick Spanish accent, the minute he opens his mouth he is too commonly treated with dismissal and distain. He is often mistaken as my laborer – my help on our farm - rather than my spouse and landowner. He has weathered numerous overt comments of annoyance about his “broken English”, and his Mexican identity.
I am very aware that if I did not have my racially mixed family, I would never experience the pain that my children and spouse do. I would be blissfully ignorant to their experience, joyfully fliting in and out of friendly stores, my blonde hair flying, while salespeople smile and love to see me come in. Without close proximity to my loved ones, I would never have to think about it. I would be utterly unaware of their daily experience as people of color in Chelsea and Dexter. But I can’t deny it so I am sharing it with you - my friends. I want you to know and help.
Many white people want to do better but we don’t know how. So, here are some things I’ve learned, and I am a work in progress: When you inadvertently harm someone (which I have done many times to my own family members) resist defensiveness and denial, defer to the person’s experience, apologize straight-up without excuses or explanations (very hard to do), repair if you can, and reach out with repeated welcoming gestures. For dealing with language barriers, slow down, tune up your ear, practice patience, know you are likely making assumptions, embrace the communication challenges before you, and have compassion. If you really want to boost your empathy, explore what it is like to get proficient in another language. It is a real challenge. My Spanish still sucks!
I still love this area, but my joy is degraded by the discrimination felt by my family. I also love this community, and trust that we can do better with more consciousness and practice. Let’s continue the conversation. Thank you for listening.
In love and good faith,
Laura Sanders, LMSW
Faculty Instructor at the U of M School of Social Work
Child and Family Therapist