Confronting Racism

 Glenn Bigonet, M.A.

Social Activist for Racial Equity

Facilitating Discussions about Racism

 

617-462-6642

gbigonet@icloud.com

           

 

My Racial Identity & History

 

"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background,

or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be

taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than it's opposite."

Nelson Mandela

 

I am a white, heterosexual, CIS gender, able, educated, moderately affluent man. Throughout my life I have culturally identified as a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) although my family was not religeous at all the WASP stereotype definitely fit my family. The only ways I am marginalized in any way in our society are my relatively minor symptoms of complex PTSD, my identity as a recovering addict with over 26 years in recovery and my age of 58 years old. I understand that I am one of the lucky ones in our society who has an extreme amount of privilege because of what I look like, my gender, etc.

 

I was born in 1962 and raised in Sudbury, Massachusetts which is a small mostly white, mostly protestant suburb of Boston. My father was in his second year of running his own business and my mom was a stay at home mother. For most of my childhood we were a typical middle class family. In my teenage years my father's company began to have much success and then I experienced more of an upper middle class experience.

 

Race was never really discussed in my household. All I can remember is getting a sense that people of color weren't inferior to us in any way and I remember my mother saying to me that if I "were to bring a black girlfriend home it would be okay with" her.   I do remember watching the news with my mother when bussing was starting and hearing about the riots that were happening in Boston and getting the sense for the first time that there was something scary about people of color. I also remember feeling scared about the black kids that were being bussed to Sudbury as part of the Metco program. I never saw any of them because my parents put me in a private school that I commuted to but I always imagined them as scary.

 

I remember that there were only two black kids who lived in town close to my age. I wasn't scared of them. One I was very friendly with in high school but I do remember thinking they were different, foreign in some way. It's interesting there were so many kids I came across as a child and most I don't remember their names but I do clearly remember the names of the two black kids even though I never even spoke to the girl

 

I know that through many of the images in the media I received messages that black people were scary but I didn't have the experience of actually being scared by a person of color until I was 12 years old. My friends and I had gone to the movies at a small theater in Wellesley, Massachusetts which is a small affluent suburban town outside of Boston. Before the movie began we were having a water gun fight with each other when I accidently shot this older black boy. He was not happy and wanted to intimidate me and get revenge. The way he did this was to confront me, stare me down and to pour his root beer into my popcorn. I remember being terrified of him and sitting there frozen while his root beer poured into my popcorn. Now I know as an adult that is could have been any older bully type kid to do that to me but as a 12 year old it seared in the impression that black people were scary.

 

For many years I had stayed generally racially segregated like most white suburban Americans. Most of my experiences reinforced the messages I received on a regular basis that people of color were different and to be feared. Probably the strongest reinforcement of these messages for me occurred when I was visiting New Orleans with a friend at the age of 18. We didn't have a large budget so we found a cheap motel on the outskirts of town. I remember when we checked in the desk clerk looked at us and said "Are you sure you boys want to stay here?" He let us check out a room first. It was pretty neglected but clean so we decided to stay. We had no idea that the clerk was referring to the neighborhood and not the room. That night when we returned to the motel around 2 in the morning we were robbed at gun point by two black men. When we went into the front desk to ask for help afterwards a plain clothes white man stood up pulled out a 357 Magnum and said "Show me which way they went." It felt like I was living in a Clint Eastwood movie and was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. That evening confirmed for me that all the messages I received from the media and the politicians were true. "Black inner city people were not safe to be around." I didn't see myself as racist. It just seemed to be the way it was. And it wasn't all black people are dangerous. Certainly the more affluent assimulated black people were okay so it had nothing to do with race. So I thought.

I first began my awareness of racism when I attended Lesley College in the 1990s. A large emphasis of thier counseling psychology program was on race, gender and culture. In my classes there I learned more about racism than I had ever learned but it was about other people's racism. There was nothing that I recall about looking oursleves in the mirror and examining our own racist tendencies. The only time I recall having race really put in my face there was in my group dynamics class. In this class we participated in group therapy sessions and then discussed the group process as a way of understanding group dynamics. I remember in one session the one black woman in the group said she didn't feel comfortable with me because we hadn't had a discussion about race and that the only way she can get close to white people was to talk about race and what it maent to them. I had never heard of such a thing. I got defensive and in my head wrote her off as extreme and angry about racism and that she couldn't just see me for the good man that I was. ( Just a little white fragility there on my part) I was never able to engage with her around race and thus we never developed any kind of true friendship. As I look back at it with what I know now I realize she was inviting me into an intimate conversation with her as a way to develop some closeness and it went right over my head. Today I feel a real sense of loss around that.

I was next faced with race when I worked for Family Services of Greater Boston which is a community mental health center located in Roxbury. There I worked with mostly teens who were Black or Latinx. I was able to connectd with most of my clients individually but we never discussed race. What I really learned from them was so much of what their lives were like as young people of color and how little the system did to support them and how even when the system was "trying" to support them it regularly failed them and made their lives worse. A large part of what I witnessed was regular kids who were neglected mostly by the system, sometimes at home, as well as regularly being in situations where they were in danger or saw violence happening to others. These kids would act out like any normal kid would, they would be punished for acting out, labelled as bad kids and have their lives made even more difficult. There were so few messages that what they were experiencing was wrong and traumatic and of course they were scared and acting out. The environment they lived in was/is so unhealthy and terrifiing but no one validated that for them. Instead they were told they were bad and wrong for the way they were responding. It was really hard for me to witness and I felt so little power to make any difference. Finally after a second kid that I was working with and really starting to make a difference for was killed because of gross negligence of DSS or DYS I felt burned out and retreated to my suburbs to start my nice comfortable private practice. The pain and powerlessness of it all was just too much for me to handle and I in essence utilized my white privilege and walked away from it.

For the next 16 plus years I went on with my life, making a difference where I knew how, in a way that was comfortable for me and except for noticing racism in our society doing little but complaining about it. I celebrated when Obama was elected president and was outraged when Trump was elected but still did little to nothing. I felt so disempowered around what I could possibly do, I did nothing. Little did I understand how my white apathy was maintaining the systemic racism that bothered me so much. It wasn't until I learned about white fragility that I finally snapped out of it and began my path of becoming an antiracist. 

Copyright © 2020   Glenn Bigonet, M.A.