Keeping the Rain Off Our Heads

Little Notes

June 15, 2020

drawing of girl with antiracist umbrella

"Thank you for the umbrella. I didn't know I was wet." Illustration by Christine Chang Hanway.

Waking up to the sound of heavy rain always made me grumpy. And this happened a lot in the New England autumns and springs where I grew up. The brilliance of the outfit I had painstakingly planned the night before would be under threat because the mile long walk to school would require an umbrella, raincoat and waterproof boots to stay dry. My mother didn’t seem to understand that these accessories of utility seriously obstructed my vision of high fashion, especially the heavy boots that I would then have to clomp around in for the rest of the day at school. 

I fantasised about a world where everyone could create their own microclimate with the extraordinary powers of a magic umbrella. One which allowed the user to push a button and decide their own personal weather conditions for the day, depending on what they wanted to wear. Rain, snow, sunshine? Whatever you wanted. I would have mine set permanently at 72 degrees and sunny like in LA, home of my favourite TV family the Brady Bunch and dry weather; offering me perfect conditions to prance about in the flimsiest (i.e. prettiest) of footwear.

Last week in the stormy wake of the George Floyd protests, I listened to Brene Brown’s interview with Ibram X Kendi; author of New York Times bestseller, How to be an Antiracist and one of America’s foremost historians and leading antiracist voices. After listening, I yearn again to be dry. In fact, I yearn for everyone to be dry. Only this time, it has nothing to do with pretty outfits and flimsy footwear. 

Photograph by Daniel Rueda and Anna Devís.

During the interview Brown and Kendi discuss accepting accountability for racist thinking. She asks him about the shame we experience from these conversations as we recognise that we all have racist thoughts. His response below is edifying and in its generosity, I am hopeful about moving forward into an antiracist world.

To grow up in America is to grow up with racist ideas that are constantly rained upon your head. You have no umbrella. You don’t even know that you’re wet with those racist ideas because those racist ideas themselves cause you to imagine that you’re dry. And then someone comes along and says, ‘You know what? You’re wet and these ideas are still raining on your head. Here’s an umbrella.’ You can be like, ‘Thank you! I didn’t even realise I was drenched.’

This is why I don’t think people should feel ashamed. There were other people, very powerful people and a history that was constantly raining those ideas on your head. What that means for instance is if you were a white American who has racist ideas and then you perpetuate those ideas by, let’s say, not hiring a black person because you thought they were lazy, you were simultaneously both a victim and a victimiser. I think it’s critical for people to recognise that literally.

I talk about this in How to Become an Antiracist.  There’s a specific reason why you had so many powerful Americans trying to convince white Americans that black people were inferior. It was out of their own self interest. And so these white Americans and other Americans were tricked into believing that black people should be enslaved. Meanwhile poor whites whose poverty was directly the result of the riches of white slave holders were like, ‘yeah it should be this way.’ That’s how those people were able to get richer and richer. And so me coming to the poor white person who believes black people should be enslaved and who has worked on slave patrols and brutalised black people trying to run away, I’m basically coming to them and saying, ‘Here is the way you were a victimiser and here is the way you were a victim.’ 

It’s critically important for people to understand. They have been tricked. They have been manipulated. They have been hoodwinked.

In our journey toward an antiracist world, there is so much to learn. Being non-white and not black adds another layer for me personally to unpick and I am thankful for the thinkers and writers who are helping us to learn. Two weeks ago, in My Broken Wild Heart, I listened to Seeing White by Scene on Radio and have since read Minor Feelings; A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition by Cathy Park Hong. A poet, Hong’s beautifully written insightful experiences from a female Asian American perspective echo my own. She manages to articulate feelings and thoughts that were so familiar and yet always felt just out of my grasp. Now I realise I was not crazy, just wet. This week, it is inevitable that my focus is directed toward Kendi’s book, How to be an Anti Racist. His engaging writing style delivers the context of his argument with clarity and ease. I recommend it highly.

In her podcast interview with Kendi, Brown describes the intractable nature of oppression, “it gives me chills to think that it’s raining on you but part of the message it’s raining on you is that you’re dry.”

I have been fantasising about my magic umbrella again; this time instead of 72 degrees and sunny, I would have it permanently set on “antiracist”. I would carry it with me everywhere, envisioning a world where the blight of racism can not penetrate. Only until we are bone dry, can we begin to build the world we need together.

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Atalanta Goulandris
Atalanta Goulandris

Thanks Christine – Seeing White is v interesting and now looking forward to reading Cathy Park Hong

Setsuko Winchester
Setsuko Winchester

I agree. “minor feelings”. Is a major book. It helps fill in a missing link in the story of race in America. I read it because a friend said “I feel like I’m talking to you.” She was right. Cathy helped make the invisible visible. I’ve now finished Karen Tei Yamashita’s “Letters to Memory” (which I consider early Cathy Park Hong). Different races in America are vilified and vilify others and themselves differently, and yet the process is remarkably the same. Her exploration into her families artifacts before during and after WWII reveals the struggle to survive in a world… Read more »