Racism Fatigue? | Column by Tamara Copeland

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

This piece was originally posted on the Daily WRAG.

Do you feel it?

I’ve been cautioned not to talk too much about racism. “You don’t want to cause racism fatigue” is what I’m hearing, primarily from African-Americans.

I understand that. I want people to hear what’s being said under the banner of WRAG’s “Putting Racism on the Table” work. But, I don’t think that it is only white people who might suffer from this malady.

I, too, suffer from racism fatigue, but in a different way. I’m tired of being hypersensitive to what people say, to noticing how long it takes to be noticed by a salesperson, to cringing at the negative portrayal of black people in the media, and to routinely filtering the language I use so that my comments are heard by white friends and colleagues and don’t offend. Race and racism perpetually exhaust me. For some people, this much-needed conversation about racism just started. For me, it’s been part of my world for as long as I can remember.

I started learning about race and racism when I attended a segregated elementary school. For example, we knew we had to dress a certain way – our Sunday best — when we took the train to go from Richmond, Virginia, my hometown, to Washington, DC for a class trip. We sat at the train station in a segregated waiting room and boarded a segregated train car, and we knew that what white people thought about black people would be shaped by our behavior. That’s quite a burden for a seven-year-old. On this field trip, or whenever we were in a racially-mixed group, we represented an entire race.

Then I moved to an integrated elementary school. My introduction to the white world of J.E.B. Stuart (yes, the Confederate general) Elementary School was without incident; no Ruby Bridges moment for me. But there also was no singing of the Negro National Anthem at assemblies, no recognition of African-American leaders like W.E. B. DuBois or Marcus Garvey or Paul Robeson. When I left the black school, I also left black history and culture as part of my formal education. That doesn’t mean that conversations about race didn’t swirl all around me – at home, in my neighborhood, at church. Race and racism has been the background music of my entire life. And that seven-year-old’s burden of representing the race continues to be a responsibility that I shoulder.

For my white friends and colleagues, I believe that most felt, at least until recently, that race and racism was something that affected black people. It was covered on the news from time to time, but it wasn’t a part of white people’s worlds. Well, now that seems to have changed. Is it just me, or is there a new willingness, maybe even an eagerness, to really learn about the black experience and about the dimensions of racism? We’re normalizing a conversation. We’re catalyzing action. We all have a better understanding of what it means to be an African-American in America. Let’s keep talking. I feel like a veil is being lifted. This conversation doesn’t cause racism fatigue for me. Just the opposite. I see a vigor and the emergence of a momentum for change.

WRAG continues Putting Racism on the Table with a series of racial equity trainings for the region’s philanthropic community this fall. Click here for details. We’ve also released the first three sessions of the learning series – on structural racism, white privilege, and implicit bias – as podcasts. Click here to listen and share.