A couple of people asked about the Audre Lorde poem on my icon for this week, which is a good lead-in to something I was toying with writing about.
For those who can't see the image, the poem reads:
It is a waste of time hating a mirror
or its reflection
instead of stopping the hand
that makes glass with distortions.
I should say, first, that this poem was in a text file of cool quotes that I kept in college. When I wrote it down, I probably didn't have racism in mind, and indeed there's no reason to limit its applicability to racism. But I was thinking about blogging about racism, and what I might say. As I've said before, I've experienced very little racism, and my color is pretty low on the list of things important to my identity; and I didn't feel I had anything new or interesting to contribute about portrayals in books or movies or whatnot. Also, talking about race and racism is difficult and uncomfortable [*] and can lead to some really nasty and infuriating comments.
But as little racism as I've experienced, I do know how it makes me feel and can contribute that. The Lorde poem jumped out at me because it's another metaphor for that feeling. The description that originally came to mind is that it's like a smudge on my heart: I am angry at the other person, but I also feel worse about myself—smaller, dirtier, ashamed. It's irrational but it's true; and though I recover quickly, that doesn't negate the experience.
I read the Lorde poem as saying two things. First, other people's attitudes toward and treatment of you (racism, sexism, child abuse, what-have-you) can distort your image of yourself. Stereotyping is a failure of empathy, a refusal to see someone as themselves; and while the stereotype isn't necessarily transmitted, not being seen as yourself is corrosive. Second, the response ought to be recognize that the source of the distortion is external and then work to change that.
Granted, that the step before the "and then" is not necessarily trivial. Because my experiences with racism have been transitory, I don't have any useful personal experience to offer. My only suggestion at the moment for how to go about that to be educate one's self about racism (or sexism, or child abuse, or what-have-you), and then take a hard look at any overlaps between that and one's self-image. I hope other people will offer their thoughts on this in the comments.
[*] I don't want this to be a self-congratulatory post, so I will make a confession. One of the ways that these discussions are uncomfortable—important and useful, but uncomfortable—is that they force me to recognize my own racism. I fervently hope and believe that I don't act on it, but I have, for instance, noticed-with-negative-connotations that all the black (or whatever) kids were sitting together—and it never occured to me until the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of DOOM that no-one ever asks why all the white kids are sitting together. No, I'm not saying that I ought to be stoned or shunned—I'm really not trying for a reverse-sympathy play here [**]—but things like that still weren't very enjoyable revelations.
[**] Is there a word for this, when someone posts "Oh, I'm such an awful person for [x trivial thing]" in a deliberate attempt to be reassured? There seems like there ought to be.