• Heather Caslin

The uncomfortable work behind pulling back the curtain of race and white supremacy: Part 1. My story

This is the shortest version of my story that I can tell, but buckle in, it’s a long ride. Instead of just telling you to confront racism, do the work, and be vulnerable, I am going to get really vulnerable for you. I think that we should be listening mostly to black stories and the voices, and to many other voices than just mine, but I think that maybe if I talk through the uncomfortable process of unraveling who I was and what I believed, it might help you. I’m a little scared for the people I respect to see what I’ve thought and felt on such a touchy subject, and but I’m more scared for nothing to change. Because it’s hard and uncomfortable and messy. I’ve messed up and you will mess up too. And those mess ups may hurt people and their feelings, and they may spark heated debates or radio silence with the people we love, but that mess is a lot better than the alternative. The alternative is a world where we know about racism and do nothing while our fellow humans, friends, colleagues, and family deal with microaggressions, racial profiling, housing and job discrimination, healthcare disparities, mass incarcerations, police brutality, and more.

I have read and listened and watched over the past five or six years. I’ve reflected on the past and on the scenarios that have played out since then. I am not even close to perfect. I’ve only done work for myself, and I still struggle to always speak out and fight it within the larger systems. Every time I think that we’re doing better, I realize that we are still failing. Black lives are still becoming hashtags, our tweets are not getting justice for those who deserve it, and frankly not that much has actually changed in the past 5 or 10 years. I struggle with what more we need to do. What more I need to do. But I am open to actually putting myself out there and doing the work to listen, reflect, and change my future thoughts, intentions, and actions. So, I hope that you can too.

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I consider my anti-racism journey like a game of Jenga. Over my life as a child, teen, and young adult, I had built up who was I was. I assembled each piece of my identity with beliefs and actions all wrapped in my morality. But then the pieces started to get pulled out from my tower one by one until they came crashing down. And now I’m trying to rebuild.

I was born in Colorado Springs, CO and finished middle and high school in western Loudoun County, VA at the intersection of horse farms and the DC suburbs. I was a good student, enjoyed volunteering, and generally believed we’re here on earth to help each other out. I was interested in the peace corps and wanted to help make the world a good place. I remember learning history in grade school and believing the world was a different place and people were different, because we all could look at history and agree on what was right and wrong. But as I learned over the years, history didn’t happen exactly the way we’ve framed it in our textbooks and the world really isn’t all that different at it’s core.

There were very few POC in the schools I attended, but I was friends with many of them and even in love. I thought that “I didn’t see color”. I knew the basic ideas about why and how it was different being black, but it seemed like these things that had happened in the past or were happening far away from where I was. I heard comments that I know now would fall under microaggressions, but they seemed like compliments at the time, and I just didn’t see race being a huge thing for the people that I knew. But now I’m pretty sure that I just wasn’t paying attention. And I feel sad when I think about the fact that I didn’t completely know these people, I didn’t completely see them, and that I couldn’t completely support them. If we’re not actively working to walk in each other’s shoes and see even the hard stuff in each others lives, are we really being the best friends and neighbors and citizens that we could be.

For college, I purposely went to a large state school known for its diversity (comparatively to other major state schools, but still not that great). I wanted to and met lots of people who were just a little different than me and we ran in all of the same circles. I loved learning about people’s lives and families and the different cities we all grew up in, but my best friends were still white. Jenga pieces were pulled out as I learned about the war on drugs, the school-to-prison pipeline, discriminatory hiring and promoting, and the social determinants of health in classes and through articles and conversations about the news on the internet. But I didn’t think I could do much to help as a 20 year old. Racism had moved from slavery and Jim Crow laws to politics, but I still didn’t see how I was involved other than how I voted. I saw that some of my friends and acquaintances were the only black people in their program or at the job they were applying for, so I knew that they felt a lot of a pressure and felt like the odd man out, but we didn’t talk about the deeper stuff, and I still just didn’t get how big racism was. And again, looking back, I’m pretty sure that I still wasn’t paying attention. Racism acts through every system we’ve built including education and healthcare and safety and no one in my life was immune from that. As I went about my day, and my classes, and my internships, I don’t think I was fully listening to conversations being had. I wasn’t fully watching how people conducted themselves around others. I wasn’t seeing or hearing the microaggressions or the code switching to prevent them. In the age of the internet, with the books and the movies that had been released, I could’ve read these stories and I could’ve seen them play out in my life, but I didn’t.

I voted twice for Obama. After seeing xenophobia and learning about destruction of the middle east following 9/11, I wanted to get troops out of our wars and energy independence. Being interested in physical therapy I wanted an overhaul of the current healthcare system to ensure that it was a right, not a privilege. I wanted everyone in America to feel hope. And I was proud that our country was progressive enough to elect a black president. When I saw the racist and discriminatory comments towards the entire Obama family and the conspiracy theories that probably hurt our president, but definitely hurt our black communities, it pulled out a few more Jenga pieces, but I still thought they were the voices of a small radical minority. It didn’t click for me that behind a the loud outwardly racist comments in a world that said it was bad to be [outwardly] racist, there was a quiet majority that was hurting black communities just as bad. That subconscious and systemic racism was worse. It was so easy to assume things are happening elsewhere, but not near me. It was so easy to place blame on other people contributing to these systems, but it was much harder to confront in my friends, my family, and myself, knowing that people aren’t just bad or good, but that they can be both.

During one of my interviews for physical therapy school, I had 10 or 20 minutes to write on the prompt “if you could go back in time to any time period, when would you travel to and why.” I wrote about traveling back to the 1960’s in the South. I had just finished reading “The Help” and it had left a nagging feeling inside of me about how things had been just 50 years before. I thought I knew about the history of civil rights movement and everything from the Civil War to the MLK, but something about reading that book at that time in my life or in my headspace just hit me differently. I wrote about why I wanted to go back there to understand just how cruel people could be to other humans, how messed up society was to allow it all to happen. I felt uncomfortable writing those words, but I ran out of time and had to turn it in. I’m sure it did not score well for my knowledge and insight about the world, or maybe it was glazed over if the committee hadn’t done their own anti-racism work, but the Jenga pieces were pulled halfway out. They hung on for months as I grappled with why that essay was so uncomfortable to write and turn in for others to read. But I just couldn’t see that it felt weird because the world really wasn’t that different. I still wouldn’t open my eyes.

I was in for a real rude awakening. Just a few years later, police brutality would be something that would become very public and very political. We finally had the camera phones and the social networks to spread videos and stories quickly. With the deaths of Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, I started to see the pain black people felt and the fear they had for their own lives. I learned about how scared people were to walk down the street or be pulled over. I started to see these weren’t isolated incidents, and that our world really hadn’t come as far as I thought. I started to finally hear the stories from my friends of their encounters with police, the times they had been pulled over for no reason, the times they were followed through a store. The times they were told that they spoke eloquently, despite being born and raised in the same school systems that I was, and the times that they were told that they’re one of the smart/ good/ gentle ones. The times they were told they’re basically white- as if black is bad. More Jenga blocks were pulled, but I still didn’t see how white responses and my responses continued to perpetuate the system and prevent change.

The single biggest moment in my journey thus far was when Freddie Grey died in custody and the city of Baltimore erupted in riots. I posted about how wrong his death was. But I also posted about how I wanted the cops to be safe too. Ferguson, St. Louis, New York, and Oakland had all had riots within the past year and I felt scared for the entire community. Baltimore was close to home, cops would come into my work at a local restaurant everyday, and when I saw the call for the Baltimore police force to get out on the streets with the people actively protesting against them, and I was scared for them too. I was scared for the fires, for the rioting, for the storefronts that would need to be rebuilt. That was my “protest differently,” “all lives matter,” and “blue lives matter” moment. I was wrong and I was called out.

I was called out by an undergrad that I had begun to mentor in the lab. We had a pretty heated conversation over Facebook messenger, and while I was kind of listening, and trying to convince her that I was listening, I was also in full on defense mode and definitely policing her tone. Instead of talking about how I could do better, I argued more about how she was talking to me than what she was talking about. I don’t remember how the conversation ended, but I know it changed our relationship forever. It is hard to be told you’re wrong. It’s hard to be confronted, it’s hard to think that you’re one of the better ones and realize that you haven’t come that far. In that moment I should’ve been better. Moving forward, I struggled to mentor her in other areas of research life, like mental health, and productivity, and work-life balance, things I would struggle with for years myself, and our relationship never recovered. As someone who believes mentoring is one of the most important things we can do as scientists, it hurt. It still does.

It took me months to recognize, but that conversation was that moment that made my Jenga tower come crashing down. Once I was able to drop my defenses and my ego, I slowly but surely started seeing everything differently. I learned that by expressing concerns about the rioting, I was demanding peace from protestors that wasn’t being demanded of the officers in uniform. That sadness for the physical damage and destruction was putting empathy for things that could be rebuilt over peoples lives that were horrendously hurt and forever gone. I learned that cops showing up in riot gear is a form of racism, it’s intimidating and threatening, and as we’ve seen with recent protests over COVID shutdowns, riot gear isn’t pulled out when just anyone protests. I learned that by making it a higher or similar priority to show that I cared about groups that were already prioritized in society, I was diminishing the concern I felt for a community that is actively shown they don’t matter in almost every aspect of our world.

Since then, I’ve been able to hear more voices, believe more stories, and actively seek out ways to make sure I am being an ally. I’ve been told I’m wrong, and corrected, and ignored. I’ve started to actively learn about privilege and how it applies to everything that happens in my life. I’ve begun to understand how the very institutions I believe in- like higher education and healthcare and feminism and science- are all built on white supremacy. I’ve learned about the neighborhoods of Richmond and Nashville and gentrification, and I’ve worked through different ways that I can be a better neighbor. I’ve read books on educating black students before stepping into the classroom, I’ve listened to black teachers have tough conversations with their black students, and I’ve felt those same black students put up a wall with me because they (probably accurately) knew I wouldn’t understand everything they were going through outside of science class. I’ve read a lot of articles on the internet and I’ve added so many more black voices to my social media timelines. I’ve felt defensive and at a loss for words when Rachel Cargle or Layla Saad calls me out directly- not because they know me, but because white words and actions are fairly predictable. I’ve donated to organizations that fight these battles in social and legal spaces and I’ve participated in many formal trainings and organizations that are helping to improve diversity and inclusion in the academic space.

I’ve also made this personal. I was privileged to work in a PhD lab with individuals who talked openly about their experiences with racism and prejudice and trusted me with their stories and thoughts. I’ve been uncomfortable learning how the system that has supported me has made it harder for them and their communities in school, science, and life. I’ve learned about how much extra work it is to be the diversity in a relatively white space: to be used as the face of diversity in a lab, graduate program, university, and scientific society, to have to give their opinions on all current events as the black or POC perspective, and to be asked to speak on every diversity panel and mentor every student who follows in their shoes. I've been forced to sit with the idea that when I apply for jobs, people will look more favorably on my name and my face, white students will be less harsh on me in the classroom, and I'll find people who look like me on the faculty and in administrative positions. I’ve also been forced to sit with the horrible feelings that 56% of a group I identify with elected Trump. I refuse to take that trust and friendship for granted, and I will forever listen to those voices. I try to use what I’ve learned to educate and support others. Since graduate school, I’ve also taught and mentored black students, and I’m holding myself accountable for their experience in higher education. And I’m actively trying to be a better friend. Because we all have stories and families and dreams, and we all deserve to walk down the street without being scared or dying. Heck, we even deserve to break the law and commit crimes without being hurt or killed.

I’ve moved past shock and the sadness for the nature of these events, because they just keep happening, and I’m now I’m scared for the future if we cannot change. I understand why black people are tired of seeing racism, talking about racism, living up against racism. I understand why people want to burn it all down. And yet I know that I cannot stop here. Even though it’s hard, I need to get over being angry and tired and muster up the words to have actual conversations, because we owe it to everyone who’s had to be scared and angry and tired for decades. Because “it doesn’t end when white people “feel better” [about their own racism and their own place in this system], it ends when black people are liberated”- Rachel Cargle.

When I wrote and now when I read this story, I grapple with how I could’ve come to terms with racism and white supremacy better and faster, because while I kept my eyes closed, people were dying. But I can’t dwell on my past, my inaction, or my contribution to upholding white supremacy. I can only fix what I do today, tomorrow, and next month, and even I have a lot of work to do. This week, I have been actively hearing others to tell me to check in on my black friends and coworkers and to make sure our university is too. There are a lot more books on my reading list, and there are more thoughts and conversations to be had. I think about issues of race a lot in my own neighborhood, the schools I teach in, and the world of higher education, but I don’t consistently think about how black people feel walking down the street a month after events like this are over. My posts eventually go back to other topics, I stop writing to politicians, and my donations go to the next immediate crisis. I don’t feel like I’ve built a community with my black neighbors, and I am still uncomfortable confronting racism in every conversation that needs confronting. While people are protesting in the streets of Nashville, I am still safe in my own home. And when I dig deep I know that I haven’t completely made this my problem. I haven’t completely made this my fight. But it is. Because I care about a fair world and a world where people don’t die more often because of the color of their skin or because of the inequalities they’re forced to live with or fight to rise above. And I care deeply about climate change, education, healthcare, and a living wage, and while it makes me feel spread thin to fight all of those issues, they all hurt communities of color more than white communities. Making sure the world is more fair for women, the LBGTQ community, and differently-abled individuals also greatly impacts communities of color. So maybe if I commit to confronting systemic racism first, I will be actively fighting for everything I believe in. So I am here so that you can hold me to doing better too.

Actively dismantling racism in yourself is a huge feat, but changing the world- that’s so much bigger. I’ve torn down my tower but trying to put it back together is really hard. Rebuilding your world view and the view you hold of yourself after it’s fallen is much harder than building it the first time. Re-stacking the blocks will be just as messy as when they were removed. And fighting a giant system of money and power seems near impossible. But people have done it before. And we can do it again. And we have to do it now.

I hope that something in this this story resonates with you. And if you want to learn more about what you can do for yourself, please see part 2, or just start googling.

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