Listening to Black Voices: Seraphina Cooley

I am aware that many people are calling for people to speak out about racism at this time. But what can I, a white man, say that is truly meaningful? That I am anti-racist? That racism and sexism make me sick to my stomach? There I said it. And maybe that is all people want? But I don’t feel it is enough. 

I also don’t feel donating to Black Lives Matters, or going on a protest march, or posting a blackout photo are enough either. I think these are all things people do to try to signal that they are not a part of the problem and make the discomfort go away. 

But maybe it is time to sit with the discomfort? Perhaps it is time to be quiet and listen? I know silence is being construed as consent right now, and I understand why people would say that. But as a student of Zen, I can say from experience that silence is one of the most potent forces for change. Please make no mistake; not all silence is equal. You will know what I am talking about if you have ever been in the presence of a real Zen master. Sometimes we need to be quiet so we can listen.

I don’t have any answers for you. Racism is so vast and ingrained in our culture, institutions, and psyches that it’s hard to know where to begin to change it. But I suspect its not a quick or simple fix. I suspect it requires more than protesting, donating, or changing our profile picture. While these may be a step in the right direction, I think we have to be careful about taking these actions and then assuming the work is done. 

So how much is enough? When will the work be done? I don’t know that there is an easy answer to that question other than whatever it takes to end racism in this country.

And as a white man, I feel one of the best things I can do right now is to listen to black voices and try to be open to new information, understanding, and perspectives. In this spirit, I share this beautiful post that the daughter of one of our dear Sangha members – Kathleen Cooley – posted the other day. 

Seraphina Cooley is a young black woman of mixed heritage and a beautiful writer. She shares her unique experience as a woman of color raised culturally white, having to deal with and overcome racism in her own heart and mind. She makes the point that if she has had to face racism in her heart and mind, you probably do too. 

So, Seraphina, I am listening.

-Douglas Johnson E-RYT 500, YACEP

One of my family’s favorite stories to tell about me is that for much of my childhood, I had no idea that I was black. Though my father is black (and anyone with eyeballs can tell that I am of African descent), I often found myself walking into rooms thinking, “I’m the only white person here.” I grew up in a town that was almost entirely white, and seeing as I was not raised by my father, I was the only black person in my immediate family, which was composed of my white biological mother, her wife (my “other mother”), and her wife’s son (my brother). My parents were hippies, and, as such, were not keen to discuss race with me or my brother, as I imagine that it didn’t strike them as necessary. I mean we should all be able to get along, right?

Though I do not recall ever having a single conversation about race with my parents as a child, they have told me recently that things were different back then, so they didn’t think that it was necessary. Of course, race still mattered. My brother and I were born two months apart, so we have always been in the same grade and know many of the same people. I spent much of elementary school insisting that I wasn’t adopted, a suggestion that must have been incredibly frustrating to a child who genuinely had no idea why everyone always insisted that she was different from the rest of her family. When we moved to Atlanta in 2010 (I was eleven), things became a bit clearer to me, as for the first time in my life, I was living in a place where black people formed the majority. And I am deeply, incredibly ashamed to say that I hated it.

As my understanding of my race began to develop, it was obvious to me that no matter what I was, I did not want to be black. My black peers were not successful in class, nor were they getting attention from the white boys that I liked (as a middle schooler, I’m afraid those were the outlets toward which I most intensely exerted my attention). Instead, they were getting in trouble with teachers and administrators, and I found black people so unattractive at the time that I am certain that I never even gave a thought to whether I might be interested in them romantically or sexually, or whether they’d be interested in me. Additionally, I felt that I had nothing in common with black people aside from some shared physical characteristics (characteristics which I desperately hoped to change, seeing as I loved to straighten my hair, obsessively watched a ridiculous YouTube hypnosis video hoping that it might change my eyes from brown to blue as it claimed to be able to do, and purchased several wacky contraptions meant to narrow my nose).

However, never in this time did I think to myself, “I don’t like black people.” I can definitely remember feeling embarrassed to be one of them and even actively and consciously wishing that I wasn’t, but the closest to overt prejudice that my thoughts ever got was somewhere along the lines of, “Why do black people have to be like that?” Inside that question is a damning implication, “Black people behave in a manner that I dislike,” which is truly just a few words away from, “I don’t like black people.” Now, I was way too young to understand the nuances of these thoughts, or even to question them at all. Frankly, I didn’t suspect that there was anything wrong with how I felt, and I knew that other people felt it, too. In fact, it wasn’t until high school that I would, for the first time, understand that I was black and not see that as a horrible, dreadful mistake. Though that was the most important event of my life, for the purposes of what I’m writing now, I would actually like to focus on the time before that, when I was an anti-black black person.

I understand that that is a rather provocative sentence, and it is not one that I write lightly. I went back and forth on calling myself a black racist, a black white supremacist, whatever. I have decided to designate myself as anti-black rather than as a racist or a white supremacist because anti-black does not necessarily connote my race (given that many would object to a black person calling themselves a racist or a white supremacist). Further, this is a profoundly humiliating exercise for me, and the last thing I want is to make light of it with a catchy moniker. This is also an exercise in agency and honesty, and it is for exactly that reason that I am calling myself precisely what I was (and sometimes still am).

My anti-blackness did not manifest in Confederate flag regalia nor in use of the n-word, and yet, it should be pretty clear by now that I definitely did not like black people. My methods were much more subtle and most certainly insidious, as they were not attached to a conscious, named hatred, but rather a nebulous, veiled one that enabled me to build up the conviction that my behavior and thoughts were normal and justified as they did not conform to any definition that I had of racism.

Meanwhile, I labored constantly at distancing myself from other black people. Both my middle and high schools had sizable black populations, but I had almost no black friends. At the time, I simply thought that I was whiter than I was black, and thus I did not see an issue with having mostly white and non-black friends. Now, I can tell you that, unfortunately, I did not just think that I was different from other black people: I thought that I was better than them because I was whiter. Whiteness, for me, meant intelligence, kindness, and beauty, all traits to which I aspired, and all traits that I felt blackness lacked. As a biracial person, I was whiter both in the literal sense of my genealogy and in the social sense of my upbringing and cultural background, and I felt that these proximities to whiteness aligned me with it.

The differences that I perceived between black people and white people were immense, and white people always came out on top. Rather than recognizing that as an issue, I simply felt that it was the natural order of things. If anything, black people were to blame for their position. Since I lived in a white neighborhood with my white family in my white commune, my interactions with black people were pretty limited to my time in school, where I saw my black peers behave poorly in class and be punished for it. It was at this time that one of my most shameful anti-black tendencies was born, as I developed almost immediately a distinct preference for being the only black person in my classes.

These days, as a student at a university that is about 9% black, I am fucking appalled when I am the only black person in a class. It is a rage and a discomfort that is completely in opposition to the emotional reaction that I would have had ten years ago. Yes, I have changed, undoubtedly for the better. As a child, I saw my blackness as a burden, and now I see it as a blessing. It is the identity I’m proudest of, and I would sooner throw myself in a volcano than renounce it. And yet, anti-blackness is something I still wrestle with. At my 9% black university, I continue to have more non-black friends than black ones, and I have taken exactly one class with a black professor, and it was African-American studies (and guess what! They are radically underfunded and do not even have an office!).

I am sharing this with you for the purpose of suggesting that if a black person can participate in anti-black behaviors, you can too. I know that we hope that our black boxes on Instagram and our $5 donations to the ACLU have us in the clear vis a vis racism for at least a few days, but I implore us all to ask ourselves whether we’ve ever experienced thoughts or exhibited behaviors similar to those above. To make things a little easier, I can promise that everyone has. I know that I was/am awful, so maybe most anti-blackness isn’t as bad as mine was/is, but you can be pretty much sure that it exists in us all. Every non-black person that I have ever been close to (and if you think that I’m talking about you, I assure you that I am) has engaged in behavior that is comparable to my own.

One of the great tragedies of my identity shift is that suddenly, I thought that everyone I loved was racist. I struggled to convince my non-black loved ones that it was unacceptable to imitate black people’s accents when telling stories about them, or that telling me about something bad that happened and overtly stating that it was a black person who did it isn’t that fun. I have been asked approximately three billion times if black men have bigger penises, and I have been told time and time again that I look better with straight hair. My loved ones have divulged in me their inner anti-blackness, seeing me as someone who would allow or even condone it, and it breaks my heart into twenty-two pieces that I ever earned such a mortifying reputation. Sadly, the reality is that each time such behavior goes uncorrected, the vindication of the perpetrator grows, and the more sure they become that their anti-blackness is ok. When we hate racism but not racists, what we are actually doing is loving racism.

Very few people want to be racists, and though there is a difference between a hood-carrying Ku Klux Klan member and someone who just thinks that black women are sorta loud, those two people are products of the same system. I completely understand that it is tremendously difficult to admit to a fault as great as racism. It is also much harder to actually experience racism, which is why it is our duty to grow up and be honest with ourselves about who we are and what we could do better. I humbly offer that almost every American, if not literally all of us, maintains anti-black sentiment, and until we actually hold ourselves and each other accountable, our progress will continue to be shallow. Part of that accountability means recognition of the fact that one must literally constantly choose to be pro-black in a world that never is. Even now.

Please understand that I am not actually asking anyone to share with me or anyone else their experiences with anti-black thoughts or actions. Though I am a black woman, I question the salience of focusing on the oppressor rather than the oppressed. I am sharing my experience because I want people to understand that anti-blackness does not look one way. It is not always explicit, nor does it require a white host. A lot of people sharing Black Lives Matters posts are still anti-black, and I hope that my willingness to acknowledge my anti-blackness might resonate with one of these people (or rather, one of you) so that they can address their own. Recognition of the problem is the first step. Admitting that you are complicit is somewhere after that. If we all think that we’re not racist, our racism will never be helped.

Oh, and if you’re one to call yourself color blind, might I suggest a motherfucking optician? “Color blind” people still raise children like me.

Seraphina Cooley

Sounds of Summer - A Yoga Retreat

July 19th-21st