Trouble Processing and My Year of Expanded Reading

I have been having a lot of trouble processing my life lately. And the world.

George Floyd Memorial at Chicago Avenue & 38th Street (49952803788)

In January, I found out I am pregnant again. It came as a surprise, which meant I immediately girded myself to get used to a whole lifetime that looked a little different from what I imagined. That was OK — I was sure nine months and the pregnancy hormones would be enough for me to really wrap my head around this new vision for my life.

Except I had no idea at the time all the other things life would throw my way that I would have to try to wrap my head around in that same span of time. All while raising a toddler. In quarantine.

In May, my beloved 16-year-old cat died, my family had a close encounter with Covid-19 (we all tested negative), my son started dropping his naps (a trauma you probably only understand if you’re the exhausted parent of a young child), and other stuff that is too personal to write about here.

And on May 25, police in my home state senselessly murdered a Black man — the most recent entry in a long history of our country’s betrayal of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) population. Justified unrest erupted — and while some unscrupulous people took advantage of the situation, many others used it as an excuse to push their own racist views and agendas.

And all of this took place against the constant, low-level trauma that is the Covid-19 pandemic, a steady erosion of life as we knew it with no clear end in sight.

Many of my thoughtful (white) friends shared sentiments about privilege and solidarity, sadness and anger, on Facebook and in other forums. I reposted the words of those who articulated better than I could. I felt like I SHOULD say something, should somehow prove that I cared, should be clear about what side I came down on. But I remained silent.

If silence is complicity, then I was complicit. But that was not the reason for my silence. As a privileged white woman, I felt like anything I said would be trite and out of touch. That as a white woman, maybe I had already said plenty in my lifetime. Maybe it was time to just shut up and listen.

Especially since I was having so, so much trouble processing it. I still am. During my first pregnancy, Trump was elected president, and I had a similar difficulty accessing my rage and despair in the midst of nationwide protests and the steady rollout of the injustices of his agenda. I think a part of my brain shuts down a bit during pregnancy as a protective mechanism against overwhelming anxiety and despair and the flood of hormones that would tell my growing baby that this world he is coming into is not a safe place to be.

I am aware that it is my privilege that allows such a mechanism to take hold. Pregnant or not, if I were Black I would not be able to automatically “protect” myself in this way. The reality would intrude much the way it intrudes into the pregnancies and consciousnesses of all the women who have had to gestate and deliver in war-torn countries. Because if you are a person of color, this country IS a war-torn one.

A couple weeks ago, I broke down crying in the bathroom before bed, feeling like it was just too much and that I wasn’t giving ANY of it its emotional due. Not the racial injustice. Not the baby growing inside me. Not the years of love and loyalty from my cat. My mind alternated between frantic, unproductive spinning and a sort of closed-off silence.

In the middle of the night, I woke up thinking about my Year of Expanded Reading project.

The project is simple: a year of focusing on reading books by non-White and/or non-American authors. I started it because I wanted to challenge my underlying assumptions that the experiences and storytelling style of people like me — white Americans, which is primarily what I read — were somehow humanity’s “default.” I wanted to develop a stronger subconscious awareness of experiences and storytelling outside my own “bubble” that would perhaps help me not default to Eurocentric, privileged worldviews in my own writing.

With George Floyd’s death, the project has taken on a new meaning, a new urgency.

As I lay awake in the middle of the night, I realized that taking the stories of others deep into our psyches is a powerful way to combat seeing those who are different from us as somehow being less than us. Most police are less likely to treat white citizens cruelly because they see IN those white citizens their own family and friends, their own stories (the exception being extremely poor or mentally ill white people, who are still abused with alarming regularity according to the court documents I used to read every day for a living.)

Would those police have been more likely to listen to George Floyd’s pleas of distress if they had spent a year or more immersed in the stories of Black people, either through reading, other media, or, best of all, ACTUAL LISTENING? I think they would have. I think they would have much more quickly seen the humanity of the man in their custody, and the inhumanity in their treatment of him.

A few of my friends who are librarians have reported long hold lists on books that speak to the experiences of people of color. Many libraries are making these books available to download without a library card. Reading about those whose experiences are different from your own is a very privileged, safe way to start unraveling your own internal biases and assumptions. And it will take far longer than a year for those of us steeped in white culture and white privilege to truly internalize these experiences and perspectives. But it’s a start.

All of our bookshelves — in bookstores, libraries, my house — are full of the voices of white “experts.” I think most of us have been talking long enough. Perhaps we should make a commitment to finally shut up and listen.