You might wonder why I’ve paired two disparate terms, such as happiness and racism. As a literary artist who practices ninety-nine-word stories, I find inspiration in the unexplored areas between ideas that don’t readily go together. Cotton candy and cigarette butts. Copper mines and baby’s teeth. The pairing is a word puzzle for the brain. Cotton candy and cigarette butts make me think of the aftermath of the county fair. Copper mines and toddler’s teeth make me wonder if a miner ever carried the first lost tooth of his first child as a good luck talisman. These ideas open my brain to storytelling.
Literary art requires both intuition and observation. I’m a bard who wanders the back trails of my inner life, turning over beach stones, searching for agates to return to my outer expression. I began to explore the intersection of happiness and racism. I thought the story was about a kind woman who smiled at everyone, spoke loving words from her heart, and could melt away racism with a sunny disposition. Kindness matters and writing can heal, but that’s not the full story.
To confront racism, I had to look at my own shadows. Along my creative journey, I didn’t expect to discover I’m a racist, nor that I’d be writing a series of articles to share my ongoing study to become an antiracist. Once I began to see what racism is, and how the long shadow of slavery and genocide touches me, I couldn’t ignore it. I had to do more than practice kindness.
This exploration is a soul journey, a true story of self.
Like many Americans, I was appalled at the graphic death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. For three years prior, I had tried to get friends and family to watch a documentary that had opened my eyes to the injustice of police brutality and mass incarceration of Black Americans. I’d ask, “Have you watched Ava DuVernay’s The Thirteenth, yet?”
On social media, I thought I was a compassionate bridge-builder capable of helping those with polarized viewpoints find common ground. Not only did I discover that the conversations I wanted to have unsettled others, but also that language was rapidly evolving. As a wordsmith, I felt shaky not knowing the meaning of words I thought I knew, and bombarded by phrases I didn’t yet understand. I realized the call to become an antiracist will upend beliefs I had never before thought to challenge.
What should I read? Who should I ask? Was it possible I was racist? I grappled in the dark, not wanting to make a mistake. I was afraid of my own color, white. I understood the emotional struggle many others were going through, and it felt like the quickest path to happiness was to denounce racism. Many echoed the words, “I’m not a racist.” It was like a flimsy, inflatable toy keeping us afloat when we were in need of a durable life raft. I found mine in the reminder, “Seek first to understand.” You might recognize the adage from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In the situation of social unrest and personal overwhelm in the middle of a polarizing pandemic, I heeded it as a call to slow down and pay attention. Habit 5 is actually Step 1 to find happiness on the journey to heal racism in our own hearts and become an antiracist.
Let me give you a disclaimer–the journey requires discomfort.
If you join me, you can find happiness, but you will feel uncomfortable. It’s learning to sit with your own flaws to find self-love. It’s personal growth. Shadow healing. But the benefits are worth it–self-awareness plus awareness of others leads to higher emotional intelligence, and thus, an experience of deeper happiness.
When we can each self-actualize, society as a whole can, too. As the impacts of our current pandemic have reinforced so well, we cannot avoid our interdependence. Hopefully, we now better understand that we all lose out when unnecessary, undeserved suffering is not addressed, and we all gain through each person’s self-actualization and ability to share their gifts.
The quest to end systemic racism is not new, and you will find many places to start. I dove in with Peggy McIntosh’s Ted Talk, How to recognize your white privilege—and use it to fight inequality. Next, I discovered The New York Times podcast 1619 with host Nikole Hannah-Jones, who examines the long shadow cast by slavery. I’m building a Black voices library, and my most recent purchase is Ibram X. Kendi’s latest book, How to Become an Antiracist. You see, racism is not just what we’ve usually thought it is–some ignorant unhappy sot who hurls slurs at others. Racism is not about individuals; it’s about policy. According to Kendi, a racist is “One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.”
It was the “inaction” that nailed me.
I did not see myself as participating in racist policy or expressing racist ideas. I thought I was good to go–thoughtful about letting groups of people define their identities, helping to bring diversity to literary art, minding my thoughts, words, and actions. I didn’t know to seek out my own unconscious conditioning by the systems in place in my world. Systemic racism is so insidious because it no longer requires the participation of the dominant group in the inequitable equation of race. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, race is a social construct, not a biological one. Racism as policy in America is something we built, an inequitable system of power and control. If I do nothing to dismantle these unjust constructs, my inaction is what makes me a racist. How can I change what I don’t know?
In 2020, for my health and happiness, I embarked on a life-long commitment to understand racism in myself, dominant perceptions, and in policy. I am a committed practitioner of antiracism, a healer of generational wounds in my own lineage. I invite you to journey with me to take accountability for your own inner happiness and racism through the series of articles I’ll be sharing in this publication, and the resources therein. May you find liberation in the intersection between these contrasting experiences.
Charli Mills grew up out west where she once won a rodeo trophy for goat-tying. Now she wrangles words from the Keweenaw as a literary artist, writing about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history. She makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com.
Reprinted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Fall 2020 issue, copyright 2020. All rights reserved.