Written by MILK Podcast guest, Nicole Alifante
It’s hard to write about personal transformation when you’re in the middle of one but here goes. We undergo many transformations in our lives. Most of mine were by choice. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a professional actress and so I wrote a story for myself based on a traditional narrative. I moved to NYC, I pounded pavement and I made a living as an actress.
When I was 35, my husband and I decided that we would make a baby and so I transformed into a mother. I wrote a story for myself that was based on my own family history. I focused on my child and all things domestic. The artist met the mother and the reality of my life ensued. That transformation was initially harsh and continues to morph as the years go by.
My current state of transformation is born from a narrative that I did not write but one that I am a character in. I am working toward becoming an anti-racist. I was never consciously racist and I’ve learned that I am not white but rather someone who has come to be called “white” through a long and institutionalized series of cynical choices and policies that built and defines this country. Let me be clear, I benefit from my whiteness every day. Living here in America that means I have three options. I can see black and brown folks as less than myself and actively perpetuate oppression against them. Second, I can acknowledge that black and brown people are presently oppressed as they were hundreds of years ago but in different forms, be sensitive to it yet still do nothing. Or finally, I can refuse to live any longer in a caste system that was not created by me but handed down to me and try to do something about it. I’ve chosen the latter. It’s the ultimate rabbit hole and it’s deep.
With the horror of our current POTUS shaking me to the core: “The wall”, “The travel ban”, “Mexicans are rapists”, “Black people have nothing to lose”, “Law and order”, “I can shoot someone on 5th avenue and my people will still vote for me”, I began to research the ugly chunk of American history that was never taught to me in my 16 years of schooling (redlining, unfair taxation, housing covenants, criminalization of poverty, etc) and was awakened out of my deep, white sleep.
I keep hearing Mr. Garner’s voice, “ I can’t breathe.” These days I feel a loss of oxygen with every unarmed black person shot down in the street -- equivalent to modern lynching. This is and always has been America’s existential crisis. Race is a social construct created so “white” people can maintain power, wealth, property and cling to an archaic definition of American identity. It is only with the lesser “others” that “white” can truly exist. What if those others were equal? Then who are we?
I’m not trying to save people of color. I’d like to think that in my newfound activism, I can help make life better for black and brown Americans through policy change and education but I will be saving myself as well. I want to live in this country if it’s honest. I want to sing the national anthem, say the pledge or vote in a place where not only are “all men created equal” but are also treated as equals. I want the black teenager selling drugs to have the same punishment as the white kid; community service, rehab and a second chance. I want black mothers to know that their sons are safe on the street, like my son. I want reparations, in whatever form, for those oppressed peoples who have endured terrorism on our soil and continue to on a daily basis.
This metamorphosis is lonely. It’s complex. I’m learning a new language, I’m humbling myself, I am asking many stupid but necessary questions and I listen, a lot, to people of color. I’m not able to really look at people in my life right now and discuss this with them. I’m like an undercover agent, the best kind of liar and most days I feel like a dormant volcano.
When you start to read and pay attention, you learn that this country, and its sacred capitalism, was built on the oppression of black and indigenous human beings. It’s a violent, hypocritical place and it’s all documented. The surprise for me was that it was a historical problem and it’s still happening now. The oppression of black and brown people started here in the 1600’s, racism was born out of that oppression and it’s currently running like a well-oiled machine.
The facts are not open for interpretation, which is why it’s not taught to us. Our educators spoon feed the Martin Luther King story in elementary school, slavery and civil rights movement in middle school and high school and the white washing is accomplished. The “good” whites shake their heads at the scars history has left on the black community but only a select few of us come to understand that it’s not a dark psychology born of slavery that keeps blacks down but America’s very laws and policies that are in play and that mutate each generation like a new form of cancer. Slavery has turned to mass incarceration. I wonder now where our new passion for “white nationalism” will lead us?
We have dehumanized people of color, left them bankrupt, angry and afraid but the irony is that we American folks who have come to be known, for purely insidious reasons, as “white” are dehumanized as well. We are property too. We are born criminals without having to spend time in prison. Our entitlement cuts our soul to pieces because all that we have is due to the fact that “others” are purposely made to have not.
In a construct of such inequity the “boot straps” model is a demented illusion. I won’t allow my son to bear this burden. It’s not a burden that even touches the daily cross that American people of color have to bear but it’s profoundly heavy once you are hip to it.
An acting career comes and goes and your children eventually forge their own lives, but the desire to undo racism seeps into your being and takes hold of your psyche forever. This process changes the context of every decision you’ve ever made as a “white” person. A black woman transforming to an actress or a mother will face obstacles that I will never know and that shouldn’t be. I may not see any real remedies in my lifetime but how many black mothers and fathers left this earth not knowing if their children would ever be unchained? I try to keep in mind that this version of myself is fighting with the hope that our sons and daughters’ America will one day truly be free.
Hear more from Nicole on MILK podcast.