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Morning Metaphor: Racist Houseplants



A few years ago, I went plant shopping. I do not have a green thumb, and typically just bring plants home to die. I love to buy things that look beautiful in the store, without researching them first, only to get home and realize I’ve bought something that needs more sun, richer soil, or more frequent watering. This time was no exception. I snatched up a plant with bright, beautiful green leaves. It looked striking and was advertised as a hearty indoor plant, so I hoped that meant I wouldn’t kill it instantly.


When I got home, I decided to research my new tenant. I tracked it down online and found that it was a dieffenbachia. The common name is dumb cane. This led me down a rabbit hole of google searches. The dumb cane is poisonous, containing tiny crystal-like sap that feels like needles in the mouth and throat if ingested. Ingesting just a bit can cause the tongue to swell and the throat to close up, resulting in pain and speechlessness. Reportedly, dumb cane had been given to slaves as punishment.


There it was. A tool of racism. Potted in my living room. Those beautiful, vibrant, curled leaves seeped in a brutal history. I felt conflicted. Could I house something with this kind of a past? Could I care for a tool of oppression?


And then it dawned on me.


This plant and I were the same. My Whiteness is similarly deeply rooted in oppression and anchored firmly in my ancestry. My actions and inactions pull from this lineage and create modern day manifestations that often slip through unannounced and unseen. Racism takes beautiful things – like this plant, like you, like me – and erodes our beauty. It robs us of connection, and the ability to be in community with each other. It continues killing Black and brown bodies. It is the poison within us – individually and as a whole.


The dumb cane did not ask to be a tool of torture. Nor did I. Yet here we are.


It is so important to be able to dig up and examine the roots of our collective histories and their current produce. If you are White, theories of White racial identity (I recommend Janet Helms’ A Race is a Nice Thing to Have) state that part of White racial development involves coming to terms with a positive White identity. This is not the same as White pride or White nationalism. It is about understanding the deep roots of hatred and bigotry. Of realizing the ways our roots have fed us fear, and bias, and privilege, and realizing that we can be re-planted. We can slowly turn towards the sun. It takes awareness and respect of the poison within, and how it can seep out and impact others. I highly recommend Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands to understand the historical roots of racial trauma that we are all carrying within us, and to envision the ability to cultivate new soil for ourselves and for our future generations.


I still have the dumb cane planted in my living room. Surprisingly, I haven’t killed it yet. Every once in a while, I look at it and see how beautiful it is, just as God created it, before mankind used it for something different. And I feel some hope for myself as well.

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