I feel sick to my stomach. Horrified. Heart broken. Without adequate words.
I am angry. So angry. Outraged. Without adequate words.
I am sad. Grieving and mourning what should be grieved and mourned every time an innocent life is taken.
Yet, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I remain at a distance. It is easier that way. That’s what privilege allows. How dare I stand away.
Our distance humanizes an incredibly dehumanizing act. A murder. Another murder. Another murder.
When will we all see the horror? When will we see the racism that is so ingrained in our society? When will we choose humility within learning the difficult knowledge over the protection of our pride? When will we really tackle the demons of White Supremacy and the ways it continues to prevail?
I use the word we in those questions without defining what “we” even means in this space. Before I use the word we, I need to use the word “I”.
There are people who have already been doing this work, seeking to answer those questions through saying the time is NOW. There have been people who have been doing this antiracist work of fighting for Justice no matter what it takes, for a long time. There are people who have chosen humility and difficult knowledge and an active role in speaking out against injustices a long time ago and who continue to choose to do so. There are people who haven’t had a choice between distancing themselves or not from engaging in the fight. There are people who never for a second tried to humanize or justify slavery or segregation or what the war on drugs was doing racially or what is happening with police men continuing to kill innocent black men and women. I think when I say we, I am addressing anyone I grew up with who is white. But, before I even say we, again, I need to look first at me.
I need to first speak to myself and with myself. I need to look inward before going on about what I am seeing and have seen outwardly.
I am a white middle class cisgender female. My whiteness has protected me and privileged me my whole life without me realizing for about 18 years. For a long time I was someone who believed the lie that racism was in the past. I learned history from such a sugar coated distance and never challenged it or took on the difficult learning myself. I had a few teachers who went there and spoke about what history books never showed or taught and I am really grateful for them. But, even then, I never took that learning a step further. I can recall moments where I heard a joke that didn’t feel right and I was afraid. I can recall moments where I am guilty of a microaggression. I can recall moments where I felt like ideologies I was hearing were also not right, but I just listened and let it pass. I protected my own pride and stayed silent. I stayed silent for so long. Again, I was at that terribly dangerous place of distance that humanizes what is dehumanizing because we are refusing to actually see what is happening. I stayed away from the news and stayed away from learning the injustices. I am angry with myself.
I am grateful I have had many professors who have pushed me in that work of facing both my explicit and implicit biases. But, that work is never done. It is ongoing. It needs to be ongoing. I want to learn. I need to learn. I need to be uncomfortable. And, a part of that learning has meant also looking honestly at where I grew up. In both an undergraduate and a graduate class I have had to do an educational autobiography. In that space of reflection, I woke up to see where I grew up in a whole new light. I was brokenhearted with what I saw. I felt like Nehemiah. I was protected in the palace. Blind to what went on outside of the palace. And then I learned. I learned of the wall falling and people struggling. Except, the wall didn’t just fall. It fell a long time ago. I was just now hearing the crash for myself.
I grew up in a county that denied racism, while simultaneously defining exactly what racism is.
I grew up in a county known for its racist history. In a county that Oprah Winfrey brought her show to in 1987, just ten years before I was born, to shed light on just how racist the county had been and was. Look up the video, it will make you want to cry and a scream and feel every bit of anger. No one, growing up, ever talked about it. The video was even hard to find for a long time. I never knew about it until a few years ago. I grew up in a county that taught us to believe that racism no longer existed. I grew up in a county where you were “too political” if you challenged the status-quo or what the majority thought. Where people still think a racial slurs used in a senior prank is funny. I grew up in a county where our principal was found sharing islamophobic posts on facebook and everyone went straight to defending him— minorities began to speak, as they shared that they had been trying to speak for years, and still, no one listened. I grew up in a county where a social studies teacher said he taught from a non-biased perspective and that he would remain in line with the founding fathers, while he also stood in the back of the room reading slideshows making comments so casually and hatefully about Obama. I grew up in a county where we never learned about the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. Like a high school girl named Claudette Colvin who sat on a bus and refused to give up her seat to a white woman years before Rosa Parks did the same. I grew up in a county who believed equality was really achieved with the Civil Rights Movement and that all was in the past and where I actually didn’t know Black History Month was a thing until student teaching. I grew up in a county that defines much of what white privilege is, yet I never heard the word white privilege until I was in college. I knew the concept of being color blind and “not seeing color” far before I knew about privilege. I never heard anyone speak about the summer of 2014 or say Trayvon Martin’s name or Tamir Rice or Michael Brown or Eric Garner and the list of names goes on.
Maybe I just wasn’t listening though.
I am far from innocent and separated from any of it. I grew up immersed in it. That impacts you. It impacts your biases without us ever even realizing it. I was blown away when I learned about implicit biases. In college it was like I was learning a whole other language. I was ignorant for much of my life and there are still areas I am incredibly ignorant in. But, I want to learn. I need to learn. Again, I am angry. With myself. With my community that is still trying to hide its past and present. Angry that people care more about their pride and their politics than human lives. Angry that people are more afraid of being called racist and will do whatever they can to defend any accusation than they are afraid of another innocent life being lost. Angry that people are more fearful of losing “power” that they will do whatever they can to ensure that their white life is superior.
And, I do not say any of that to bash anyone or to make political statements or to stir up a pot. I say all of that because we have to say it. We have to remember our horrific past that we have contributed to and we have to recognize that that past is also within our present. Forsyth County has so much work to do. And as long as there is another wave of white flight and as long as we are silent about the county’s history, the longer we will remain in a subconscious and sometimes even conscious racist state-of-mind.
As James Baldwin said in his “A Talk to Teachers”—
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
This is important. There is so much that has gone untaught, unsaid, unresolved. And, we cannot just say it is all undone. It is never undone until we face it all head on.
Sugar coating does Harm. Not speaking does Harm. Ignorance is far from bliss— it is violence. We need to talk. And, more than anything, we need to listen— to the voices that have been shut down or shut out for far too long.
To my classmates who were speaking long ago and I wasn’t listening, I am so sorry.
In 2018 Bryan Stevenson and the EJI team opened up the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It is the nation’s first memorial confronting lynching in America. It will leave you without words and will lead you to be face on with the more terrible that Baldwin speaks to. They have memorial monuments for all different counties across America. The monuments are filled with the names of those who lost their life to lynching or the acknowledgment of those who were killed, but there name is unknown. It is painful. So painful. And, absolutely necessary. Much of the work EJI has done and continues to do urges each individual community to confront their past and each individual to open their eyes to see the injustices that have been and that continue to be. They urge us all to engage in the difficult conversations around remembering the racist horrors that were and then, the racist policies and horrors that continue on today. We can not move forward until we know where it is we are coming from.
When you really stare racism in the face it is incredibly difficult to grapple with how it is a construct that ever came to be. And sometimes, the first step to starting it in the face means staring at our own selves in the mirror. Each of us grew up with systems and policies that are undergirded with racism. Some of those systems and policies hide it better than others. But if we look long enough and listen to the people being impacted, it is present. Some of us may have thought that that presence was normal. That is not normal. It never will be and never should be.
How did we get here? And how have we remained here?
History is repeating. Over and over and over and over again. Will we say something? Will we name it as we see it repeat? Will we confront it head on? Or stand at a distance like I have been so guilty of doing, silently? And, will we remember it? Will we remember the names? Will we fight with everything within us to make sure George Floyd is the last name?
It is our job to ensure it does not continue to repeat. It is our job to look long and hard at ourselves before anything else. It is our job to learn and learn and continue to learn the difficult knowledge. And to unlearn what we have grown up hearing and learning that further promotes White Supremacy and the dehumanization of any human being. It is our job to shut down a racist joke. It is our job to name microaggressions when we see a microagression. It is our job to speak about and face our racist history. It is our job to fight for Justice to prevail.
I know I fail at that job. So many of us do. But, don’t stop there. Be reminded of your ignorance, and keep learning. Keep listening. Keep fighting.
I will end with this quote that Jason Reynonlds shares in his section of the acknowledgments of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You that puts words to our respond right now far better than I ever could.
“Reposting will never be enough.
Hashtagging will never be enough.
Because hatred has a way of convincing us that half love is whole. What I mean by that is we—all of us— have to fight against performance and lean into participation. We have to be participants. Active. We have to be more than audience members sitting comfortably in the stands of morality, shouting, “WRONG!” That’s too easy. Instead, we must be players on the field, on the court, in our classrooms and communities, trying to do right. Because it takes a whole hand— both hands—to grab hold of hatred. Not just a texting thumb and a scrolling index finger.
But I have to warn you again:
We can’t attack a think we don’t know.
That’s dangerous. And… foolish. It would be like trying to chop down a tree from the top of it. If we understand how the tree works, how the trunk and roots are where the power lies, and how gravity is on our side, we can attack it, each of us with small areas, and change the face of the forest.
So let’s learn all there is to know about the tree of racism. The root. The fruit. The sap and trunk. The nests built over time, the changing leaves. That way, your generation can finally, actively chop it down.”
Jason Reynolds in Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You