During a week of searing sadness, tiredness, and anger, I am looking for a way to move forward. I find myself thinking about the people around me in the grocery store, standing on the bus, sitting on blankets at the farmer’s market, the faces of my children. These are the people I am with in my ordinary day … this is the “American public.” I wonder about what it takes to move public opinion. This week, I have read brilliant, challenging, and inspirational writing about the racist murders in Charleston. I believe that we are all grappling with the failure to openly dialogue about racism, acknowledge historic symbols of racism, and dismantle systems that perpetuate racism. What makes individuals risk offending those dear to them, speak up, do something different, make a change?
For me, learning from others shapes my thinking and moves me to act. I am not talking about grand gestures, but educating myself so I can figure out what to talk about with my children, neighbors, family members, and elected representatives. These are a few of the posts that have taught me this week:
I told a friend recently that I was going to tour the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans. She replied, “Brace yourself.”
The Whitney is the first museum ever to focus solely on the facts and experience of slavery in the United States. It is a fascinatingly idiosyncratic institution that is so unlikely to have evolved and to be succeeding.
My experience was that it managed to deliver a punch without knocking me out. Unlike most museums, you are not left to wander around on your own. You have to go on a tour with a guide who tells you the unvarnished truth of what happened here. It’s tough going and our mostly white tour group was shaken by the experience. The guide firmly dissuaded one white woman when she asked questions designed to point out that maybe being enslaved in the south wasn’t always the kidnapping and torture that it surely was. “You may be trying to comfort yourself,” the guide said.
But there is no reasonable way to comfort oneself as a white person. There is only to feel the national shame.
To the best of my ability, I let myself feel the white heat of that shame. Slavery was not my fault, but it is 2015 and I’m alive now so the legacy of slavery is my responsibility. I see only a slice of how the consequences of slavery still linger, but when I pay attention, I see more and more.
I started writing this blog three weeks ago, after the shooting in Olympia of two black youth by a white policeman. But I wrote myself into tiny knots and couldn’t finish.
What struck me at the time was the immediate pronouncement of the police chief that race was not a factor. Impossible. Race is always a factor. Me, you, the cop, the kids, the police chief—everyone is swimming in the same mighty river of our national story of racism and privilege.
And now we have South Carolina. Where even today the Confederate flag still flies high over many a public building.
It would be very easy to point to the south, to point to others, to point to shooters and haters and say “Them! They are the problem.” Black people throw their hands up “don’t shoot.” White people throw their hands up “not me.”
I’m white. I’m not throwing my hands up. I know it’s me.
I’ll confess to just a few of the ways that it’s me.
I lobbied for years to pass laws creating more and more domestic violence and sexual assault felonies and these laws created a lot of criminals and a lot of prisons. I failed to recognize the huge impact this was going to have on people of color. This is institutionalized racism.
I elect people who continue to support (by doing nothing) tax codes that keep black people poor and white people rich. Institutionalized racism.
It is difficult to understand the enormity of all that I have contributed to. And it would be the easiest thing for me to crawl back into bed because I feel so ashamed. Ashamed of Olympia and Charleston. Overwhelmed at the enormity of what lies ahead to undo the harm.
But the words of our Whitney Plantation guide echo in my mind: “You may be trying to comfort yourself.” These words remind and inspire me. To comfort oneself is human. To act, human too. So I’m going to drag my sorry ass to work. Today I’ll post this blog and call my legislator to ask why she isn’t passing a budget that fully funds all schools. And think about what else I am going to do. I encourage all you white people to get your sorry asses out of bed and get moving too.