I am white. I am male. I am American. And I have been, up to this point, silently racist in my attempt at support for people of color. It’s awkward and shameful as fuck to admit it. And that shame and awkwardness kept me, for too long, from raising my voice, raising my fist, raising a dollar, raising my level of acceptance and anger over behavior that has been so disgustingly unacceptable for so much longer than any of us have been alive. I grew up in the time of “I don’t see race” and “I don’t see color.” Ad campaigns designed to make us aware but comfortable, to make white people feel like we were doing our part, we were being supportive, we were making “them” feel like “us.” But at the end of the day we still used words like “them” and “us.”
This week has changed so much. In a time that was already rife with change, this week was a stick of dynamite in a fire that has been growing for decades. The protests aren’t about George Floyd. He is one of many embers in that fire. He and his memory very well may even be the stick of dynamite, but make no mistake, the signs, the posters, the chants that feature his name are representative of so much more. His name is one of SO many. The anger towards police isn’t an attack on officers, it isn’t about captains or lieutenants or sergeants, it’s about the institution. It’s about the mentality. It’s about the foundation. And that we, especially white people, have refused to look at it, acknowledge it or change it.
“The Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods — a policy known as “redlining.” At the same time, the FHA was subsidizing builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites — with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans.” – Terry Gross, NPR, A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America
This country was designed and built on a foundation of racism – one that last far after slavery was abolished. While redlining was “made illegal” in the late 70’s, it was made illegal in the same room insider trading and tax evasion were made illegal (the type of crimes that are only illegal until it’s damaging to the shareholders). We need to acknowledge this. We need to own this. We need to change this. Because it’s one of MANY reasons the protests are happening. And to be clear, I’m talking about the real protests – the ones about people of color being demonstratively and strategically marginalized, attacked, brutalized and murdered for centuries, not the ones where armed, spoiled militias took over Federal buildings because they “weren’t allowed” to work, go to dinner or get their hair cut for a few months.
I’ve seen social media posts, from friends and family, condemning the protests in Minneapolis and Atlanta, shaming the looting and burning of a Target (because clearly that small business is hurting and really in need of our support right now – I hope you can read sarcasm), calling protestors “thugs,” just as the Commander-in-Chief instructed. Funny how they called me a sheep a while back. What they’re failing to see, in their attempt to send a message of “peace” and “healing” and “wishing we could just be civilized,” is that they’re still, without using the words maybe, saying “them” and “us.” We need to shift the foundational way we view people. It isn’t “our” grace to grant “them” freedom. It isn’t “our” kindness to support “them.” It’s simply just right to be human to a fellow human.
Now, this isn’t a switch we can simply flip. We aren’t suddenly not racist. I have a lot of work to do to correct my foundational racism, and I’m realizing and seeing more and more every day, as I have started really looking at my thinking, my actions, my speech, and my behavior. And I will continue to look at it, acknowledge it, and change it. I won’t always say the right thing. I may not always, or even ever, make things “better.” I am probably, at some point, going to look back on writing this as some kind of flawed effort. But it is and always will be me making an effort. It’s me trying, acknowledging and changing. It’s me admitting it. It’s me getting over the privilege of having the option of being quiet because of shame and awkwardness. It’s me asking how I can help more, what I can do better, where I can improve. Because I want to. Because I know I can and will. Because I’m not afraid of change. And I’m hoping you will do the same.
I don’t want protests to be happening. I don’t want there to be a need. Especially right now. I would love for people to be home and safe, shielded from the pervading virus that is still attacking us, protected by a government that actually stands for its people and helps us through impossible times. But that’s not the world we live in. That’s not the America we built.
I am torn on what to do every time I hear the people gathering and protesting on my street, in front of my building, as they were last night. I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on the corner opposite Medgar Evers College. “Following the 1954 ruling of the United States Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Medgar Evers challenged the segregation of the state-supported public University of Mississippi, applying to law school there. He also worked for voting rights, economic opportunity, access to public facilities, and other changes in the segregated society.” He was an activist that brought about change. And the people gathering in front of a university named after him make me want to ignore my health concerns and join the action. My reason for not is health. I stay in because I am afraid of getting sick, afraid of my medical history and the way this virus attacks those with my history. And that makes me feel guilty because I am putting my life above the freedoms of so many. So I’m making sure my voice is out there, letting my friends and family know I stand with “them,” I stand for true freedom of all, true equality for all, and most of all, I stand for CHANGE, and to make sure that that change is the new foundation of this country, of people, of thinking, and of actions.
Those out there on the streets, making their voices heard, aren’t disregarding the virus. They aren’t disregarding the risk. They have weighed it. They make a choice to be out there. The outrage is more important than the risk of illness. More than the risk of arrest. More than the risk of even death. And that is the earliest and most fundamental defining quality of Americans – raising ones voice, in the face of all the risk, to oppression.
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” – Nathan Hale
This is a time for America to redefine itself, to establish new foundation, just as we did 244 years ago. The men and women who founded this country were just men and women, just as we are today. Their words weren’t and aren’t holy. Their ideas weren’t and aren’t infinitely or impossibly wise. They were men and women, just like us, who spoke for what they knew was right. They were people who stood together for fair treatment, for taxation with representation, for a chance to live a life that wasn’t at the grace of someone else giving “them” what “they” should be happy with. America stands for something so much greater now than it did when those men and women founded it. It’s time for the language that rules it to catch up. It’s time for the leaders in charge of it to start acknowledging what their position really means. And it’s time for us to start educating ourselves and being more responsible with whom we give the power to.
I am white. I am male. I am American. And I vow to change. I vow to be more aware of my thoughts and my actions. I vow to speak out against oppression. I vow to stand with and for… YOU.