Words…Please Don’t Fail Me Now

I’m at a loss where to even begin this post. If you know me well, you know that for me to be rendered speechless goes against the fiber of my DNA. I am an external processor. I talk my thoughts. I write my thoughts. I verbalize. I discuss. So, please excuse if this is rough, or choppy or disjointed. There is so much swirling in my brain that I cannot quite pull it all together.

Just over two years ago I wrote this post in response to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School. This morning, in my desperation to find a mental footing, I returned to those words and wept that we have not made any progress, ON ANYTHING. We remain patently unable to have productive conversations about the deep issues which are tearing our nation apart and destroying our communities.

The other day I woke up to a text from a friend in London which basically asked the question “What the hell is wrong with America?” The answer to that question can and does fill reams of books and countless webpages. The only thing that has been spilled more than ink is innocent blood.

WHITE. PEOPLE. THIS. HAS. GOT. TO. STOP.

WHITE. PEOPLE. WE. ARE. THE. PROBLEM.

WHITE. PEOPLE. WE. MUST. DO. SOMETHING.

If you doubt me you need to check history. REAL history. All the way back. The blood of people of color has soaked this land for centuries. This is not a new phenomenon. White people. Caucasians. Europeans. WE have been brutalizing, colonizing, enslaving, profiting from, discriminating against and disenfranchising people of color from the second we left European shores. We contaminated every continent we touched with our prejudice and hate. Spaniards decimated the Aztecs, Mayan and Incan populations. English, Dutch, French and German settlers wiped out entire tribal groups as they moved across this continent. The descendants of those enterprising settlers set up the most vile system of enslavement the world has ever known which still infects our social interactions to this day. Later, desperate for labor to build our nations railroads we “imported” countless Chinese and other Asian ethnicities. Today immigrants from South and Central America tend and harvest the vast majority of our fields- nearly every fruit and vegetable in our supermarkets has been picked and processed by immigrants willing to do the backbreaking labor that whites see as beneath them. Many whites conservatives love to crow about the blood of our soliders ensuring our freedoms, and rightly so. My grandfather was one of those men. What they fail to recognize or acknowledge is that the nation those soliders have long defended is built on a foundation steeped in the blood of people of color.

America has a race problem. America has ALWAYS had a race problem. America will continue to have a race problem if we do not acknowledge and ACTIVELY WORK TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM. It is a self-reinforcing system. Red line laws from the Jim Crow era created ghettos, urban and rural, where housing is poor and education is worse. Then we expect blacks and hispanics and other immigrants to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” in a system designed to keep them buried. They live every single day burdened by a system crafted explicitly to keep them subjugated – whites, as the minority in power, have created a system to reinforce our privilege. Economic and educational funding that rewards the rich for being rich and punishes the poor for being poor. Police brutality foments distrust and fear while inhibiting safety and communication. Gerrymandering and voter suppression keep vast swaths of eligible voters of color from freely and fully participating in the democratic process we love to tout as the model of the free world. Tacit Racism. Systemic Racism. It runs deep into the fiber of our society and taints every corner of our national dialogue. Our nation is a whitewashed sepulcher – it looks good on the outside at first glance, but it is full of rot and decay within.

Though I identify as Hispanic (thanks Dad!), I walk through this world and our country as a white woman. I’m as blond haired and blue eyed as they come and live in the reality of white privilege. I grew up in a white rural town but today I daily rub shoulders with students from “every tribe and tongue.” I teach in a 4,000 strong multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual high school. It is as far from my own school experience as humanly possible. I am so thankful. My students open my eyes and force me to grapple with my privilege. My students are MY KIDS and I fear for their safety and future. Any day any one of them could become the next trending hashtag. My students share real and raw stories of prejudice, hate, police violence, economic struggle, lack of access to health care, and educational inequalities. In their sharing I am able in the smallest way to vicariously experience the burden they daily shoulder as they walk through this world with skin every beautiful shade of the melanin rainbow. My students need me to be humble and vulnerable and willing to learn because they need my voice as a white person to stand and fight for them. Not because I am better, but because the system has been constructed to include me and exclude them. I do not know from lived experience what it is like to walk through the world suspect by virtue of my skin color. But I can validate their experience and fight to change the system which daily attempts to drown them. I have not done that well. I need learn more and do better.

My ex-boyfriend is black. We often talked about “living while black” and it helped me to wrap my head around racism’s pervasive nature. He told me once that he preferred Southern racism, because it was so blatant you never had to guess what you were dealing with and people didn’t pretend or erroneously think they were “non-racist.” Subtle racism I think is more dangerous. Once my ex and I went to a community day at a state park. Immediately upon exiting the car he stopped dead. He was the only black person there and he told me that he always tried to “prepare himself” when he went into these situations. That day I finally experienced racism, albeit subtly, indirectly and by association. My white skin and freckles and blond hair are like a magic badge that gain me instant acceptance everywhere I go. But that day-holding his hand, wrapping my arm around his waist- for the first time I felt the stares of suspicion, the questions, the eyes watching our every move. He did not pick up a single item at any booth. He would only handle objects if I handed them to him first and was standing by his side. I do not doubt that my presence acted to shield him somewhat, and that had he been alone the situation could have been quite different.

White people…just because WE do not experience this reality does not mean it is invalid. Racism is real and rampant. White privilege is real and the fact you cannot tell how you have benefited proves its existence because you are not forced to think about how those around you respond to your physical presence. White privilege does NOT mean your life is not difficult. It means that your WHITE SKIN does not FACTOR into WHY it is difficult. As a white person I never worry that I am being watched in a store. I never worry when I see a cop car roll by while I stroll through my neighborhood. I never worry about what to do if I have a breakdown on the side of the road. I never worry about how my name “sounds” or if that will prevent me from getting a job. I never think about if I will be arrested for going about my daily life. White people, look around you. If the vast majority of your interactions (job, social life, church, volunteer groups etc) are white then I challenge you to remove yourself from your white spaces and seek black spaces and ask to be invited in. You will likely find yourself to be highly uncomfortable, because for the first time you will be painfully aware of your whiteness and how it causes those around you to respond to your presence. Welcome to the daily lived experience of people of color in America, on buses and trains, at stores, in their jobs, in doctor’s offices, at salons, walking down the street or across the parking lot or trying to get a cup of coffee. If you, as a white person, are unwilling to change skins with your black neighbor or co-worker, then you tacitly recognize there is a difference between your lived experiences. It also means you are okay with oppression for them, but not for yourself. You are okay with them living in fear, even as you are unwilling to subject yourself to the same trauma. If you are okay with that reality, then you need to ask yourself why. Be prepared for the answer to be ugly.

White people, we created this system and it is up to us to dismantle it. It is up to us to listen to and partner with people of color to create real substantial change. We need them to be fully at the table and take the lead because otherwise it will be too easy for white people to do what white people have always done, exploit. We need to sit down, shut up and listen above all else. Then we need to do the things, and make the changes, no matter how uncomfortable they make us. We need to be willing to let go of power and supremacy. We need this change before our country tears itself apart at the seams. It should not take another video clip of police brutality or a white person feeling uncomfortable or threatened and calling 911 on an innocent black person going about their life. It should not take riots in the streets – riots are a sign that people of color have been trying desperately to change a system over which they have no control and they find themselves with no other option to force our attention. It should not take another election where gerrymandering and voter suppression laws rob our citizens from their lawful participation in our democratic process. Why is it okay for heavily armed white militia members to occupy state capitals unchallenged but unarmed peaceful black protestors are met with riot gear and tear gas? Why were gun rights advocates silent when a black man was arrested for shooting his legally registered firearm at plain clothed police when they entered his home unannounced in the middle of the night and he believed them to be intruders, in a state that abides by “stand your ground” laws? Why do so many white cops never face consequences, judicial or otherwise, for taking the life of black citizens they swore to protect and serve? Why do African Americans make up barely 14% of our total population, but nearly 40% of our prison population?

Racism is a white disease that kills people of color. It kills blatantly in incidents of police brutality. It kills quietly through inequitable access to health care, education, housing and employment. Racism, like polio or the measles or smallpox, must be totally eradicated. We cannot tolerate even small infected pockets to remain.

Unfortunately, one of the largest racism pockets infects the white church. Church and religion have long fostered prejudice and hate. Spaniards brought Catholic missionaries, and colonists later sent Protestant missionaries to “convert” the heathens. Southern plantation owners used the Old Testament to justify the enslavement of blacks. For far too long the white church has explicitly or implicitly supported racism both blatant and systemic. I’m not saying evangelism is invalid or that missionaries are evil. However, when the Church uses religion to control and subjugate a group of people and refuses to acknowledge, support and treat them as full participants socially and within the body of Christ, then we are not not fulfilling Jesus’ mandates to preach the gospel, instead we are weaponizing faith to our self-serving ends. Love thy neighbor does not come with any caveats or exceptions. Jesus shed His blood for all mankind. That includes every skin color, every nationality, every race, every tribe and every tongue. If your vision of heaven is not in melanin technicolor then your church and your Jesus are too white. The Church cannot be Jesus’ light to the world if we do not value and include every shade of God’s creation. His imago dei is stamped on our souls, not on our skin.

The world population has topped 7 billion. NEWS FLASH! White people are not now, and never have been, the majority. We need to get comfortable with our actual place in the world. For centuries we have monopolized power in “western” or “civilized” countries but by virtue of sheer demographics that will begin to shift. Fear drives that desire for power – fear of what “they” will do to “us” if “they” gain control. Fear that “me and mine” will not get what we want, even though what we want is far more than we legitimately need. Rabid American individualism feeds racism – the idea that there is not enough for everyone keeps white people from seeing people of color as fellow citizens and that our fortunes rise and fall together.

To the White Church – what part of “They had all things in common” and “They will know we are Christians by our love” are you unwilling to follow? We, as the Church and the disciples of Jesus, SHOULD be leading this fight for change. It is time to do some deep soul searching, individually and collectively.

To White People – I’m no economist or sociologist but logic dictates our nation is only as strong as its weakest links, if we are unwilling to find viable ways to repair the social and economic inequities created by systemic racism then we doom the society we claim to love so much. For that society to be truly healthy it likely must look very different from what most white people envision as “America.”

There are so many resources online for those who are willing to step into discomfort and begin this hard work. It can be overwhelming. I know because I’m utterly overwhelmed. Start simple. Here’s a list of ways/resources to consider. Think about how you curate your social media. Are you following and reading people of color? What about your own social circles? These conversations are not easy, but they are necessary and they won’t just “happen.” We have to cultivate space, invite friends to talk and we need to listen before we do anything else because….

White people, WE are the problem. The system will not change until WE fix ourselves. WE need to question our motivations, actions and responses for racism. Even if you think “I don’t see race.” That’s bullshit. Everyone see’s race. We respond with micro-aggressions all the damn time. The point is not to be “color blind.” I need to be aware that my black students may respond to my white authority in the classroom differently. I need to be aware that my white presence may make people of color nervous in public and go out of my way show them I am not a threat, and to show those around us that I do not view them as a threat. I need to raise my voice in support of people of color to demand change. We cannot hope to be “color blind” until systemic racism is eradicated. WE must call out friends, coworkers, and relatives who exhibit blatant and subtle racism, even if that makes us a target. WE must make it socially unacceptable to behave and talk in ways that create division and deny another individual’s or group’s humanity. The right to free speech should not impinge on anyone else’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” by creating an environment of fear in our nation. WE must actively engage and expose our children to a multi-cultural world and teach them to appreciate and value difference.

White people we need to get over ourselves, our power and our privilege. NOTHING will change until this happens wide-scale. We need to be angry enough to go beyond lip-service to substantial action. We need to be angry enough to be risk being uncomfortable. We need to be angry enough to lift our voices and refuse to participate in the system by our silence. People of color have been fighting this battle against racism for centuries. It is high time we switch sides and join them on the front lines to end this war for good.

2 thoughts on “Words…Please Don’t Fail Me Now”

  1. Kathryn,

    I am so proud that you are my daughter. Your entire essay is worthy of evaluation by the entire nation. We need to feel the injustice that people of color have felt for generations. Thank you for putting words to our thoughts.

    LoveDad

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

    1. Thank you Dad. There is much much more that needs to be said, and done. But it is a start for me and hopefully will foster thought and maybe action for the few who read it 🙂

      Like

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