Yesterday afternoon I accidentally cut off another shopper with my cart on the way out of the store. I took my own advice about better connecting with people, looked directly at her, smiled apologetically and said, “I’m sorry!”
The woman gave me an unmistakable glare of disapproval and stalked past me without a word and out the door. She was a black woman. Her reproach was palpable, and I felt small and miserable.
I pondered her response and the reaction I had to it. Had it really been reproach and disapproval? Did it have anything to do with the national dialog and protests about race? Or was she just ticked that I cut her off? She was not the first black person to look at me critically recently, I realized. Or was it just that I was suddenly self aware of being white?
I loaded the car and drove off still thinking. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, which if anything good is to come of all the bad, thinking a lot is something we all should be doing.
I’ve felt unsettled and frustrated and helpless and angry. I’ve tried talking to white acquaintances but that’s like talking to myself. Everything we say sounds platitudinous, hackneyed, and forced. White friends keep sharing inspirational sayings by black celebrities, or preachers who seem to reinforce the “we all just need to get along” philosophy. True, but that falls short and rings flat against the reality before us.
I’ve tried talking to black acquaintances and have so far been met with silence. I’ve read various views on #BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter. I couldn’t understand the problem. Isn’t All Lives Matter more inclusive? Wasn’t that saying that race didn’t matter, that we all mattered and we should all take care of each other?
I read Michael Eric Dyson’s editorial “Death in Black and White” and I got mad. He kept telling me what my views were:
- You, white America, say that black folks kill each other every day without a mumbling word
- You do not want to know anything different from what you think you know.
- You think we have been handed everything because we have fought your selfish insistence that the world, all of it — all its resources, all its riches, all its bounty, all its grace — should be yours first, and foremost,
- You demand the Supreme Court give you back what was taken from you:
and worst of all
- Your whiteness has become a burden too heavy for you to carry, so you outsource it to a vile political figure who amplifies your most detestable private thoughts.
“Whiteness is blindness,” Dyson wrote. “It is the wish not to see what it will not know.”
These things no more represent me as a white American than the notion that black Americans kill each other every day without batting an eye is an accurate representation of black Americans, I thought with frustration. Dyson doesn’t know me. I’m cognizant of, and unhappy with, white privilege. I do not deny its existence, but I also do not exploit it.
I am not blind. I have no white rage, I raged. I have only red blooded sadness. And I sure as hell am no supporter of Donald Trump.
Why, I thought, are my black friends silent, and strangers glaring at me? Why am I being lumped in with others whom I’m nothing like? I have done nothing wrong. I’m a good person, trying to make my way as well as possible through a challenging world.
And then it dawned. Between the shopping cart and Dyson, I had the epiphany of the obligating imagination:
I’ve done nothing wrong but I am suspect by virtue of how I look. This is the everyday experience of my black friends and associates. It doesn’t matter that I’m innocent, that I’m kind and good, that I’ll help anyone I meet on the street, that I’m a mother or a daughter or a wife or a friend. How I look , the color of my skin, makes me “them.”
I got, at least a little more clearly, why “Black Lives Matter” and why that shouldn’t be supplanted by All Lives Matter. I had read the “Explain like I’m 5” thread but it didn’t bring it home until I had a personal experience that I could relate to the situation: Of course all lives matter. That’s not the issue. The issue is that Black lives have not mattered the same way as white lives.
All those efforts to help us see beyond race when we were kids: the blue eye and brown eye segregation experience, or blonds and brunettes , and who got M&Ms and who didn’t? Even kids know that’s a false set up because later on everyone gets M&Ms. Blue eyed and Brown eyed kids are still white kids and know they’re playing a game.
It’s not trying to artificially replicate being black in a white world that imparts something of the experience of racism. It’s the actual and spontaneous physical experience of being white in a black world, of experiencing discomfort, rejection and suspicion simply for being who you are in a community that doesn’t value or like you, for whatever reason, at whatever time.
I still don’t agree with Dyson on many of his assertions. Broad generalizations are divisive and counter-productive wherever they occur. But perhaps I have been color blind, and not in the way that I thought.
I am the color I am, like everyone else, by an accident of birth – and then not even white so much as olive, an Hispanic American who chose to embrace the Caucasian side of my Cuban-American birth simply because that’s who most of my friends and family were and that’s where my journey took me. But the accident worked out in my favor, for the most part, and I have had the benefit of white privilege all my life.
So the next question is, what can I do about all of this? How can I have some positive impact at this crucial juncture in our cultural and social history? I don’t believe I have to take on the weight of the world’s sins for every horrible thing ever done through the ages by people I may resemble. But as a white woman, I do believe I have a responsibility to set the bar higher through my words and actions.
In browsing online for some solutions oriented approaches, I came across the useful and aptly titled Huffington Post article, “For White People Who Believe Black Lives Matter.” It’s a good read . Among the resources is a link to Showing Up for Racial Justice , which had another useful piece titled “Six Ways White People can help end the War on Black People” . There I found another useful read: White people, don’t tell me what Martin Luther King would think of Black Lives Matter
None of this is comfortable or easy to think about, read about or talk about. It’s not supposed to be. Three main points stood out for me, as I read and pondered:
1) We have to have the conversation, but as white people, we have to listen more than talk.
2) We have to be willing to be uncomfortable as we have these conversations, and quite probably make other white people uncomfortable, too.
3) We have to bear witness, with one another, among friends and family, within our communities and to our legislators.
I’m still sad, and I still feel inadequate, but that’s my problem. I know I will never fully get it because I am white. I know I’ll be awkward and say the wrong things sometimes, and I hope my black acquaintances forgive me. But I don’t feel conflicted anymore.
Mine is an imperfect epiphany, at best. But I understand better what Black Lives Matter means, and that there are things I can do help make them matter more than they have, in the hopes that we can move forward together to a future where we treat all people of color like all lives really do matter.
Some things we can all do:
- Be present and accounted for in the conversation
- Be a role model – I work with a lot of youth. They need to see white people being supportive of and working closely with black people and they need to see black people in leadership roles. If you are either of those people, step up.
- Get Educated – See Good Reads and Resources below
- **Actively Demand Change** – Here’s What You Can Do Right Now to End Racism – See also A Guide to Taking Action on Police Reform and Campaign Zero
- Beyond Integration: How Teachers Can Encourage Cross-Racial Friendships (article)
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (book)
- White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (book)
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (article)
Useful Sites and Resources
- 70 Race Resources for White People
- A Guide to Taking Legislative Action on Police Reform
- Campaign Zero
- Citizenship and Social Justice
- Mobile Justice App – ACLU