An all too familiar air floats and festers across our country at present. I find myself in an all too familiar place, one that is wholly incapable of comprehending the full implications of this butchered American. George Floyd looked like anyone I could have known, as did Ahmaud Arbery, as did Philando Castile, as did Tamir Rice, as did every person on this hit list, ad nauseam. It’s now an annual event in these United States that Americans of African descent are murdered, just as regularly as school shootings and international conflict. It’s what our country…it’s what we are known for.
As I do when these all too commonplace homicides are realized, I turned to the writings of Mr. James Baldwin, my Virgil in navigating America’s racial identity. His unparalleled understanding of humanness and his ease in discussing race in America are timeless and give me hope in what feels like a growing landscape of darkness and blight. It’s his words from his essay Letter from a Region in My Mind, “When a white man faces a black man, especially when the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed,” are most telling. I would describe them as prophetic, but he was describing his own personal experience as a young black man in America. And he no doubt described the experience of every black man since. He described the experience of George Floyd without question.
I, as a white man, inherited an independence that allows me to convince myself that I belong in this world, that allows me to justify my place in space and time. We annually celebrate and perpetuate the liberties and freedoms upon which we pride ourselves as Americans. As long as “we” are white, we are allowed to explore what those liberties and those freedoms mean. It even means that I can harass and harangue other Americans without impunity. In some case it means that I can even murder without consequence, as seen so many times in our country’s courts. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the scales of justice are weighted in the favor of people with fairer skin. But what is most telling is the value we place (or don’t place) on the lives of people of color.
If any one of us is more offended by a structure fire than the loss of a human life then the structures we built are flawed and fated to fall around us, weakened by the failures used as mortar and sand. If anyone of us rationalizes the enforcement of laws to unfairly imprison another, then we in effect limit our own freedom. If at any moment we eliminate a human life from the planet justified by our irrational fears, we strangle our own vitality. In the same way Dr Martin Luther King remarked, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality…” it’s our interdependence, our symbiosis that allows us to create harmony and support each other in greatness.
We as white Americans have a burden to bear:
Our onus is to understand our part in this. Just as much as Black Americans wear their nationality on their skin, so too do we. Our whiteness is a legacy that we walk in every single day of our existence. Our privilege and the opportunities it affords is without question. But it’s not enough to simply understand, nor is it enough to shake our heads in shame at the actions of others. It’s not enough to shed a tear and go back to the mundanity of our daily routines, complacent in the convenient forgetting of our lives.
It’s time to use our privilege to the benefit of those who are suffering. It’s time to use our opportunities to lift up the voices of those who are screaming for equality. It’s time to sacrifice some of our privilege to improve our American society for everyone. It’s time to recognize that our compassion is the weapon we use to combat racism. It’s time we stifle our own voices so that the cries of the ones struggling around us can be heard.
In his final moments of life, George Floyd’s stifled cries were ignored by a country that never allowed him to really live. America’s systemic racism made sure of that. But it’s time that ends and it’s on us, white America to sacrifice so that others may enjoy freedom. Not only because it’s right, not only because it’s overdue, but because it will afford us richer, fuller lives in turn. Again, I invoke the immortal words of Mr. Baldwin, “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorable, about themselves.” It is time. We need to listen and learn about our friends, coworkers, and neighbors. It’s time we find out about ourselves.
The needed change starts with us. We have the opportunity to take actions that yield results. We don’t need anyone’s permission to change ourselves and our world view and we can do better. I will do better. I promise to carry my burden in this fight, and I promise to take these actions as a starting place:
- Read, learn, grow.
My reading list never gets shorter, but in this case, lives depend on enlightenment. I already know a few places to look and learn to expand my perceptions and my relationships.
I will use my ability to connect with people to promote the cause of equality, especially among community leaders. It’s easy enough to call, email, make my voice heard.
- Listen. Really listen.
As much as I want to think I already know and am aware, I’m sure I don’t and am not. I want to hear people’s experience with race in America. But just as importantly, to stay open and not debate, not get defensive, and remember this is about healing.
- Don’t expect to do this right.
I can’t do this exactly right and I’ve already failed if I think I can. I will make mistakes and I will be wrong, but like I’ve already said…
I will do better.
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