After the footage went viral of Amy Cooper’s call to the police and George Floyd’s death by police, and now with the ongoing protests, I have felt truly heartbroken. I’ve watched as our President blasts social media with more hate, while protestors cry out for justice. I read social media posts and news articles one after the other, and the anxiety seeps in deeper.
What can I do in these situations? Where is my place in all of this as a white woman? I, like I’m sure many other white people are right now, am still working through those questions. However, I’ve decided at this moment to stop just watching and worrying and the do the only thing I know I can in situations where I feel passionate, angry, and helpless: I write.
I write this in hopes that I can push other white people sitting around thinking you are not part of the problem to wake up. I write this knowing that I am about to be very vulnerable, will experience feelings of shame, and will probably read this six months from now and want to hide under the covers because I got something wrong.
My experience with the topic of race is similar to many other white people. Until I reached my twenties, I lived in a bubble. In this bubble, I was taught about slavery and racism in my history textbooks, and that’s where it ended. I didn’t ask questions or look deeper. I didn’t know that people of color still walked in a world that was so different than mine. I was raised in a liberal household, I was taught to treat everyone equally, so I was definitely not racist. But was that true? Because I still wasn’t aware that I was holding onto stereotypes in my subconscious. And that’s the problem, I just didn’t know and even bigger I didn’t try to know.
The not-knowing ended the second I entered my social work program in graduate school where I was the only white person in all of my classes for the first year and a half. In these classes, we had extremely tough, real, emotional conversations about race. These were conversations I had never had before and was the wake-up call that I needed to start really listening.
Following this experience, I went to a work implicit bias training. I’ll never forget the moment when one black woman said that she had to make it a priority to get her New York license updated to match her new address for fear of being pulled over by a cop and ending up killed because of something so small. Another black man said that he never left the house without loving on his kids and wife just in case he didn’t come back home that night.
I thought about how at the time, I myself was driving with my out of state license in New York for the last three years. I knew without a doubt that if I had gotten pulled over, I would have feared a ticket, but never my life.
And just like that, my bubble was burst open. I couldn’t ignore this anymore. Now that I am looking back, it’s incredibly frustrating that it took me so long to wake up.
Why does it take some of us a lifetime to see what is right in front of our eyes?
I think part of it is that none of us wants to feel the shame that comes with being wrong, especially if we fully believe that we treat everyone equally. People don’t want to be told we’re wrong when having a discussion on what the best football team is, nevermind when someone is pushing back on your core belief system.
Not only that, but we definitely don’t want to be confronted on whether or not we are racist. How can we be if we are liberal? How can we be if we have black friends? How can we be if we took that diversity training?
But these are just excuses to stop you and me from having to look deeper.
In the last few years, I’ve had to do a lot of unlearning of things that society has always told me as a white woman, about black people.
What does that look like? For me, that’s when I’m walking down my block one night and I see a black man standing on one corner and a group of white men on another. Without a thought, I choose to cross the street with white men. And then when the realization of what I just did strikes, I have to stop and have a conversation with myself. Why did you just cross the street? What about that black man made you move to the group of people who looked like you? This conversation with myself feels awful. I just want to walk down the street, cross it, and ignore why I did it. But, I can’t.
We can’t ignore when black men are dying at the hands of those that are supposed to protect us. We can’t ignore when another white woman calls the cops on a black man because she is “afraid”.
So, if you are a white person reading this, I hope that if it didn’t happen before, that the current events have burst the white privileged bubble you were living in.
I urge you, as I will do myself, to keep doing this work when the media packs up and goes home. I urge you to look within. Have uncomfortable conversations with yourself and the people in your life, and decide how you want to show up to this conversation. Read the resources and antiracism books being shared right now. Don’t just read them, let them sink deep down into your bones. Austin Channing Brown stated recently on Brené Brown’s podcast, “..the work of antiracism is the work of becoming a better human to other humans.”. Please think about that if you have decided to skip out on unpacking, unlearning, and showing up to this conversation.
A serious amount of change needs to happen in our country for things to be different. However, find where you can show up in your world to make a difference. Do all of this knowing that you and I will fail at this. It is not a matter of if but when. And when we fail, we will need to pick ourselves back up, learn from it, and try again.
Dig into the work of antiracism even when it gets hard and tiring because it will never be as hard as a mother saying goodbye to her black son too early after he decided to go out for a jog or got stopped by police.