We Must Take Fearless Inventory
Seeing the life go out of George Floyd's face while a white policeman, hand in his pocket, knelt nonchalantly on his neck, was a wake up call for our country and for me personally. In the weeks since his murder we have all seen police violence in real time on a mass scale. Such brutality is only one of the casual cruelties of our racist society. The practices of racism have stolen black and brown peoples' hopes, dreams and health, silencing them, marginalizing them and putting their lives at risk from daily threats most whites never have to even consider. I feel it is time for us as a country to take a fearless inventory of the racism we harbor toward people of color and commit to raising our nation's consciousness. I'll start with me.
I have benefitted my entire life from the privilege of being born white, among other privileges. My parents, who did not advocate racism, tried to raise me not be be prejudiced, but their efforts were limited by the racism inculcated in them growing up during the Great Depression and World War II, when Jim Crow prevailed in Kentucky. I grew up in Louisville in an all white neighborhood and attended all white schools. As a result, I never had a black playmate, and never dated a black boy. The only black home I remember visiting was that of our ironing lady and that was one visit after attending her funeral. Even in college I had no close black friends among the small number of black students on my campus. If not for an independent study class where another girl and I spent two weeks in Bogue Chitto, Alabama living with and visiting poor black sharecroppers, I might not even know the extent of my ignorance. But I had so little context for what I saw and experienced that much of it was lost to overwhelming culture shock. I have remained ignorant. In fact, to this day I have one black friend in my inner circle and she grew up in East Germany. As a result, the lived experience of black people is mostly something I derive from books, movies and articles. Fundamentally I do not know my fellow Americans who are black. My ignorance puts me at risk for all manner of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and disconnect. Ignorance sets me up for rudeness, inconsideration and micro-aggressive acts, however unintentional.
Intellectually I have admired many black thinkers, leaders, artists, musicians, writers and journalists. Politically I have supported civil rights, voting rights, environmental justice, criminal justice reform and reparations for descendants of persons held in slavery. So how can I even consider that I have racist attitudes? Let's just say that I recognize my prejudices, entitlements and the stereotypes that arise from time to time. I know the bodily sensation they produce. They rear their ugly heads when a black person expresses fury at white callousness or disdain of white excuses or disbelief in the promises of liberal society, even when these attitudes are completely justified. I can feel how huffy I might get if someone ever called me a "Karen" or how self-righteous I feel if I hear a black person question the value of voting. (Can I not listen?) I sometimes feel that I will never understand or get it right and that feeling makes me want to give up. After all I can just walk away and disappear into whiteness. No black person has a similar privilege to disappear.
I want to acknowledge how raw and vulnerable it feels to confront my own racism. I don't expect anyone to educate me, reassure me, forgive me or accept my good intentions. This is on me and I don't know where the effort to be more mindful than ever before about race will lead me. But I must take this journey of consciousness. I cannot go back to being complacent about my own ignorance about race and the judgments I harbor, half in denial that I even have them. As the Buddhist vow says, "Ignorance, hatred and greed arise incessantly, I vow to renounce them." I invite you to join me on this journey.