Yesterday on Facebook I linked to an article written by Sally Kohn called “This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter” and highlighted this particular quote from Darnell L. Moore:
“White people have to do the hard work of figuring out the best ways to educate themselves and each other about racism. And I don’t know what that looks like, because that is not my work, or the work of other black people, to figure out. In fact, the demand placed on black people to essentially teach white folk how not to be racist or complicit in structural racism is itself an exercise of willful ignorance and laziness.”
His sentiments are something I have read and heard over and over again from the black voices I follow online, and I found them especially befitting given that almost every single white person I have interacted with in real life this week has said, “I don’t know what to say!” or, “I don’t know what to do!” or, “I feel so helpless!” I have no doubt those feelings are real and frustrating, and I think a lot of white people are terrified that whatever they do or say is going to be met with a resounding chorus of YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.
Well, guess what. Yep.
When you talk about what is happening to black people in this country, you’re probably going to do it wrong. Actually, you’re definitely going to do it wrong. So what. Listen to why and how you’re doing it wrong and say it better. Do better. I tell you this from experience, yes, but also because instead of hitting me in the face with a giant, overflowing folder labeled FOR THE FRAGILE WHITE PERSON WHO NEEDS TO BE TOLD HOW TO STOP DOING THE TERRIBLE THINGS THEY KEEP DOING TO ME my friend Kelly once told me, “Wait a minute… you’re afraid to write about race in this country because people will tell you that you’re not doing it right? Heather B. Armstrong. I’ve read your comments section. When have you ever done it right?”
The first comment under the link on my Facebook page was from a woman from my high school graduating class in Bartlett, Tennessee. I didn’t recognize her face or name, didn’t know that I had known her years ago, but the comment was filled with the kind of language that shaped and defined my upbringing, language of thinly-veiled racism. The words that stood out to me the most were, “…honestly I’m so tired of…”
Growing up I had conversations all the time with friends and adults that started like this:
“I’m so tired of black people saying…”
“I’m so tired of black people doing…”
“I’m so tired of black people thinking…”
When what we were saying was:
“I’m so tired of black people existing.”
My parents grew up in Jim Crow South, but we weren’t racist! We had black friends. We loved our black neighbors, although when they moved in we wondered what that had done to the value of our house. My dad worked with a lot of black people, but they were all lazy and felt entitled to a hand out. We loved the black members who converted to our LDS congregation, although they brought all these weird and frankly obnoxious habits from their previous faith to church with them on Sunday. Why did they have to yell, “AMEN!” in the middle of the service? So uncivilized.
I once told a fellow member of my high school volleyball team that the reason we didn’t see more black volleyball players was because the sport was more disciplined that the other sports that black people dominated. AND I FUCKING BELIEVED THE IDIOTIC GARBAGE COMING OUT OF MY FACE.
But I wasn’t racist.
In the hours leading up to the moment I posted that link on Facebook I had watched countless videos of black mothers whose faces were swollen with fear and agony and terror about what had happened to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and what that meant for the safety of their children, in particular their sons. I had said very little, pretty much next to nothing online about their horrific and unjustified deaths at the hands of law enforcement. I knew that friends of mine were waiting for me to use my platform to say something, anything.
That could be imagined pressure on my part, but that doesn’t matter. This week has been easy on no one, and I have no excuse for being silent or absent for so long in this discussion other than what any other person has going on in their day-to-day lives. I have a deadline that is about to crush me and am suffering a bout of insomnia that started over three weeks ago and shows no sign of abating. My kids leave in two days to be with their father for five weeks, and I cannot wrap my head or heart around the idea of being away from them for that long. And then… tomorrow will be the anniversary of the day that I held the body of my dog in my arms as he took his last breath.
How can I talk about my dead dog in the middle of all of this? Seriously.
I want no sympathy for any of that, and I only list it here to give you context for why, when this woman continued to leave thinly-veiled racist comments on that Facebook post, I spouted off this reply to her:
“Oh. You’re Southern. Bless your fucking heart.”
I felt rage, and I didn’t take a moment to walk around the room or breathe. Did it feel good? YEP! Did it lend anything valuable to this conversation? Hell no.
A few hours later my friend Shanay left the most level-headed comment calling on all of us to be more thoughtful with each other. She is a black woman who graduated with me and the woman who left the original comment. In fact, she was an award-winning setter on my high school volleyball team. And she told me that I was better than this, that I should do better than this.
I had done it wrong. And I fully accept that. And I am so sorry.
I didn’t delete my reply because I want anyone who reads Shanay’s comment to have it for reference and context. I was not thoughtful. My carelessness did nothing to help anyone recognize the privilege from which they can start conversations with, “I’m so tired…”
“White people have to do the hard work of figuring out the best ways to educate themselves and each other about racism.”
That woman eventually blocked me, but if I could speak to her now I’d recommend a few of the books you see here, in particular The Warmth of Other Suns just as a place to start to understand the institutionalized framework in this country that continues to dehumanize an entire race of people. That book has helped me open a dialogue with my own mother who recognizes now some of the terrible thoughts and habits she taught me as a white woman in the South.
We think we’re so tired.
Well, better pour ourselves a gallon of artisanal espresso or steal our cousin’s Adderall prescription because what this week has shown is that we no longer have that luxury.
Say something. Anything. You’ll do it wrong, but you’ll get better.
The following post was originally published on November 25, 2014.
Last night after Leta completed her nightly bedtime reading, I pulled the covers back and to the side so that I could sit next to her legs, my own dangling off the side of the mattress.
“Leta, do you have any black kids in your class?” I asked her.
“I know that’s why we needed to watch what happened tonight,” she began, “but I don’t see people that way. We’re all the same—“
“Are there any black kids in your class?” I pressed.
“Mom, skin color doesn’t matter to me. I treat everyone the same.”
Her generosity of spirit is palpable, and everyone who knows Leta can feel it. It’s an energy she radiates. She has a special way of handling and befriending kids who are far different from her, kids who are far younger, even, a personality trait enhanced by weathering the daily blows of a demanding and dimpled younger sister who physically tugs at her every limb. My child is forgiving to a fault and comes homes often to ask how she can better mend the broken fences between dueling sets of friends where many times she has been the target of the adolescent vitriol.
Leta is a peacemaker.
Last night I sat there struggling with the duty I have to destroy that innocent notion of hers, a notion born of my ignorance and my privilege, the privilege shared by so many other well-intentioned but naive white parents who somehow think that not talking about race is in any way whatsoever going to help fix racism. We are, in fact, actively strengthening a system that continues to devalue and discard the lives of black people.
White people have to “see” it and fix it: me and you and even you, a white person who grew up in the slums of Nashville, managed to scrap and save and make a life for yourself and, nope, we never hear you complain. EVEN YOU. Leta and those determined enough in her generation will have to help us finish the work.
My generous child needs to see “black.” She needs to understand that those classmates of hers will go through life with a radically different set of experiences and fears that stem from the color of their skin. Yes, it’s a lovely notion that we are all the same, except we live in a country whose very foundation was instituted on the subjugation and continuing dehumanization of black people. She will never have to worry that the color of her skin will arouse suspicion. She will never have to worry that the color of her skin might get her harassed or, god fucking forbid, shot and killed and left to bleed and die in the middle of the street.
Last night I destroyed that innocence and began a lifelong conversation and study of race with my child.
Before you fire off an email to me or leave a comment about how you are so damn tired of everything being about race, so tired of black people blaming white people, so tired of being told that your hard work is not the very thing that is responsible for your success—you studied, you hustled and worked late shifts, you came from a family with no means and yet you have made a nice life for yourself and your family. No one in this discussion is trying to take that away from you.
First, from my friend Kristen:
White privilege isn’t about me individually. It’s not a personal attack. White privilege is a systemic cultural reality that I can either choose to ignore, or choose to acknowledge and attempt to change. It has nothing to do with my worth as a person or my own personal struggle.
Second, go now and read the book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Absolutely nothing in the last twenty years of my life has changed me more than the journeys in these pages, journeys that have gone unheard for far too long by white people like myself:
Over the course of six decades some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system.
Those six decades did not occur in the 19th century. This was a 20th century phenomenon. My mother and father were born and raised in the South during this time when black people were routinely maimed, hosed or killed while seeking basic human rights. The South not only turned its eye to these atrocities, it encouraged and rewarded them. What this book so masterfully illustrates is the system that was orchestrated and has persisted into 2014, a system of inequality that in no way refutes that you are a hard-working white person, but it will force you to take an uncomfortable look at how far ahead your starting line was set in comparison to your black counterpart:
Multiplied over generations, it would mean a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of colored families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value. Otherwise the chasm would continue, as it did for blacks as a group even into the succeeding century. The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century dampening the economic prospects of the children and the grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born.
Three, go read the rest of these books and open your heart. Be generous. Stop getting defensive. Stop blaming. Stop believing that eye witnesses will lie while simultaneously clutching to the notion that law enforcement never will. Stop insisting that the judicial system is infallible. Stop criticizing the response of an oppressed group of people to their oppression.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race
A Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror
My Bondage and My Freedom (Penguin Classics)
Four, remove the word “bootstrap” permanently from your vocabulary.
Many thanks for Kristen and Kelly for giving me the gift of the benefit of the doubt. You woke me up.