It seems that we all woke up to a new reality in the United States this week. Although, not really a new reality, but likely one that my fellow brown-skinned Americans have been quietly living and it was just brought, again, to our collective attention. So here I am a white woman stumbling through a post on race, so let me preface it with this. I had never heard the term white privilege until a few years ago. I am now very aware of the privileges inherent to my skin color and am trying to further educate myself. It is a hot topic in higher education and I have been to many workshops on privilege and inclusion and try to be mindful. I’m sure I still have miles to go. I have not lived the experience of being a minority in the United States.
I am currently reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra and today I read a passage that kind of sums up how I feel as a white woman writing about race. (Akhmed-male oncologist; Sonja–female surgeon, Deshi-female nurse; all in war-torn Chechnya in the mid-1990s)
“You’re the nurse,” Akhmed said, curtly. “We met earlier.”
“He speaks out of turn, without being addressed,” Deshi observed.
“I just wanted to say hello.”
“He continues to speak without being spoken to. And he has an ugly nose.”
“I’m standing right here,” Akhmed said, frowning.
“He tells me he is standing right here. As if we have been made blind and idiotic.”
“What am I doing wrong?” he asked Sonja. “I’m just standing here.”…
“Do you see the way he looks at me?” Deshi asked, her voice trembling with indignation. “He is trying to seduce me.”
“I am doing nothing of the sort. I’m just standing here!”
“Denial is the first impulse of a traitor.”
“You’re quoting Stalin,” Akhmed said.
“You see? He’s a lecher and a Stalinist.”
In the above scenario, I might be Akhmed, trying to make comforting comments or ask honest questions, but somehow accidentally offending someone. So I ask that you please extend me grace as you read. I have so many emotions, thoughts, and questions running through my head that are hard enough to articulate. Offending those whom I am wanting to stand in solidarity with is the last thing I want to do. If I do offend, it is in my ignorance and your gentle correction is appreciated. (Hateful comments are not and will not be published. However, you may feel free to disagree with a rational and well reasoned argument.)
I went to bed Wednesday night with the heartache of the Alton Sterling killing on my mind and woke up on Thursday morning reeling with news of Philando Castile. I lived for 6 years in Baton Rouge and MN is my neighbor to the west–all too close to home and heart. Normally when I hear about tragedies on the news I feel sad upon initial hearing, maybe for a few minutes after, but that’s about it. It’s not that I’m uncaring. In fact, I’m an easy crier and am not ashamed of my emotions. It’s just that news of refugees, loss of life from natural disasters, bombings overseas, etc. seem (a) so far removed from my life and daily experience, (b) I hear so much bad news that I become numb and immune, or (c) I get overwhelmed by the details of my own life that feeling for others not in my immediate circle gets crowded out. Often times, I think that is a protective mechanism because we can only bear so much hurt and pain before we get paralyzed with sadness. However, the past two days I have silently cried several times and had one big ugly cry while watching black female police officer, Nakia Jones, share her thoughts via video.
This is different. I have many black friends on Facebook and I am seeing their fear, grief, anger, and sadness playing out in raw, real, and honest ways. Yesterday morning, when my 19 year old son, Noah, woke up and I told him about Philando Castile, I followed that up by asking him, “You know we’d be having an entirely discussion this morning if you were black? Do you understand that?” One night earlier this week at about 9:00 pm Noah had a slight headache, wanted some caffeine, so he went to a convenience store to grab a Dr. Pepper. I didn’t think twice about it…because he’s white. I can’t imagine what I would think and feel for him to do the same simple act if his skin were a different color in these days. I want to hug my black friends and let them know I that understand how they feel, but I don’t. I can’t. What I can do is listen. I can be a witness to their feelings. I can say that it is very scary, but I want to stand with you.
I wrestle with what CAN I do in central Wisconsin, which is the whitest place I have ever lived. In my county, the racial demographics break down as follows: White–94.4%, Black/African American–.8%, Native American–.5%; Asian–2.9%, Hispanic/Latino–3.1%, and other mixed races (http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/55097). Can I protest? Should I write my senators and congressional representative? I feel helpless and I don’t know quite what to do. I wrote a blog post over nine years ago pondering who I would have been during the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, it seems like I will get the chance to know if I would be the person who would stand up or sit down. I want to stand. I also want to know how.
I know what not to do:
- I know that to say “all lives matter” minimizes the situation. Of course all lives matter! No one is debating that. It’s just that all lives aren’t at risk right now. We are focusing on a crisis, not elevating one race above the other.
- Responding in violence and hate is not the answer. Since I started formulating this blog in my head, we learned of more senseless shooting, this time with snipers targeting police who were simply doing their job to keep peace and maintain order. As attributed to Gandhi, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”
- Don’t create a strawman argument. This means that ranting about “black on black crime” and Alton Sterling’s rap sheet which have nothing to do with the issue at hand.
- Making assumptions about someone else’s lived experience is dangerous territory. We can take some advice from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. “First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I also know some things to be true
- All men (and women) of every color, occupation, social class, religion, and morality (even the “bad ones”) were created in the image of God. (So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them. Gen. 1:27). My fabulous husband wrote more about that here.
- I serve a God of peace and it is there even in the midst of chaos. (Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14: 27)
- Love never fails. (I Corinthians 13)
- Beauty can come from ashes. (Isaiah 61:1-3)
So for now, all I know to do is pray–for healing in our country and our world; for safety of our police officers; for the careful judgment and calm under pressure of law enforcement; for peace that passes understanding; for release from fear for the black community, for sensitive hearts, for honest and loving discussions, for love and understanding.
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