Happy Friday, everyone! And – of course – Happy Small Lights Friday! I hope everyone has been staying cool in this oppressive heat. Hey, speaking of oppression, let’s get straight to it! Today, I would like to use our Small Lights platform to discuss systemic racism, and how to be anti-racist. Not just “not racist,” that is just not good enough. I mean actively, every day, be an anti-racist person.
Passivity and Anti-Racism do not coexist
According to The National Museum of African History and Culture, to be anti-racist results from “a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily…In the absence of making antiracist choices, we (un)consciously uphold aspects of white supremacy, white-dominant culture, and unequal institutions and society.” Being anti-racism requires confronting your own prejudiced thoughts, understanding where these thoughts come from, and working to overcome those thoughts. It means consciously supporting Black owned businesses. It means using your whiteness (and therefore your louder voice) to lift Black people up. It means calling someone out at the grocery store when you hear them spout racist nonsense because they don’t know how to read a coupon and now it’s the black cashier’s fault.
Up until last spring, I was proudly anti-racist. I could see past the systemic racism that plagues our nation simply because I knew it was there. I was ahead of my time. I marched in BLM protests, donated to the appropriate charities, and spoke up when I heard a friend unintentionally say something problematic. I was the perfect example of a white ally. Until I wasn’t.
On May 25th, 2020, Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. The world came to a screeching halt and I halted with it. I couldn’t sleep. I paced around my apartment for hours, tears streaming down my face, red with anger and confusion. When I couldn’t pace any more, I laid down on the carpet and stayed there. I couldn’t eat. I was immobilized by his murder. Thinking about it now, my heart still shudders. This unrelenting grief was new to me, and I didn’t know where it was coming from. Why was this death crippling me, but not the others? Why not Trayvon Martin? Why not Eric Garner? Ahmaud Arbery? Countless others?
My grief was soon met with another, equally powerful emotion: brutal shock. Throughout my entire life, I considered myself a “good white person.” A white person who is not racist and does not succumb to ingrained stereotypes. I realized on May 25th, 2020, I was wrong. I was wrong about myself, perhaps even unknowingly lying to myself. Up until George Floyd’s death, I was living my life through the lens of white supremacy. It is still difficult to admit, but it is something I (and we all) must admit if we are going to address systemic racism.
Why didn’t I feel such intense sorrow each time these killings made headlines? Are these men, women, and children less dead to me? Why is my heart only being torn up now? Why didn’t I care this much each time? These questions only brought more painful questions.
Is it because I can remove myself from the distant pain? Is it because, deep down in my primitive brain, I hold onto these ignorant fears and stereotypes? Because I am comforted knowing it will never be me? Did I subconsciously make these deaths make sense? Justifiable murder?
The most painful part of becoming actively anti-racist is the very difficult realization that the answer to all of these questions was a resounding yes.
the truth (really) hurts
This was a very hard realization to accept, and I’m physically cringing as I explain my internal mistakes on a public forum. However, my feelings are far less important than the point I am trying to make, and if using myself as an example proves helpful to anyone else, even one person, I will be happy and it will be worth it.
I realized last summer that I am not special, not unique and, therefore, not immune to white supremacy. It was a difficult pill to swallow. I knew I had to swallow it. And so began my journey to learn what it meant to truly be anti-racist, to wake up to my own prejudices and challenge them head on.
There were moments in my journey where I would scoff at a piece of information. This one isn’t about me. And yet, it was. It always is, and it always will be. Not me specifically, and not you specifically, but until we all recognize all white Americans alive today are benefitting directly from slavery, I fear we cannot move forward.
I started listening, really listening, to Black Voices. I started reading books. The most beneficial book I read was Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson. I read it through once and then I read it again. I also read Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington. Okay – for this book – when I say “read,” I mean “read slowly and painfully, putting it down for days at a time, because our history is so abhorrent and disgusting I could not sit and read it all the way through without getting sick to my stomach.” In her book, Washington details the sickening treatment of Black Americans in the American healthcare system. I highly recommend both of these books if you’d like to peel the curtains back.
it’s not all black and white
In Caste, Wilkerson discusses the origins of “whiteness” and “blackness.” Before the United States, people did not call themselves black or white. These terms didn’t gain any traction until the era of slavery; newcomers emigrating into our young country needed to find where they fit in this hierarchy where the bottom class is barely regarded as human at all:
“Somewhere in their journey, Europeans became something they had never been or needed to be before. They went from being Czech or Hungarian or Polish to white, a political designation that only has meaning when set against something not white…It was in becoming American that they became white.”Caste, pg 49
I did not know that. I did not know that at all. I was never taught that in school. Sure, we covered slavery – in the most white washed fashion imaginable. I remember learning that if a slave ran away, they may be punished by having a leg cut off. Terrible, yes, but nowhere near the atrocities committed on the very ground we walk on every day.
For example, again pulled straight from Wilkerson’s brilliant book, I never learned that Nazi Germany came up with their strategy by pulling ideas straight from America’s playbook. That’s right! Did you know that? I did not know that. I was not taught that. From chapter 8: “As they [Nazi bureaucrats] settled into their chairs to hash out what would eventually be the Nuremburg Laws, the first topic on the agenda was The United States and what they could learn from it.” When I read that for the first time, I just could not believe it. How could I not know any of this?
This past year, the amount of information I have absorbed probably far exceeds the information made available to me in my public schooling. And while it’s true I could have sought this information out had I wanted to, I really had no reason to. I was, after all, a white high schooler living in a very white area where people wave their hands in front of their face or tap their hands to discreetly indicate blackness. Otherness. Different. The idea of seeking out new information never even crossed my sheltered mind. That alone is another glaring example of my privilege.
I can no longer consider myself proud to be anti-racist; I am not there yet. I am proud to be on the journey towards it. I no longer see myself as an example – how foolish I was to ever assume I could be without putting in the real work.
I still do not know why it was George Floyd that woke me up, and not the countless other souls. Up until Floyd’s murder, I thought I was was “woke,” progressive, a part of the solution. It’s painful to write, but I have to write it. There may be a white person who reads this and learns the same painful truth I learned, and if I can reach even one more person, it would be a victory.
Covid-19 stripped us of the cultural veil that usually drapes over us weightlessly. We learned who was essential and who was not. We learned who our friends and family truly are, for better or worse. We stripped the facade down to its nuts and bolts and exposed rusted weak points. I wonder, if not for the pandemic, would I have ever seen these truths? I really don’t know. I’d like to think so. Of course, me “liking to think” I would be a good person is just another example of my privilege. The very idea that it’s a choice is inherently privileged. The difference for me now is that I can recognize that privilege and address it, and the problems that come with it.
A Little signal
The other day, at the liquor store in my blindingly white town, a group of black men walked in while I was in line. My primitive brain did what it has been doing and will probably continue to do until I can fix it- it sent a little signal to the forefront of my thoughts. A tiny little signal that’s been in all of us for hundreds of years. A split second flash: “Different.”
I can recognize the signal for what it is now. It is not how we are meant to be. It is a manufactured response from hundreds of years of social conditioning. It is a direct result of political propaganda, fear, and hate. It is a lie.
I am still very much a work in progress. There are books I still need to read, historical events I still need to dive deeper into, prejudices I need to address. But now I am awake, so I say “good morning.” It’s a beautiful day to be better than we were yesterday. It’s a beautiful day to be anti-racist.
Buy Caste from a Black-owned bookstore
Buy Medical Apartheid from a Black-owned bookstore
Here is a list of 4 star charities that fight for civil rights