The other day, I was driving down to the beach with the kids to meet my sister and brother-in-law. Just as I was about to get onto the on-ramp, I remembered I needed gas first and did a quick, last minute U-turn. I’m not even sure whether or not it was legal.
If this had happened two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Or, maybe a vague, “Oh, I hope I don’t get a ticket” at the most.
But it happened two days ago, not two weeks ago, so I did a mental double take. I recognized it would never occur to me that a minor, stupid move like that could end up costing me my basic human rights or even my life if I got pulled over. Knowing nothing about such fears is white privilege. It’s just one of the countless ways it manifests, I’m learning.
The killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, closely followed by peaceful protests met by militaristic and brutal response by police forces, and the killing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, mark the most violent and racially charged two weeks many of us can remember in our country.
The latest horrifying tragedy involving Baton Rouge police officers’ shooting deaths is still unfolding as I write this, but we do know that the Black Lives Matter movement has called for peaceful protest and an end to all violence, the movement’s leaders condemn these murders just like everyone else, and the motive for the killings is still unknown.
These events have brought me to my tipping point and ended my relative silence and inaction on racial issues.
Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice’s murder and the subsequent travesty of justice for him and his family should have pushed me beyond social media posting and handwringing with like-minded friends and family. I don’t know why it didn’t, given how heartbroken and outraged I felt. No doubt, part of the reason is white privilege again, since as a white person, I have the luxury of deciding whether or not to grapple with these issues on an ongoing basis, even as tragic events fade from the headlines.
I’m finding ways to take more direct actions for racial justice. In a moment, I’ll list the best information resources I’ve come across so far, and some concrete action steps to take. Many of them require very little time and effort. First, I’ll share some ways my thinking has changed in the last two weeks.
Before: I’m a person in a biracial, bicultural (Asian Indian/white) marriage who deals with one form of racial bias against my family. I’ve always felt deeply and strongly against racism. I’m well aware of the appalling racial disparities in maternal-child health care, my chosen profession. And I’m a bleeding heart liberal if there ever was one. So I thought I pretty much knew what racism was about.
After: I’m learning that actually, I don’t know shit about systemic racism and implicit bias. It’s humbling.
Before: While understanding that people are complex and multifaceted in just about every other way, racism was the exception. I’ve thought of people in one-dimensional, oversimplified terms with regard to racial bias. I operated on the assumption that people were either not racist (good) or racist (bad).
After: I see that while we must speak out against racist acts and structures, polarizing people into good/bad feeds the problem. And “good” people practice and uphold the subtler forms of racism every day.
Before: I was secure in the knowledge that my own life doesn’t perpetuate racism in any way.
After: I began to wonder about that when a friend who is an educated, white urbanite (like me) as well as a sociologist, asked these questions:
“Why is it that so few of us have close black friends? How often do our children play with black children? How often do they even see them to interact with? In what contexts (e.g., at the neighborhood playgrounds or behind the doors of elite private schools)? Do we live in communities that are truly diverse, or ones that are simply heterogeneous? How do we teach our kids to recognize structural inequality when they (and we) benefit from that very inequality? And how do we do this when so many of us are living segregated lives?”
Before: I thought it was possible not to participate in or benefit from racism at all.
After: I know now that racial bias is a continuum. Because of societal structures and the implicit bias that permeates our culture, I’m on this continuum whether I like it or not, regardless of my conscious, heartfelt beliefs. The work, along with educating ourselves about systemic racism, is to sniff out our own inherent biases and allow them into our conscious awareness, however unpleasant that may be. Then, maybe they won’t drive our behavior, even in the subtlest of ways.
Before: My attention, or lack thereof, to current events involving racial injustice (as well as other tragedies) has tended toward extremes, and this has limited my ability to take action. My typical M.O. has been to swing between immersion to the point of complete emotional overwhelm and “taking a break” from news and “thinking about all this stuff.” We all need to give our minds and hearts a rest at times, but my “breaks” would stretch into months or even years (yet again—since I have that privilege).
After: I’ve been afraid to stop thinking about these issues for five minutes for fear that I’ll become complacent, and therefore complicit, again. I see that I need to change my way of being with the horrors of the world in order to have some stamina and staying power. I’m exploring how to integrate sustained attention to these issues with living out the rest of life. I’m feeling into what it means to hold joy and despair, hope and fear, all at once. I’m visualizing making phone calls, attending a political action, or reading about some aspect of these problems in one moment, feeling fully whatever difficult emotions arise. Then, I want to be able to play with my kids or laugh with a friend and feel the joy of that fully as well. (Just as I was beginning to see this in a new way, this post from a woman I don’t know showed up in my Facebook feed and spoke directly to my heart.)
Before: I would go back to “normal” after a few days or weeks, as outrage, horror, and despair got replaced by powerlessness and resignation.
After: I’ve stopped indulging in my powerless feelings and letting my despair paralyze me. Dealing with my fear of saying or doing the wrong thing from the clueless white person’s perspective is the least I can do, considering the fears people of color have to deal with. I’m committed to being part of solutions now. Sorry I’m late.
What we can do now:
1). Educate ourselves:
Is systemic racism really still as big a problem as people say? And does it have anything to do with me? There’s no shortage of white people who feel very comfortable spouting opinions on these questions—opinions that came from where, exactly? We need to be willing to learn more about systemic racism from people who, unlike us, actually know what they’re talking about. That’s people of color who live it every day and people who spend their careers studying it. Oh, and actual data.
- READ: “Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism” by Dr. Robin DiAngelo. (Huffington Post) This article explains why so many white people become defensive and upset by discussions about racism, and how none of us are immune from participating in systems that uphold racism. I had never heard the term “white fragility” until a few days ago. Now that it’s been pointed out to me, I recognize it.
- READ: “Why I Don’t Talk About Race With White People” by John Metta. (Alternet/Huffington Post). Apparently, for people of color, talking with white people about race is an exercise in frustration, even (maybe especially) with equality-loving, educated white liberals like me who like to think it has nothing to do with us.
- WATCH: “Black GOP Senator Says He’s Been Stopped By Police 7 Times In A Year” by Amita Kelly (NPR). Senator Tim Scott’s moving speech about his experience with the police as a black man is worth watching (his speech is only the first 15 of the 40-minute video). This guy is a Republican—hardly predisposed to cater to the so-called agenda of the so-called liberal media.
- READ: “A History of White Delusion” by Nicholas Kristof (New York Times). This article details the long history of underestimating the extent of racism despite data. And contrary to the popular narrative that black people like to “make everything about race,” black people historically underestimate the extent of racism, too.
- WATCH: “A Conversation About Growing Up Black” by Joe Brewster and Perri Peltz (New York Times). What’s it really like to be a young black man or a black boy in this cultural climate? Learn something about the lived experience from young men and boys in this short video. (When I saw the clips of the 10-year-olds at the end, that’s when I really lost it—probably because my older son is almost 10.)
- WATCH: “Mothers Open Up About The Fears That Come With Raising A Black Child” by Nyla Wissa (BuzzFeed). What about the parents? As a mother of children who are half Asian Indian but “pass” for white, I agonize over how to help my children process these heartbreaking events as they get older when as an adult, even I have difficulty processing it at times. From that standpoint, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like for parents of black children as they navigate protecting their children’s safety while protecting their sense of self worth, and their hearts from bitterness and fear. In these video shorts, mothers of black children share their experience and fears.
- TAKE THE TEST: Project Implicit (Harvard University). Use this tool to find out about your own implicit biases.
Is it appropriate to say, and to name a movement, “Black Lives Matter?” And since we can all agree that everyone’s life matters, why do people find the retort “All Lives Matter” so hurtful?
- WATCH: 4 Black Lives Matter Myths Debunked (MTV/Youtube). This 4- minute video does an excellent job of answering four of the “frequently asked questions” (or complaints) about the Black Lives Matter movement and terminology.
- READ: “The next time someone says ‘all lives matter,’ show them these 5 paragraphs” by Kevin Roose (Fusion). This is the best explanation I’ve found for why the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is completely appropriate, and why responding with “All Lives Matter” is not OK.
Can we support and respect law enforcement while insisting on prevention of and accountability for excessive force, brutality, and fatal shootings by police officers?
- READ: “Policing Isn’t Working for Cops, Either” by Kazu Haga. This excellent article explores how police officers are expected to bear too much trauma without measures in place to care for or even consider their mental and emotional health. Even if brutality and fatal shootings were not a problem, compassion for those who witness violence and risk their lives daily to protect us requires more attention to these issues. And it will no doubt reduce police brutality and killings and make communities safer.
- READ: “Use of Deadly Force by Police Disappears on Richmond Streets” by Robert Roges and David DeBolt (East Bay Times). If we doubt that police reform can make a real difference, we can look to police departments where it already has. This story about Richmond, California police reform represents positive outcomes for everyone.
- READ: “How One of the Deadliest Police Forces in America Stopped Shooting People” by Daniel Hernandez (Quartz). Las Vegas is another example showing us that police reforms work when real commitment exists. Let’s dispel the myth that accountability and respect are mutually exclusive.
What about books? Short articles and videos are great, but if you have more time to devote to reading, here is a recommended book list (Disclaimer—I haven’t read any of them yet! Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander are first on my list). Better yet, start or join a book club.
2). Take direct action for racial justice:
This is a shorter list. I’m just beginning to find ways to act. Last week, I participated in a national conference call with the organization SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) to mobilize people (white people specifically, in this case) to get involved in the movement for Black Lives. Most of these suggestions come from that source. We are hearing and reading everywhere that people of color need white people to be vocal and get involved, and that lasting change can only occur if we do.
- Sign the Pledge for Black Lives, share it via social media, and encourage your friends and family to do the same.
- If you’re white, join SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice.
- Donate to Black Lives Matter or SURJ.
- Attend a peaceful demonstration. Information on where and when they will be held is available via the above organizations. If someone hands you a mic while you’re there, though, don’t take it. White people are needed for support, not to speak for people of color.
- Donate to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). They are busy working to defend Americans’ constitutional right to peaceful protest. People are being arrested, often violently, for peacefully exercising their first amendment rights.
- If you hear racist remarks, speak up. It’s really uncomfortable and awkward and maybe even panic-inducing, but we have to do it anyway. We can say, “I’m really uncomfortable with that comment, especially with all the racial tension lately.” Or, “Would you say that if a black person were here?”
- And finally, keep praying, if you’re the praying kind, or send positive energy, thoughts or vibes, or whatever you do, for our country. Send love to whomever you perceive as the enemy, if you can. Take good care of yourself so you can stay strong and make a difference however you can.
With love for people of all colors, religions, and occupations,
This post is dedicated to my mom, Laura Weil Deutsch, who talked to me regularly about the evils of racism when I was a child growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the site of so much injustice, violence, and suffering today.
© Copyright Camille Williams and Wake Up, Mama! 2016. All rights reserved.