Sunday, September 25, 2016

Seeing the Light

My facebook feed is filled with reactions to lasts week's police shootings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. Some say #BlackLivesMatter. Some say the police are just trying to do a dangerous job. Some say it is isn't the people versus police or black versus white but light versus dark.

As a white person, I believe it is light versus dark but not in a good versus evil sense. Seeing the light means waking up to the true nature of the problem. Don't let me skip over that the police should be held to a high standard. After all, we give them the power of life and death over all of us. However, the police shootings are not just a police problem. They are the tip of the race-relations-in-America iceberg.

The police officer who shoots an unarmed black man because she assumes he is a danger to her is functioning from the same emotional response as the homeowner who calls the police because a black man is parked in front of her house... or the mom who puts her white daughter in a private school because the kids at the neighborhood school don't look like her... or myself when I assume that the African-American bus driver is not from "my" part of town... or when I only think to lock the car doors in downtown Denver after I pass a bus stop with lots of black people...

I am ashamed of my reactions. I apologize for them. But even more I'm ashamed that I spent thirty-eight years thinking that I lived in a post-racial United States. It turns out that only 'white America' is post-racial. And since white America is not all America, it's time for us to learn from those who are experiencing a different reality.  It's time to crack open one eyelid and let in the light. It hurts, but do we want to spend our lives in darkness?  Do we want to raise our kids without acknowledging the contradiction between what the United States is supposed to stand for and what they see around them?

In June 2014, I almost didn't read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic article The Case for Reparations. I mean,  I supported diversity and all, but reparations? Really? I had never owned slaves. My ancestors hadn't, as far as I knew. Why should I be held responsible, especially fiscally responsible, for something that happened centuries ago?  Luckily for me, I read it. Luckily for all of us, Mr. Coates wrote it. There is so much interesting history in the article (read it!) but the fact that touched me personally was that black people in the seventies and eighties were still systematically being denied mortgages.

I grew up in the seventies and eighties. My parents certainly weren't rich. In fact, they physically built their house themselves in order to move into an upper-middle class neighborhood. No one can deny that they worked hard and made lots of sacrifices, but a similar black family in the same location would have struggled to get that construction loan. They would have had to work harder than my parents did, and still likely would have been denied. My parents are good people. We did nothing wrong. But we benefited from an unfair system.

There's more in that article--I won't try to summarize. What I learned became a ray of light that illuminated the racial unrest that unfolded in the U.S. that summer, starting with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. I read Waking Up White by Debby Irving.  I listened to what Americans of color were saying, and tried to actually understand instead of getting defensive because it made me feel bad.  By clicking on links posted by friends, I gained invaluable access to black people's stories: a woman who fears the day her son will be big enough to be perceived as a threat,  parents who have no choice but to teach their children about the realities of how they will be perceived, executives who are mistaken as staff at professional events, college professors who fear that their lives could be extinguished in something as simple as a traffic stop.

These are things I've never experienced in my white-American bubble. I've been nervous about the cops pulling me over for speeding, but the worst I worried would happen was that I'd have to pay a fine. I've felt like I didn't belong at academic conferences, but no one has ever asked me to get them a clean towel. When my child gets in trouble at school, the teacher dismisses it as a learning experience, not grounds for suspension or a fundamental character flaw. I've never been forced to explain to my child why their friends' parent wouldn't invite them over. I've never had to choose between speaking up about an offensive comment and losing a friend or a job.

One of my white friends posted that he doesn't want his kids to grow up being blamed for things they didn't do. I don't want my kids to perpetrate the racial divide that continues in this country. I don't want them to grow up under the false assumption that race doesn't matter in America, simply because it doesn't seem to matter to them.  I want them to listen to other people, not discount their experiences because they are different than theirs. I want them to recognize their privileges and use them to stand up for racial justice. 

So I continue to pull up the blinds.  It is often uncomfortable, but I deal with that like an adult. I make mistakes, but I believe that fear of failure shouldn't stop me from trying.  I would rather live in a painfully bright world than be soothed by a false darkness.

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