This might be one of the hardest pieces I have ever written. In this moment, words feel empty and meaningless as we grapple with nine beautiful souls losing their lives in sacred space. Words feel meaningless because we have been here before and most likely we will be here again. The older I grow, the more I recognize my past mistakes and with age, I attempt to avoid making the same mistakes continuously. Yet when it comes to race in America, we have spent hundreds of years making the same mistakes and in the larger picture, we have done too little to correct the wrongs of the past. Instead, we cling to fixed beliefs and empty words while lying to ourselves that change has come.
In the aftermath of this heinous act, so many words are being bandied around as we struggle to make sense of what we call the unbelievable. Yet it isn’t unbelievable at all. We are a country whose prosperity grew due to the forced eviction of Brown people and the forced labor of stolen Black bodies. Violence against Black people has been an unbroken and recurring theme here. Yet we continue to engage in the same type of intellectual dishonesty that has been the norm in this land when it comes to matters of race and act like this isn’t business as usual.
A young white man walks into a historic Black church and after holding sacred space with these special souls, he announces his intention and in a cold blooded fashion, he embarks upon his mission of hate. And yet we are surprised? We as a collective have done nothing to eradicate the disease of white supremacy. It is the foundation of this country. And for white supremacy to thrive, it has to have it’s boogeyman…the boogeyman of white supremacy is Black people. Anti-Black bias is the thread that holds white supremacy together and yet we don’t even have the heart to own that. Instead we code our words and we say untruths when in fact the the majority of white people in America are not all that far removed from Dylann Roof deep in their hearts.
We live in our “good” spaces, with “good” being the codeword created in our society to speak to a way of life sans those people we deem “other.” In this case, those others are often Black people. We talk class instead of race because it won’t indict us and it’s less scary than any chatter about race.
People often ask me what they can do to help create a racially equitable world and sure, I give my usual suggestions which often include reading books written by white colleagues, etc. But honestly, there are times I want to ask: Why are you asking me what you should do? There are times when I want to deviate from my stock answers and tell people that they need to lean into their discomfort, that they will need to examine everything they ever learned or knew about race and most likely discard it. I want to ask people if they are willing to give up their privilege and power and lessen themselves to create equity? I want to ask them if they will have the heart to speak up, speak out and even lose friends and loved ones over racial matters? The vast majority of white people won’t do this and the sooner people admit this, the better off we just might be. Because maybe then we will just move into the harm reduction phase of racism instead of this fantasy of eradicating racism.
Deep breath here. I spend my professional life in spaces with white people who understand racism and white supremacy on an intellectual level but I fear that even among white people who are doing the work, too many have fallen into the head space and not the heart space. In these cases, they create the performance of change with little to actually show for it. Too many times in white anti-racist spaces there is almost an invisible competition to be better than those other white people. To perform as an anti-racist, to use the jargon, to do the work. And, with communities of color asking white people to work in their own communities, that invisible competition grows, rendering most anti-racist activity null and void.
Compounding matters is the reality that white supremacy doesn’t just infect white people; it infects all people. It creates people of color who worship at the altar of whiteness and will do anything to achieve status in the eyes of white people but that is a post for another day and a workshop that needs to be created.
I don’t expect much to change racially anytime soon. Sure, we might get another Black president one day, a few select Black folks will be allowed to ascend to positions of prominence, and so on…but the real change of breaking down the current systems and overthrowing them? Very unlikely unless we actually get serious about acknowledging that we have a problem. That means being honest, that means being intentional even in our casual conversations, that means having the courage to acknowledge that racist behavior is not unthinkable. It’s not only thinkable but it happens everywhere and any time and it happens with alarming regularity. It means giving up the circle jerks even when we grasp the scope of racism and not falling victim to “performance change.” It means actually leaning into our discomfort and doing change. It means not derailing and pretending that gun control could have prevented the shootings in a country with a history of attacking the Black church. In 1963, four little Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama, lost their lives in a church bombing. The means for carrying out the killings have changed but the reasons behind the killings have not changed.
This is one of those times where I wish I could offer up hope but as the attacks on Black personhood grow bolder and closer together. To quote comedian Jon Stewart from a few days ago…I got nothing for you. Instead, I grab my loved ones close and pray for the strength to navigate in hostile space without losing the little bit of love for humanity that keeps me going through the day.