In the spring of 1991, I was a girl who fell in love with a boy and being two headstrong and impulsive types we pledged our undying love to one another and ran off and got married. A few months later, we discovered we were expecting a child and by the winter of 1992, our beautiful son was born. Yet, it was too late for us. We learned early on that love wasn’t enough because as a mixed-race, young couple, the world was not a kind place for us. Thirteen months after our son’s birth, our marriage was over. Shattered under the weight of adult realities and the inability to acknowledge or talk about race and the impact it had on our lives. My ex-husband would spend the next two decades avoiding all talk of race, instead choosing to see the “human family,” until it reached a breaking point in recent years as my son’s identity as a Black man emerged and he was faced with the possibility of losing his son. In a stunning reversal of more than four decades of long ingrained “truths,” I have seen my ex-husband speak up as a white man in ways that I never thought possible when it comes to race.
I share this personal story as I sit saddened under the weight of what our inability to talk race as a nation is costing us. Today’s New York Times has a piece that speaks to the very real divide in this country when it comes to race. We are in a state of emergency and many of us don’t even know it. A civil war is brewing and we are almost at the point of no return as a nation.
Too many Black people suffer under the weight of a system that marked us before we were even aware of our own essence as people. Too many whites believe the past is the past and that we should just move on. As a general rule, we don’t make a point of pressing crime victims to just move on and forget the trauma they have endured, and we certainly don’t ask them to endure more abuses by the criminal while we refuse to apprehend that criminal (well, I guess we often do in domestic violence still, but other than that…). Yet when it comes to the Black American community, too many whites engage in intellectually dishonest rhetoric on race because the truth is too painful to face. But as anyone who has lived long enough knows, facing our past often allows us the freedom to eventually move forward.
Here in America, we are literally stuck in a loop unable to move forward racially; as I have spoken about many times in recent months, it was 46 years ago this year that American witnessed the race riots of 1967 in Detroit, which later led to the formation of the Kerner Commission. The Commission was tasked with figuring out what to do with those pesky Black folks. The Commission’s findings in 1968 determined that the problem was white people and detailed all the reasons why. We failed to heed the recommendations that came out of those findings and here we are…at a racial crossroads.
We have reached the place where families are fracturing over recent events such as Ferguson and the Eric Garner case, longtime friendships are ending and spaces such as Facebook are revealing our true shadow selves. It ain’t pretty. I pride myself on being someone who keeps drama down in my online life and I actually took the rare step of unfriending a white sister in Christ because her comments were borderline abusive.
On the one hand, it’s easy to blame the troll culture that is so pervasive online but in many ways I think that our online selves are a lot closer to who we really are. It’s harder to show our true selves face-to-face when accountability can be demanded or a punch in the face is always a possibility. American culture and especially white American culture has always trafficked in politeness, which by extension has meant avoiding discussion of the potentially problematic things like religion, sex, politics and race. However, in a racially changing world, we can no longer avoid that which is unpleasant or uncomfortable, not when lives are on the line, not in a world where children with toy guns on the playground are shot dead by the people who are charged with serving and protecting. To stay silent on race is to be complicit in the systematic destruction of a people who bear the scars left over from centuries of abuse and oppression. No white person alive owned slaves but many are still alive who benefited from the system’s preference for whiteness. To openly acknowledge that truth is not to indict whiteness but to indict the system that created this divide that we all currently live in…the truth has a way of setting us free but if we run from it, freedom will never be ours.
Standing on the brink of destruction, all I know is that we must be brave. We must not back down and if in the fight to right the wrongs of history and not bestow upon our children and grandchildren this tortured legacy that will not fade away, if we lose loved ones along the way, perhaps it is a small price to pay to right the wrongs of history. Pandora’s box has been opened and it cannot be closed, our ugliness is on display and the pain is heavy but it doesn’t have to remain this way if we find the strength to deal with that which we have long ignored.