I joke that in my community I’m a minority because I’m a brunette. No, I don’t lead a completely walled-off white life, but in truth I’m a white woman and my life experience bears witness to that. I have no idea what it feels like to be black.
Is it more irritating for a person like me to pretend I’m more diversified than I really am or to acknowledge that I, like you, are an ever-changing and evolving person that still owes a lot to my history, upbringing and environment? But right now, I gotta tell you, many things are changing my mind and long held beliefs and assumptions are blowing up before me. I’ll start with what I now realize is a staggering admission: Having been a child when the civil rights movement was in full force and admiring the non-violent social change that Dr. Martin Luther King brought about, I comforted myself with the belief that institutional racism was largely behind us, and that displays of racism were isolated hate crimes that society as a whole condemned. Surely black people in this country were in a better position than ever before.
Why did I believe this? Because I didn’t witness enough incidents in my daily life to dispute it. The black friends I knew from work were well treated; we were equal, ditto in church, so the struggle in their backgrounds didn’t touch me even though every black friend I know has told me they’ve experienced discrimination of one kind or another in their lives. I believed them, I just didn’t see it in the environments we were in. In my ignorance, I honestly believed because people in my world treated black people well, everyone did. I’ll call this misguided thinking ‘Pollyanna Racism’ which isn’t evil in its nature like the dehumanizing kind of racism, rather instead it’s an overly optimistic denial of racism and its ugly reality in many people’s lives. Why is this racism? Doesn’t that seem kind of harsh? Yes, and no, because lately I’ve been thinking that denying peoples’ truths, especially in the face of overwhelming facts, is a form of oppression.
But it took me a while to get here.
In 1992 I was living in LA, still in that Pollyanna bubble, and though shit was starting to get real as big city life served up more exposure to haves, have nots, streets you ought not to be driving on, and neighborhoods you would never want to visit, my self concept of being a fully evolved non-racist accepting human stayed intact because people I knew weren’t getting shot or tased, or pulled over for no reason. And then the riots happened. I was on the ninth floor of my office at Los Angeles magazine counting the number of fires I could see in the distance. I stopped when I got to 100.
The days that followed were raw. The National Guard rolled through the streets, curfews were in effect and I found myself confused at the depth of rage that caused this reaction. Opportunists looted stores and LA being LA, gleefully reported the mayhem from all sides. TV cameras captured the ugliest possible human behavior, from Damien “Football” Williams dancing around trucker Reginald Denny as he clung precariously to life, to two blond women screeching away in a Range Rover after looting a Gap store. It was equal opportunity ugly.
Later, as I drove through ruined city blocks that were still charred and unrazed an entire year later (more than 3,600 fires destroyed 1,100 buildings and damaged 3,000 more) I focused on the senseless acts of violence, the lawlessness and stupidity of it all. It had solved nothing. In fact, it had made many good people’s lives markedly worse as neighborhood stores, laundromats and structures were now vacant lots never to be rebuilt. The riots made poor neighborhoods even poorer and it was tragic. Now I was one of the angry people.
At the time, I attributed the riots to the extremely bad behavior of four cops, and the idiocy of Rodney King to lead them on a high-speed chase. In my mind, five people caused the riots, meaning I badly missed the point. Shortly after, there was the rallying cry of “Rebuild LA” led by wealthy business men and supported by Reverend Cecil Murray, a prominent black pastor. Though the the effort would later fall to bureaucratic bickering, the model of black and white working side-by-side in an optimistic show of reconstruction, allowed me to return to Pollyanna mode-not questioning deeply enough the motives and hearts of people who feel discriminated against. For example, for every lawless person who started a fire, were there 1,000 people who shared similar beliefs but, because they were law-abiding non-violent citizens, were suffering silently? It wasn’t that I didn’t want to know; it just didn’t occur to me.
These are hard admissions for me to make because they point to how self-absorbed and shallow my understanding was, but I promise I’m not alone. We nice Pollyanna types are praised for our thoughtful gestures and kind words, so it’s easy to start actually believing we’re genuinely good people. We take pride in our giving natures, moral codes and contributions. But Jesus called bullshit on that saying, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him.” –Matthew 7:11
So, my essential step in growth is coming from me allowing myself to know that evil and ignorance lurk within me and always have. What does that have to do with racism? Well, for me it’s been two things: ask more questions and listen, really listen. And really want to know.
Is it the proliferation of cell phone cameras that’s made it easier than ever before to document the tragic rash of shootings of black people by cops? And still more questions-because the easy answer isn’t to blame all cops, or the behavior of the people being stopped. Social media has created a cauldron of side-taking outrage, but through all of this, I’ve come to believe finally, that the black people of the United States need to be heard and that real conversations need to happen.
Two things happened this summer that finally got me here, though this topic has been burning in me for a while now. First, my son gave me a book he’d been assigned at college, ‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson, a black attorney who’s the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that defends prisoners on death row and seeks to right glaring mistakes made by the criminal justice system. My son said, “This book will change your mind.” This was in response to a conversation where we’d debated whether institutional racism exists, or whether bad, ignorant people can be found in all walks of life misrepresenting and toxifying their professions. The book sat on my night stand for all of July and half of August. Instead, I was working myself through “The Nest” a dishy romp about a dysfunctional NYC family that was surely more fun than reading a book about racism and injustice.
But then our family went on vacation and I finally read the book. It was gripping and loaded with facts I could no longer ignore about how systematically marginalized and mistreated black people are in this country, especially by our legal system. I thought about how fortunate my son and his whole generation is to have their thinking challenged in this way. The author came and spoke to my son’s university and his vital intensity and faith in humanity was searing and unforgettable. After I’d finished reading the book, I told my son, “You’re right. This book changed my mind.”
The second thing that happened was a conversation I had on Facebook messenger with Eric, a black Christian singer friend who was posting what I perceived to be increasingly angry comments on Facebook in response to each fresh, horrible news story about yet another unarmed black person being shot. Eric’s latest post took issue with people who minimize the sentiment of “Black Lives Matter” by debating the statement with a rebuttal like, “All Lives Matter!” His argument was that people were missing the point, and denying the experience of those who had been oppressed. I sent him a private message essentially asking him not to get pissed off at the “All Lives Matter” people because he was a godly guy I looked up to and I wanted “inspirational” Eric back–not the mad guy! It never occurred to me that he himself had been oppressed since when I see him perform he’s like an angel on a stage. And angels are untouchable, right?
His reply finally broke the Pollyanna curtain and allowed me to see his truth. First, he agreed that yes, there are amazing white people and stellar white cops. He then went on to list five separate incidents in own recent life that broke my heart. He started by writing, “When I share parts of my life and story with those friends who have not been exposed to it, a very high percentage either tell me that what I’m saying is not true or they try to alter what I’m saying by giving me what they think I should say instead.”
He described one incident after another, including one in the neighborhood near my church where he was pulled over without cause and a gun was held to his head; another was a state trooper who made him crawl in the backseat of his own car and scrape the factory tint off his back window with his fingernails because it was too dark.He told me he had to stop shopping at an upscale market near where we both live because security tailed him around the store like a criminal. When he complained to the manager he was told he had the “profile” of a shopper who had been in the week before.
Now that I finally “knew”someone this happened to, I could no longer rationalize it to be anything other than what is–racism from unpredictable corners, and humanity and mercy from others.
Earlier this year I was on a business trip in Charleston, S.C. and visited the AME Church where nine black people had been gunned down in cold blood months earlier while they were praying by an angry white man who hoped to start a race war. The dead included the church’s senior pastor and a state senator. The outrage and heartbreak was felt across the nation by people of all colors and faiths.The church became a pilgrimage of sorts where people could come to pay their respects, express their grief and pray. My cousins happened to be in town just after it happened. The members of the church had set up pop-up tents to provide shade from the blistering Southern sun. They offered snacks and a cooler with cold drinks along with hugs and Kleenex. A homemade sign read, “Free Shade, Free Water, Free Snacks, Free Hugs.” Though I was there many months later, bouquets of fresh flowers still lined the doorway and a sign with nine hearts bore the signatures of 10,000 people and a cross with the word “forgiven.”
My cousin told me about the day he visited and said, “I don’t know if I could ever have that kind of forgiveness.” I think now of a people who have had to forgive a lot, and therefore have more practice. And again I think of the words and concepts of ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ which are difficult to articulate until you experience them.
What hasn’t changed is my belief that nothing excuses lawlessness on either side, but by God let’s stop the debate and sit down at a table and talk. This is not a contest!
I’m no longer a label and I won’t label you. Let’s just grab some coffee because I’m ready to hear your story. Finally.