I don’t know what to do about cops who keep murdering black people.
But I do know that I live in a bubble of white ignorance. I am ensconced in privilege because of centuries of racism, building up like a geological shelf in this country. We add a thin layer of progress and then cover it up with more hatred, more fear, more terror.
I have the freedom, in America, to live in this awful blindness. I am not afraid to pass a police officer when I walk down the street. I am not afraid to drive, anywhere; I do not have to wonder, when I drive to the grocery store or to my office, if today is my last day. I am not afraid that my brother will be mistaken for a criminal and murdered in the street on a sunny afternoon. I am not afraid that my sisters will be arrested for an imaginary traffic violation and then be found dead in a jail cell. My life is not under constant threat from my fellow citizens. I have the undeserved freedom to not fear these things.
I do know that I am afraid to talk about race. I am afraid of saying the wrong thing. I am afraid of being misinterpreted. This fear seems to characterize most white people. And so we stay silent.
Our silence is what helps keep racism alive and well in the United States.
White people, we have to talk to each other about race. We have to stop pretending that we’re not racist, that we don’t know anyone who is racist, that we have X number of black friends. Stop.
We have to eliminate racism in our communities by starting these conversations with each other. We have to rebuild bridges that we have been aloof and indifferent enough to watch burn. We have to help each other overcome our collective lifetimes of bigotry, brought on by comfortable ignorance and comparative freedom.
The quieter we are, the more complicit we become in this evil.
The day we left for Iceland, nine congregants at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were murdered by a young white man, motivated by hatred and racism. Guion read the news to me while we were picking up our rental car in Reykjavik, and we were stunned and appalled.
Upon returning home, this tragedy loomed over my thoughts and continues to do so. I cannot say anything that even remotely compares with President Obama’s beautiful eulogy, which brought me to tears, or with the many other thoughtful and important essays and articles that have been published since the shooting, but I felt like I had to write something, in my small way.
The essential thing is this: As white people, it is easy to feel separate from this incident and to write off the killer as a solo actor who does not represent us. But I would challenge us white Americans to dwell in complicity. Meditate on what it might mean for us to carry this burden, to acknowledge this cowardly young man as a product of the environment we have fed and fostered. Don’t fetishize black forgiveness; don’t feel like we, as white people, are off the hook because of the unbelievable grace of this congregation. Don’t pretend like this was an isolated and surprising incident, coming out of some shocking, hidden wellspring of racial hatred. We know where such bigoted hate comes from. We knew it was coming. We started it; we brought it here.
Racism is an impossibly vast monster. But I’d like to posit that without doing some magical collective thinking — and communal acknowledgment that we, as American whites, are as guilty as the depraved murderer — we will make no headway in fighting that monster.
As a white woman born and raised in the South, I want to be daily aware of my complicity in the heartbreaking racism that plagues my fellow white people. I want to acknowledge the racism that unfortunately takes residence in my own heart. Without such humility and admission of our collective guilt, will we ever come to repentance?
God have mercy on us. We do not deserve it.