How to move forward

Lee Park

If you were following the news in the US this weekend, you know that Charlottesville, our little town, became an epicenter for a terrifying rally of white supremacists, Nazis, alt-right instigators, and domestic terrorists from across the country. One woman was killed in an act of terrorism straight out of the ISIS playbook, and 19 more were seriously injured.

We live less than a mile from Emancipation Park, shown above, which was the center of the violence and rage. Our church is right across the street from this park. Since Saturday, we’ve been decompressing for hours on end, like many of our neighbors and friends.

In the aftermath, the most unsettling quote I have read came from University of Virginia alum and Nazi agitator Richard Spencer, who said: “Your head’s gonna spin, how many times we’re going to be back here . . . We’re going to make Charlottesville the center of the universe.”

My stomach fills up with dread when I read those words. I pray that it won’t be true, that days like Saturday don’t become commonplace in our town.

And yet it jars us all out of our complacency. We realize we’re not inoculated from hatred; it breathes and grows right under our feet, right next door. Charlottesville has a dark history of racism that it covers in a veneer of prestigious history and genteel Southern charm. In my bubble, on my street in a hippie neighborhood, it is easy to believe that we don’t have a problem with racism. Clearly, we do.

“If we are to be blindsided by history, it will probably be the consequence not of unresolved disputes but of unexamined consensus.” — Marilynne Robinson, “Value,” in The Givenness of Things

So, what’s to be done?

If ending white supremacy is the goal, tweeting about it shouldn’t be my primary action. The older I get, the more I am convinced that tweeting about racism and white supremacy doesn’t do much, if any, good. Hearts and minds aren’t changed by social media posts. The internet just serves up our own opinions, whatever they are, and calcifies them. Facebook doesn’t soften our hearts—or change the minds shrouded with hate that need to be changed.

If the echo chamber of the internet doesn’t have concrete solutions, where else should we look? Here are a few actions that I’ve been thinking about lately.

What we can do

Support the good work of local nonprofits and humanitarian organizations. We love The Haven, Computers4Kids, New City Arts, the Women’s Initiative, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the International Rescue Committee, among others. Sara Benincasa also has compiled a list of Charlottesville nonprofits that could use help.

Stay in your church or whatever community you belong to. Stay and do the hard work there of talking about white supremacy. Don’t leave because discussions aren’t happening at the pace you want; start the discussions yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to.

Talk to people. Talk to your relatives who voted for Trump. Withholding judgment, listen to them. (I find this particularly hard to do, but I’m learning that it’s vitally important if we are ever going to be able to get through to someone.) Ask them questions. Lots and lots of questions.

Form relationships with people whose opinions you find repulsive. This, especially, is the primary way to create significant change in our communities. It has to start at the very small, very local, very intimate level. One person at a time.

Starting with myself. I hope I can become less horrible, in the wake of all of this, and be more gentle and gracious. It is difficult and seemingly endless work, but I hope and pray Charlottesville is in it for the long haul.

An invisible package of unearned assets

Versailles
A statue at Versailles.

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”

— Peggy MacIntosh (1988), quoted in What Does It Mean to Be White?, by Robin DiAngelo (2012)

I have been thinking about this quote so much this week. I read African-American writers all summer but had been lulled into this sense that I was somehow removed from the ongoing struggle for civil rights in America, that it was not about me, a white woman; it was a cause to care about and advocate for but somehow outside my purview or even responsibility. DiAngelo’s book was an experience of having the scales fall from my eyes. I have been thinking about white complicity for some months now, but nowhere nearly as deeply as I have upon reading What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy. I have so much more to say and process on the subject, but I feel like (a) I’m having a personal awakening, and (b) I’m ashamed that it’s taken me this long. Please forgive me. Forgive me for my lifetime of white blindness. I am working on myself.

And it is always good to be outside oneself, to focus sincerely on someone else and her life or his experiences.

I whipped myself into a brief rage today over something very trivial, a benefit that I was usually given that was temporarily taken away (only for a day!), and I was angry until my (weird/genial) coworker asked me to touch his hair and assess if my curly-girl recommendations were working, and I thought, Oh, this person is ridiculous, and I am being ridiculous, and everything is going to be fine. Drink some green tea and get over yourself, Self.

Currently reading:

  • The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, ed. Jesmyn Ward
  • The End of the Story, Lydia Davis
  • Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach
  • In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way: A Graphic Novel, Stéphane Heuet

On whiteness, silence, and complicity

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.

Persona

Sky upon leaving work
We watched Ingmar Bergman’s riveting/terrifying film Persona last night. Aside from inspiring feelings of disunity and morbid fear, the film renewed my unending love of Scandinavian interior design. And the perfection of minimalist (primarily black and white) clothing. And how adorable Nordic languages sound when spoken by women. And how marvelous and unusual it is to watch a film in which 95% of the screen time is focused on women. Men have the minor background roles for once. (This never seems to happen anymore. Not even in independent films. We watch film after film that is about, told from the perspective of, and entirely focused on men.)

Donald Trump keeps proving, again and again, that the GOP electorate has unending tolerance for racism, bigotry, and ignorance. I am ashamed of my nation.

I am currently reading Lawrence Wright’s superbly researched book about the rise of al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower. (It won the Pulitzer when it came out in 2006.) Though now rather old, it gives much-needed context to the current, terrifying rise of ISIS (Da’esh), and the history told here clarifies that, really, this is nothing new; this is just an extension of what has come before. We reap what we sow, and little seems to change.

But I am also reading, in a lighter way, The Sweet Cheat Gone, aka The Fugitive book from À la recherche du temps perdu. I found a beautiful red cloth-bound old copy at the library book sale, and I am so happy to be once again bowled over by Proust.

Grief, complicity, and racism

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.