“How did these people become this way? How do we stop them? I have taught my children and my students to love everyone, we are all equals, and to be compassionate.”
I cannot stop thinking about these words that came to me from a distraught high school classmate following the march of white Nationalist extremists on Charlottesville, VA. I suspect their hold on me comes from a spark of recognition – those lessons sound familiar. But her words also have me thinking about other lessons, about the things I was taught not to see.
One week before the violence that took place in Virginia, a state I recently called home, I spent my Saturday at an all-day workshop on Anti-Bias, Anti-Racism Education, offered by Chicago Regional Organizing for AntiRacism. During our introductions, participants were asked to talk in small groups about their reasons for coming to the workshop, and jointly develop a six-word statement about why we were there, a fascinating exercise fashioned after The Race Card Project, where people are asked to “distill their thoughts, experiences or observations about race into one sentence that only has six words.”
As part of her introduction about why she was there, one of the workshop leaders, who is African-American, shared that she had grown up in Mississippi in the 1940s and 50s. Shaking her head and half chuckling, she said, “That experience kind of automatically sets you up to be interested in racial justice.”
Her statement helped me find my own six-word essay for why I was there: “Because racial injustice exists, that’s why.”
The Privilege of Believing Racism Was a Problem of the Past
Shouldn’t just the fact that racial injustice exists be enough to make us interested in racial justice?
That’s what I believe now, but it wasn’t the case for me growing up white in the 1960s and 70s. Too young to really have first-hand memories of the Civil Rights movement, I remember it mostly through the lens of television documentaries – where the story of racism was mostly told as a story that had ended, a terrible problem that had been solved.
Instead of being set up to be interested in racial justice, I was set up to believe it had been achieved. I was set up to be interested in racism as a historical event, not an ongoing social problem that needed my attention, my vigilance, and my resistance. This illusion was upheld by the reality of segregation, by then officially outlawed but still actively practiced. I lived in a mostly white community and had very little interaction with anyone who wasn’t white. Lacking any direct exposure to observable instances of racism, it was easy for me to believe that we were past all that. One definition of privilege that fits my experience of race growing up says, “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally.”
Beyond Love and Dialogue
In partial answer to my classmate’s questions, I stand with her and others who proclaim that love is the answer to how we counter hate. Throughout my career I have grounded my work in the power of dialogue to build understanding (in the appropriate circumstances – dialogue is not the right tool for every circumstance. In the days since Charlottesville, my colleague Josh Feigelson's recent essay on the Limits of Tolerance makes this very clear). I still believe in those principles – but I have also learned the paradox that to teach love, equality and compassion is at once fundamentally important and also not enough. Racial harmony does not undo racial injustice.
That is why another part of my answer to my classmate’s questions is that those of us who are white must learn to be interested in racial justice. To better understand racial injustice, I have had to ask myself “What have I been conditioned to ignore?” What do I have to unlearn about our racial history and what do I need to learn about how racism still operates all around me, even when white nationalist extremists aren’t marching in the streets?
I have been unlearning and relearning the story of race and racial justice for a while now, and I still have work to do. I’ll keep sharing that journey in future posts.