Thursday, June 4, 2020

We Shall Overcome

I am tired tonight.

On top of

Covid and
quarantine and
work from home and
fear of the future and
furloughs and
daughters very far from home and

all the usual chaos of the world

we now have the agony of more black people dying at the hands of the police. From what I can tell, the whole nation is horrified by the new waves of violence, and social media is feverish with calls to action.

And to be one hundred percent clear, I'm for that.

I"m for people paying attention to what's happening to our black brothers and sisters.
I'm for equal rights.
I'm for an end to systemic racism.
I'm for peace and brotherhood and compassion and love among all people.

But I am not for the

lack of education
guilt and shame
and negativity that I hear and see, coming from all directions.

These things make me tired. And sad.

Because there is so much we need to talk about and so little space for a real conversation.

Let me try to begin.

* * * * *

America's problem with racism is not new.

Things did not begin to go wrong

when George Floyd's neck went under that police officer's knee.
when Amy Cooper ominously threatened to call the cops on Christian Cooper
when Breonna Taylor was gunned down in her own apartment.
when Ahmaud Arbury was shot and killed by a father and son while out for a run.

No, I'm sorry but these racially-motivated outrages go back through the centuries, all the way to the very beginning of America. The first black slaves came to the colonies in 1619. That's a year before the Mayflower pulled in.

Those of us who were around for the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s can testify to the ongoing narrative of racial injustice and police brutality. In those days, black people were killed not just by police but at the hands of angry white citizens: consider the 1955 case of a 14 year old black boy named Emmett Till who was accused of wolf-whistling at a white woman in a Mississippi grocery store who was found dead, disfigured, and dumped in the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. In 1964, three civil rights workers in Mississippi sent to register black voters ended up dead and their bodies dumped in a partially completed dam. While looking for them, authorities turned up a number of anonymous bodies, victims of past lynchings and murders. Apparently, the KKK was involved.

We were also outraged by police attacking otherwise peaceful protest movements, like Martin Luther King Jr's 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. Police attacked the unarmed protesters with billy clubs and tear gas; one of the organizers, Amelia Boynton, was beaten unconscious and the event was tagged Bloody Sunday.

I'm not sharing these stories to give you nightmares but to make an important point.

Racism may be new on some people's radar, especially Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers who were not around for the highly charged Civil Rights Era, but it's important to keep a realistic perspective:

Racism has been a fact of American life since the beginning. The racist events of 2020 are horrific in their own right, but must be considered in the context of the past decades and centuries; the latest in a long, miserable line of dominoes to fall.

Though the current reality is unacceptable and we still have much work to do, it's important to respect the hard work and sacrifices that many black and white Americans have made in the past to advance the cause of racial equality. We are fortunate to stand on their shoulders.

* * * * *

I'm entirely supportive of our new national conversation on racism. I think it's vital to moving forward, and I love that folks from all corners of life are speaking up. But as listeners, we have a responsibility to test those words, to hold the speakers accountable to history and common sense, to think about rather than simply feel our response.

Case in point.

I love Trevor Noah. I didn't follow him during his stand-up days, but since he took over at The Daily Show, I often watch his videos. I enjoy his smooth manner and sly sense of humor, and respect his intellect and point of view.

Ditto for his recent piece, a passionate and eloquent commentary about our current situation. He says a lot of beautiful, thoughtful, interesting things and I love his heart. But when Noah mentioned that people in power pushed back against Martin Luther King Jr. telling him that his was the "wrong way" to protest, I was shocked. I'd never heard that idea before.

So I looked into some facts.

Other than a few nut jobs at the FBI, a minority of die-hard racists, and black leaders like Malcolm X who preferred a more violent form of protest, MLK was widely respected and much loved in his day as a nonviolent protester and a man of integrity. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, for heaven's sake, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Medal of Honor. A holiday to his honor was established in 1971, three years after his death, and enacted as a federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets have been renamed in his honor; here in my own state, the county that includes the city of Seattle was renamed for him; and his memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC was dedicated in 2011.

That's a lot of love for a black Southern preacher. I found no evidence that MLK was ever disparaged or told that his way was the "wrong way" to protest. Sorry, Noah, you got that one wrong.

And my point here is not to shame Noah but simply to say, we must all take responsibility for paying attention to the facts and not just the emotional volume of our commentary.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I take responsibility for my own education and hope that you do too.

* * * * *

As a kid, I often spent a long time trying to fall asleep at night. Thanks to what I now know as Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome, it was quite normal to me to toss and turn for an hour or so after my mom tucked me in, which left me lots of time to ponder the nature of the universe and other such mysteries. It was probably in third grade, when we first got to use actual social studies textbooks with photos of kids from all around the world, sitting in their Polynesian huts or Mongolian yurts or tiny Eastern European apartments, that I began to reflect on my place in the world.

One could debate the merits of my conclusions, but this is where my seven-year-old late-night thought train took me: I am a white American girl, living in the best state in the country. (Detroit was booming in those days.) My parents went to college and someday I will too. We have a nice house, nice clothes, a cool car ('67 Barracuda) and plenty of food. I am smart, strong and healthy. I have literally the best of everything in life and I couldn't be any luckier. 

And with that thought came the flip side of the coin. Virtually every other child in the world had, in one way or another, less than me. I felt not guilt or shame because I knew I had done nothing to earn all those wonderful things. I was simply born into them. And the kids who had less than me had done nothing to deserve their fate either. That's just the world into which they were were born.

But I knew, from that moment forward, that my purpose in life was to share my advantages with those who had less. I had no idea what that would look like, but I just knew that in this uneven distribution of advantage, my life's work would be to try to even the score.

While I am not asking for a medal, I'd say that I've kept true to that purpose. With my life, I've tried to embrace differences, to give to those who have less, and to love whoever God puts in my path, blacks, whites, and every color in between.

So imagine my surprise to learn recently that as a white person, I am blind to my own white privilege. I'm told that white people like me are so inherently racist that we can't even see our own racism, and as an old, washed up, morally corrupted Boomer, that's especially true. You know how those Karens are.

Well, I don't think that's a fair conclusion. And I don't think it's true. But I have learned that the more I try to defend myself, to explain myself, the more people pinch their lips together and firmly shake their head, "no." Apparently, the more I say I'm not a racist, the more true it is that I am one.

It's frustrating to be judged by a stereotype, to be unheard, to have people discount my own experience without really understanding who I am.

* * * * *

So if you've been on Instagram lately, you've seen that it's crammed full of posts explaining to white people how to improve our allyship and become anti-racist.

Donate money to black causes
Follow black influencers
Frequent and promote black businesses
Vote for anti-racist candidates
Watch programs and read books about white privilege and racism
Watch programs and read books about black culture
Support black protest movements
Post appropriate memes.
Speak out against racism.

And so on.

I think all those actions are wonderful. And I think that when we do those things, we will help to mend together the broken places that still need repairing between blacks and whites.

But I also think that it's important to be kind. To be gracious. To recognize the guilt and shame we heap upon each other with these lists of responsibilities.

To do any one of those things is a true act of love.

To judge yourself for not doing enough of them is too much.

And I hope the white Americans who want so badly to help their black brothers and sisters will be kind to themselves and to each other, and realize that every single step we take together - no matter how small - leads us that much closer to the promised land.

* * * * *

I am still tired. 

But I know I'm not the only one.

The weight of these issues, 

of our cares for the black babies tucked into their cribs fast asleep, who haven't learned yet about the world they've been born into, 

of our fears for the next black man or woman who stands on the wrong side of a police officer's gun (or knee), 

of our agony for the mother whose black teenage son is out on the sidewalks after dark, not realizing the danger he's in,

they hang heavy around our necks.

Certainly they hang heaviest around the necks of our black brothers and sisters, but they cause pain and heartache to white people too.

I will never know exactly how it feels to be black.
And no black person will ever know exactly how it feels to be white. 

But I don't think that's our goal.

Our goal is not to come to perfect understanding.

Our goal is to build a place where we can live 

in peace and justice, 
in kindness and respect, 
in true brotherhood.

Our goal is to overcome the evil that has torn us apart.

Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day. 

* * * * * 

We Shall Overcome
Performed by Pete Seeger

We shall overcome. 
We'll walk hand in hand
We shall live in peace
We are not afraid. 
The whole wide world around.

We shall overcome.

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