I hate writing about racism. I’m white (with just enough Potawatomi to have some melanin but not nearly enough to get followed around department stores), and it feels inherently dishonest to offer an opinion based on my unavoidable ignorance of the experience. It is like my refusal to see a male gynecologist because their female counterparts immediately have a leg up on you, knowledge-wise (no pun or disturbing mental image intended).
But the problem when the only people who talk about racism are the people who experience it, the audience is limited. The very ears who need to hear about racism are less (albeit increasingly) likely to be near the mouths of those who live it every day. I am certain that I know plenty of white people, probably many I call friends, who never talk to any black people. Not necessarily out of racism; it’s just that the circumstances of their lives rarely cross, because this city is so segregated that you can live your life without ever interacting with a person of color.
That whole bunch of unnecessary chatter is the tl:dr of this sentence: I’m going to write words on this page about racism.
The story of most recently Eric Garner and starting with basically the first black people to set their feet on American soil is beyond heartbreaking. It’s pure horror on the level of the Holocaust. The collateral damage- physically, emotionally, economically, mentally, socially – it throbs through the nation with the subtlety of a migraine. My ancestors came to America from Canada and Finland long after slavery and never ventured south of Michigan, so I even have what so many consider a “Get Out of Guilt” card. (“Well, my ancestors didn’t own your ancestors. They were too busy pickling fish.”) But that non-existent card would still stay in my wallet.
I have no words for the injustice, the violations of Constitutional rights, the incompetent legal and governing systems that have spilled out of Missouri, New York, Ohio, and so many other uncomfortably similar situations erupting across the country. I can’t fathom the loss the families feel — loss of a loved one and loss of hope delivered by weak and insulting responses to life lights snuffed out by hasty gunfire.
What happens when you’ve aligned yourself with one side of an issue, it’s decided that there are only two possible sides. Everyone has to fall into one category. There is no gray. If you are with the victims, you are against the police. If you are with the police, you are against the victims (and I refer to Mr. Brown, Mr. Garner, Mr. Rice, and the hundreds or thousands who have experienced anywhere from mild denigration to the ultimate judgment as victims with careful and deliberate consideration, because their power has been eviscerated).
But what if it’s not that simple? What if you think these actions are heinous but you still want the police to be a positive part of the community. What if you wished that the police officers who say quietly that these incidents are not representations of their service would speak louder? What if we didn’t have to cling to one photo of a white cop hugging a black boy as the sole example of peace and love in a country of turmoil? What if everyone could be not on the side of the cops nor the side of the victims but on the side of both: the side of progress and dialogue and real understanding. The side of seeing the best in people, finding commonalities, expecting goodness and empathy and mercy.
There is no despair like the despair of hopelessness. The vacuum that followed the post-9/11 outpouring of love has left us with a black hole of compassion that, to borrow a pundit cliche, is exactly what the terrorists wanted. The nation intended to be a melting pot is separating itself as oil from water. No one, including me, wants to talk about racism and privilege or face our own preconceived notions about who we are, what we believe, and whether we are willing to admit that we are never as open and kind and tolerant as we imagine ourselves to be.
That is the tl:dr version of: we have to talk to each other.
We have to have every version of “the talk” that is uncomfortable and dreadful and stomach knot-creating with everyone who is different, everyone who is similar, everyone who is a complete unknown, because it’s only by getting to know each other that we stir the oil and water. It’s only by listening that we feel another’s pain. It’s only by speaking that others know our story. It’s only through cooperation that we rebuild what we’ve broken. It’s only through love that anything changes.
I didn’t want to write about racism because I didn’t feel like I was qualified, and I’m still less qualified than if not most, at least many. But there are some jobs with no qualifications and no requirements: listening in the midst of chaos; speaking in the midst of silence; stirring the bubbling pot; writing words on the interwebs (the pay is about the same, too).
Like finger mustache tattoos and washed-silk track suits, even the most ludicrous ideas can catch on and ripple across a nation. A few people talking here and a few people talking there, and eventually there’s an immeasurable shift. Then another minuscule step forward. And like all great progress and social change and revolution, the words will gain momentum until we have no choice but to confront the elephant in the room.
Incidentally, the elephant is grey.