4:00am in Chiang Mai. A neighboring dog has been incessantly barking for the past hour.
It feels like the perfect metaphor for my mind. Because another looped alarm has been ringing since the day I left the US.
It was an interesting day to leave the country. June 27, 2015.
You might recognize it. The day after the historic Supreme Court ruling that established marriage equality in the United States.The same day our president stood before those grieving the loss of nine black churchgoers who fell victim to domestic terrorism.
It was a big week. As someone committed to creating a more socially just world, it was a week that made it feel counter-intuitive to be settling elsewhere when the country feels ripened for— and in desperate need of— social change.
I don’t believe in such dualities in terms of where one must be to engage in important work. Yet still, a question of responsibility remains ever present.
Increasingly present in fact, when, in the six weeks I’ve called Thailand home, at least five black women have died in police custody.
It is this that I want to speak to here.
Specifically, it is the responsibility of White America I’d like to address.
This post is coming from an exchange I had with some friends and family after a recent article I shared on Facebook. Their questions and qualms made me think a lot about what is required of white people today who want to create change. And it made me connect with some of the barriers to white people wanting to, or feeling able to, do so. Here, then, are some thoughts for those loved ones…
Dear white friends,
This is our wake up call.
Let’s be really clear: what we’ve been seeing on the news and on our social media feeds is not new. [If you have not been seeing anything of note, that’s part of what I am talking about too]. There is historical precedent for the brutalization of black women. White-on-black terrorism is woven into the fabric of our country’s making. Anti-black law enforcement violence is recently publicized, but long established in our nation’s history.
Black lives have not mattered that much in our country. And please— before you take offense— consider this: they’ve at least not mattered enough to eradicate any of the above-mentioned atrocities. They’ve not mattered enough to acknowledge the prison industrial system as one disproportionately targeting black men. They’ve not mattered when we maintain zoning laws and housing practices that create de facto segregation for poor black communities.
So the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the trending hashtags, the continued unrest, and the interruption of campaign rallies throughout the country are bringing to our consciousness a reality that’s long existed.
I hope that this keeps you up at night. That it becomes a neighboring dog that won’t shut up.
Because for us, it’s just that: a bark. While for our friends of color, the blow of racism is a bite— too often fatal.
I know that it’s hard to talk about this. It’s uncomfortable in a way that our skin has protected us from feeling before. I want to suggest, though, that waking up means leaning into this discomfort.
Let’s sit with the shittyness of it all, because having the choice to not feel how shitty things are is a function of our privilege.
Feeling it might bring up some defensiveness, guilt— even disbelief. But friends, we cannot afford to indulge these emotions. Black lives are being lost because these feelings are catered to as we skirt around issues.
And waking up means putting those lives before our own comfort.
While I urge us to feel the discomfort, I am not suggesting we beat ourselves up. We inherited this system. Our involvement was learned.
It is here that I offer the first paradox in white folks doing racial justice work: it is not our fault, and we are responsible.
What I mean by that first part is that your guilt—my guilt— isn’t necessary, nor useful. I think it comes from this internal cry “I didn’t ask for things to be this way!” Even a protest, “I don’t want things to be this way.”
And that’s good. I am glad you don’t want racism to exist; that gives us a solid place to start from. But it is just that, a start.
Because waking up means acknowledging the prevalence of racism in our society.
This is the essential task at hand: for us to start to see what has long existed—swept under the rug with whitewashed media and political narratives that neglect the systemic violence against communities of color.
To start, turn on the news. Do some reading. Listen to the experience of others.
Rather than running to abdicate ourselves as orchestrators, let’s become interruptors. Shifting to the second component of the paradox: we are responsible.
A system does not create itself; it is made up of individuals. Racism is not a separate, disembodied entity. It is lived. Even more uncomfortable: I live it.
And I believe that waking up means owning my part.
This requires that I see myself as a social actor and come to see how race shapes those actions.
This means understanding the ways that I show up white in a space. Paying attention to whose voice gets heard or discounted, whose experience is included in an “us” or “our”. Linking my action, or lack thereof, to the continued threat to black lives. In short, I think it means unlearning the dominance with which I’ve been socialized.
Because if nothing else waking up means unlearning.
The terrifying reality is this: despite our best intentions or warm thoughts toward the human race, we learned to be in a world that normalized structural oppression of communities of color.
Thanks to BLM and others’ tireless efforts, these patterns have been more publicly observed this past year. We now need to unlearn anything in us that can see the anti-black violence that is prolific in our country and not be dismayed.
A wise nun once shared, “once you know, you can’t not know.”
To me, the question becomes then, ‘what are we going to do with this knowledge?’
That is the question that this moment poses to us all. It’s answer, I hope, will be the historical marker of our times.
In reality, waking up means taking action and creating change. It means standing alongside the communities of color who are bravely asserting their humanity. It means affirming this and working for our systems to do the same.
So friends, this is our wake up call.
It will be uncomfortable.
We need to acknowledge some harsh realities in our world,
to own even uglier truths within ourselves.
There is a lot to unlearn.
But it’s time to take action.
there are lives at stake.