I am an optimist. I surround myself with kind, supportive, and motivated people – and often I dillude myself into thinking that most of the people in the world are just like my family and friends, and that evil is rare. I do this because we have to have hope and we have to believe in goodness in order to survive. But recently my home, Charleston, South Carolina experienced evil. It reminded me that optimism isn’t enough, and if you ‘talk the talk,’ you have to ‘walk the walk.’
So what do we do? What do I do?
My mother and father raised me to know that all beings should be created equal. That there is inherent worth and dignity within each and every single one of us, and that no person should be judged or treated differently due to the color of their skin. As a twentysomething in 2015, we often think that this is a universal thought and that as a nation we have progressed to a level of unity and agreement of basic human rights. We grow comfortable in our “forward-thinking,” college-educated, somewhat-diverse bubble of friends and family.
And then in an instant that comfort is shattered. Reality sets in. Shock, fear, disgust. Utter, unshakable sadness. That is what I, and so many others felt when a racist coward stole the lives of 9 innocent, God-loving people, in a sacred space of worship on June 17, 2015.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, I encountered some interesting feelings. After the grief settled down, I felt lost, helpless, and frustrated. I had never really explored the concept of “white guilt” as a personal thing, until now. I started feverishly researching culturally appropriate and politically correct terms. Reading articles, sharing articles. Signing petitions. One example is that in the days and weeks following, I wished that my “non-racism” could be transparent. As if I could wear a shirt that said, “I will not judge you based on your skin color.” (Completely silly and self-serving, I know.) We all want to be good and for people to know our goodness. I wished that I could pass a black person on the sidewalk, and somehow have that person know, that as a white person, I was not racist. That I saw the color of their skin as nothing more than pigmentation on a human spectrum. In those few weeks I would smile extra politely, and wave more frequently to the black people in my neighborhood.
And then I would feel guilty and stupid.
What was I doing? Am I in-turn being racist by trying so hard to prove I am not? Am I being a surface-level activist? Why haven’t I been more active in social justice issues? How do I stand up for what is right, with more than just a facebook post or attending a march? Is it possible to actively try to diversify my friend group, without that being considered racist? Does using the word racism in too many situations negate the severity of the term? Can I talk about my experience? Does my experience matter?
How do I acknowledge white privilege, without seeming boastful of my humility?
I can only know what I have learned through my education, literature and culture, and through listening to the experiences of black Americans. I can learn about it, I can empathize, I can appreciate, but I cannot truly “understand” the modern black experience. And I don’t believe it is fair to say that I ever could. I will never know what it is like to be pulled over by a cop as a black person. I will never know what it is like to be discriminated against for a job or a home. I will never know what it is like to fear for the safety of my children, my family, my friends because of the color of their skin. I will never know what it is like to work tirelessly to overcome the socioeconomic obstacles faced by minorities. I will never know what it is like to be demeaned, belittled, and disrespected because of the color of my skin. And because of that, it is easy to feel like I don’t belong in the conversation.
So, as a white, 24-year-old, middle-class girl, facing virtually zero adversity… What is my role?
Now, let me just say, I am writing this at the risk of “making it about me,” or “making it about my white guilt.” I am well aware of that fact. But we all have a responsibility in this fight against racism, and I think that addressing these questions is important in defining what those responsibilities are. What I want is to share my words and my experience, because the dialogue needs to continue. Silence is not the answer. And I have a feeling that I am not the only one who has been asking these questions.
A few weeks after the shooting I had a few drinks with a close friend of mine, a young black woman, and I confided rather emotionally about my confusion and helplessness. And she said something that has stuck with me every day since – “You are trying. And that’s all that matters.”
With that, I realized that all of those questions are okay – they are more than okay, they are helpful – and that they should be asked and shared. Change doesn’t come from staying comfortable, and we should never be afraid to ask questions that may help us grow. If you are confident that your heart is in the right place, it is okay to risk saying the wrong thing or to admit that you are not sure how to help. We are allowed to feel deeply and react strongly towards injustice, even if it is something “we know nothing about.” Recognizing the disparity, joining the conversation, and listening to those who are directly affected by everyday racism – not only are we allowed to do that, we are obligated to.
I don’t know how to be a perfect activist, and I don’t know all of the right steps to take or the right things to say. But I want to get better – so let’s talk about it.
So what is my role? I believe that it will change as I learn and age with experience. Maybe making the list is the first step.
My role is to listen.
To attend, and be present.
To share and to ask.
To speak up. To speak up against injustice even when it’s uncomfortable.
To stay informed, even when it is hard to hear and sad to experience.
To not give up hope.
To hold myself accountable.
To genuinely try to understand opposing viewpoints before giving my own.
What is your role? What are your questions?
Here are some helpful links about what you can do to fight racism.