“It took him [Kunta] a long time, and a great many more parties, to realize that they [whites] didn’t live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream the white folks were having, a lie they were telling themselves: that goodness can come from badness, that it’s possible to be civilized with one another without treating as human beings those whose blood, sweat, and mother’s milk made possible the life of privilege they led.” Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of an American Family
When I was thirteen years old, the miniseries Roots aired on television. Though I probably was old enough, and certainly would have let my own children watch it at that age, my parents would not let me watch. The saga of Kunta Kinte, portrayed by Levar Burton, unfolded in my family’s den while I hid in my room listening to records and wondering what story was being told.
Now I know. Strike that. Now I am learning.
This week, we here in America have reached a boiling point. The long slow simmer of placid protest or blissful ambivalence has finally reached its tipping point. The death of George Floyd has ignited the earned frustration and justified fury of Blacks across the country. White allies, by turns broken-hearted and angry, walk alongside them in marches. My own daughter was one of them, she sent photos of black smoke rising from behind buildings, where police cars had been set afire.
I am not sure my elders would have understood.
My mother was a genteel racist, she voiced irritation when hearing Spanish spoken in public, she forbade me to have friends of color, going so far as to attempt grounding me from playing with a girl across the street whose name was Kathy Peters. She had dark hair, and my mother assumed she was a Mexican Catholic. I finally gained permission to enter Kathy’s home when I was able to provide the name of an acceptable evangelical church that the Peters family attended. Mom always and only spoke of people whose skin was a different color as “other.” As “wrong.” As “different.” Those for whom I worked as a teenager in retail trained me to follow Blacks who entered our stores so that I could thwart their assumed shoplifting. If a group of more than two Black people came in, I was to notify security, whether or not there had been any indication of intent to steal. When I was in college, a dear woman stated that our Black song leader should be worshiping at the church where his own people attended, “He would be happier with his own kind,” she said. I had not known that in 1986, it was unheard of for a white church in west Texas to allow a Black man to stand before the congregation to lead “It Is Well With My Soul”:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is no longer well with our collective soul here in America. It has never been, though we white folk may have been blindly, blissfully unaware. The truth will out as the smoke clears from the riots: who started what, who actually broke the windows, did the worst of the looters travel from afar, funded by extremists and anarchists with the intent of spreading strife and clouding the vital message, pitting Americans against one another? Where did the pallets of bricks, planted strategically in cities where protestors might turn to rioters, sending the handy bricks through windows, come from? Who ordered and paid for them? Will we begin to hold ourselves accountable? As a young woman, I said, “I never owned a slave, I don’t understand why today’s Black people, who never were slaves, are still so angry!” I cringe now to even think of it, there was so much I needed to learn about how roots affect the tree that grows, about how systemic, generational abuse can be borne so deeply in the soul that the bitter sorrow of admitted culpability and the mutual gift of radical love are needed to heal the wound.
I hope we will do both. Acknowledge and own our part as whites. Accept the blame, whether we understand and agree or not. Perhaps be granted grace by Blacks. For all my life, I have lied to myself, believing my inaction was enough. No longer. I know I intend to learn, read, ask, donate, phone call, letter write, and march. I will continue to do the terrifying work of confronting my own biases, because even at its most terrifying, it doesn’t hold a candle to the real physical terror that my Black fellow citizens face now and faced 200 years ago. I will seek forgiveness where I can. Most of all, I will learn to listen. Listen hard. Because other than recognizing the legacy of racism I inherited, other than acknowledging that as a white person in America I don’t have to overcome racial bias, I really don’t have much to add to the conversation. It’s time for me to hush up and learn.
The lie I told myself? That only bad people were guilty of racism. Now I know better. And as the wondrous Maya Angelou said, when we know better, we do better.
In this beautiful article, author Courtney Ariel lays out a list of ways white people can be effective allies. She calls this “holy work.”