These are just some words on a page I couldn’t keep to myself anymore. Unedited and unadulterated, unmasked from the feelings of adequacy and politeness that keep my pen chained to my lips, where I have to give it permission to say something.
I’m tired. The levy is breaking.
I remember the first time I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. I was in 3rd grade and we watched a movie, 20 kids crowded around a 20-inch computer screen squinting at the black and white images as they tried to teach us a history we couldn’t understand. I felt the weight of it sitting on my chest as the story progressed, recognizing the building waves of tension that swelled before my little eyes. I knew it mattered on a scale I couldn’t see yet, that something in his words had shifted the whole of America, but I couldn’t understand why.
There were only two black students in our class. I was the only white one who cried. It felt like I was watching his death live, this man I’d just fallen in love with ripped out of the world only 30 minutes after entering mine. It felt like they’d assassinated hope itself. My 8-year-old brain refused to accept that this man with his strong words and refusal to give up could somehow not be on the earth anymore, and the dream I had of joining him on his journey to justice—wherever it led—collapsed in my lap.
But the heavy reality of what I learned did not remain on me. Distracted by recess and lunch and my white life, I forgot about the unforgettable man I learned about that day. I never asked my parents why it mattered so much what he did. I did not swallow the whole truth of lynching and the KKK and police brutality and white supremacy and segregation when they taught it to me in school. I turned my eyes away from this ugly history—easy to do when it didn’t affect me. I was a college student before I remembered the heavy weight that 3rd grade video left on me a decade before, before I blinked my eyes and stared for a second at the reality of racism.
Ashamed, I admit that this year is the first year…maybe in my entire quarter-century life, that I have really thought about Martin Luther King’s day, what it means for history, what it means for the present, what it means for so many people in this country and around the world. The way it must make some grandmothers sob to remember how he had a dream, and how it seemed to be torn from them when he was killed. The way it must enrage parents to see that, despite his dream being 50 years old at this point, their children are still treated differently for the color of their skin. I cannot begin to fathom how today makes black people feel. Because me, with my white skin, I was privileged enough not to have to think about what today means for 25 years. I am privileged enough to forget what color I am when I go out into the world, because I’m the “right” color. The only experience I know is privilege, and it took me 25 years to know to call it privilege.
I went to Williamsburg, Virginia last week. At Colonial Williamsburg, I toured a house that was built in the early 1700s, owned by a man named Peyton Randolph. The tour guide, dressed in 1700s-garb, explained that while Randolph was fighting for the freedom of America, he owned close to 1,000 black people. He and his wife went so far as to have “manservants” who attended them 24 hours a day, William Henry and his wife. William and his wife slept on mats outside of the Randolph’s bedroom in case their white masters needed a drink in the middle of the night. The tour guide explained that working inside the house was actually worse than working in the fields, because you never got to rest. You never got to take the mask off. You were a slave every hour of your life, not even your sleep was your own. Do you know how we know that they had manservants, or how many slaves they owned? Because they had to mark them down as inventory. Next to how much sugar or coffee or tobacco they had, they had to write down how many people they owned. Because of the snow, we didn’t get to go into the backyard to see where the slaves slept and worked. Really, I don’t know if I could have stomached seeing it.
You learn in school about slavery, but I don’t carry around that history on my back. I carry my privilege. It is so disturbingly easy to go about your life and never think about the reality of slavery. In just 100 years after slavery was made legal in the colonies, the state of Virginia alone had over 100,000 slaves. Black people were over half of the damn population, you guys. This happened, and it didn’t even end that long ago. The Civil War was in the late 1800s! That’s how long it took us to choose human freedom over money! Walking around that house, seeing the mats they would have slept on, looking at the sitting room where Randolph discussed how to gain freedom from Britain while his manservant stood in the corner, waiting to attend to him… Suddenly, I have a glimpse of why today matters so much. Why #BlackLivesMatter matters so much. Because I cannot fathom anyone thinking less of me because of the color of my skin, and the least I can do is recognize that black people do. They do.
Racism is real. I am racist. We are all racist, whether we realize it or not. We’ve been raised on stereotypes and taught by the media to believe certain things about certain colors and have seen mostly white princesses, TV stars, movie stars, presidents, have been subconsciously made to believe that white is better. I know it’s a hard pill to swallow, but it is real, just like our white privilege is real. And we need to be able to stare in the face of this reality in order to change it. This past Sunday my preacher talked about how a white guy approached him after one of his sermons and said, “Man, when you talk about all that race stuff, it really feels like you’re white-shaming me.” And my preacher said, of course we feel shame. Because sin always leads to feelings of shame, and our treatment of blacks is DRENCHED in sin. You know why this post is probably making you feel outrageously uncomfortable, why I used to turn my eyes away from the truth of white supremacy? Because racism is real, and we feel the shame of that and we respond by either denying it or hiding from it.
I’m done hiding. I will never, ever know what the black experience is like. But I am done pretending that we’re all the same, that we all have the same opportunities, that we all treat each other the same, that there is no racism. If we’re going to make any difference at all, we need to at least be willing to recognize that Martin Luther King’s dreams HAVE NOT been realized and it is OUR JOB to make them a reality. Black and white and brown and HUMAN, together, together, recognizing the hurt that has been caused and owning up to the fact that we see color and we spread stereotypes and we are privileged and desiring to reconcile, to fight for equality, to care about our black brothers and sisters and listen to their stories, their experiences, what is offensive and what is real.
Today matters so much. Black lives matter so much.
If you’ve read this far, please, please, stop listening to this little white girl who knows nothing and read the following quotes from Black speakers and artists and actors and really feel their words. Stop for a minute and believe them, let them resonate. And let this be the beginning of listening. Because there is so, so much more that can be said on this, but we need to start somewhere.
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream.
“We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail
“Police brutality is all in your mind
And the tactics that they use only look worse in rewind
And people die everyday, you should get used to it
Hands behind yo’ back, face down, and still say you shootin’
Knee where your neck be like why you movin’?
Kids in your car, headed home like what you doin’?
Like why you chillin’? Fuck yo’ feelin’s
Why you smilin’ when I’m so serious?
I hate patrolling your space, like why you livin’?
Stop asking questions, why you filmin’?
You look suspicious, I think you dealin’
Step out the car, fit the description
Someone I fear, I need to kill it” – Kenneth Whalum, Might Not be OK
“We hold these truths to be self-evident
All men and women are created equal
Including black Americans
You know, you know, you know,
One way of solving a lot of problems that we’ve got is
Lettin’ a person feel that they’re somebody
And a man can’t get himself together until he knows who he is,
And be proud of what and who he is and where he come from, and where he come from” – Common, Black America Again
“In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: “The winner is Sidney Poitier.” Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was black, and I had never seen a black man being celebrated like that. I tried many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people’s houses. But all I can do is quote and say that the explanation in Sidney’s performance in “Lilies of the Field”: “Amen, amen, amen, amen.”” – Oprah Winfrey, 75th Golden Globes Speech