As a culturally* white American trying to fumble my way along this path of accepting my privilege, recognizing my implicit and explicit biases, and trying to be an agent for positive change, I feel so fragile. The slightest criticism, the slightest reminder that I need to do more and I am tempted to just give up.
* I say culturally white because genetically I am part ethnically Latin American, but I have grown up in what would be considered “white American” culture.
I also have the urge to contact my black friends and ask for reassurance that I’m not that bad, that I’m still a good person. For most of my life I feel like I have tried to be a non-racist, vigilantly watching for inequality and trying to make things right. I honestly never had a fear of black people, especially throughout my high school years when associating regularly with black friends and respected classmates. My fear of black people started to creep in when this fight against racism started to grow louder. The valiant efforts to tear away any facade made me fearful that I might misstep and do something that would hurt someone, oppress someone, or somehow make things worse. If I did anything bad it would be unknowingly, of course, and that became the root of my fear. I was paralyzed by the idea that I was surrounded by lasers I couldn’t see. If I accidentally disrupted a laser, an alarm would sound and my mistakes would be exposed.
It’s important to mention that as I’ve listened over the years to the narratives of black people, I recognize that the feelings I’ve just described appear to be how they feel all the time. I am not speaking for them, but just trying to make that connection of empathy.
I am still learning the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. I admit that as a culturally white person, I know that it’s not my voice that needs to be heard. But as I try to do something and show solidarity, I find myself generally silent because I don’t want to cross lines and set off alarms. I am trying hard to pay attention to what I should do (and not do), but I feel extremely sensitive and exhausted, as I know we all are.
I had been wondering where I could possibly fit in all of this. It is not in my nature to grab the banner of someone else’s cause and start waving it. In an effort to do my part, though, I have learned the list of inappropriate actions and have been trying to improve myself. I have spent time studying the issue, the history, and the current problem. I have listened and tried to understand the problem as best I can. Though my understanding is not perfect, I feel ready to support the necessary changes we need to make in our society and within the justice system. But I’ve still been paralyzed by this fear that I’ll do something wrong. I’m especially afraid I’ll step in front of someone more important. And anyway, I’m the wrong color to do anything.
Then I attended a local Black Lives Matter rally last night. Here are some of the messages I took away from some amazing speakers.
Your voice is enough.
There will be a lot of bumps along the way, but it will be worth it.
You have worth.
As I listened to these speakers and took notes, many of my questions and fears melted away. I realized that even if I struggle to know where I fit, my efforts will be enough. There isn’t an unattainable expectation being imposed on me by members of this powerful movement. Whatever I can do will be enough, especially as I look within myself and determine what it is I can do.
I realized that I can accept my fragility, my weaknesses and still bravely do my best. I may be criticized or hurt but if I am willing to continue pressing forward, it will all be worth it. This was especially comforting as I have a firm conviction that if we can improve the systematic flaws that are within our law enforcement, that will improve so many other aspects of our society as a whole. Valuing black lives and making changes that reflect their worth will help all of us.
I have been feeling a little worthless as I attempt to accept my stripes and acknowledge my flaws as a white person. It’s hard to adequately express the peace and healing effect it had on my heart to hear through poetry the black voice that reminded me that I have worth. I realize that when I feel my own worth, I can see the worth of others more clearly. Tearing each other down, in whatever form, does very little to help anyone.
We have seen these movements rise and fall, gain momentum and then fade again. This time, I feel like I can see my path a little more clearly, the path of a white person who can do something good.
I want to recognize that we are all on our own paths to understanding race and racial issues in America. I understand that in order to make lasting change, we all do need to find a path that leads to positive change. But that path and the path leading to it might look different for each of us.
My hope is that we can make space for everyone who is in our global community. Many are still grappling with these issues and struggling to understand. I am sad that enlightenment of racial issues is sometimes wielded to make others feel inferior. Lasting change stems from a lasting change of heart. I can be more understanding to other culturally white people who are struggling, like I am, and maybe hurting as they find their way along the path. That is something I can do.
We don’t have to be the authorities on what to do. We don’t have to be fountains of knowledge who have memorized the book of anti-racism. There are so many amazing people who we can look to for that. There are black voices who will resonate with to us and help us understand what it is we need to hear.
We can be brave while acknowledging our fragility and give space for others to see their frailties and find their bravery too.
With that backdrop, I’d like to cover just a few things that have confused some people. I don’t claim to be an authority on any of these topics, so I encourage you to do more research on your own.
It’s important to understand that there is a significant history with the Black Lives Matter movement and other countermovements. Understanding that background can help us understand why people may respond differently than we expect.
Black Lives Matter started in 2013 as a hashtag on social media in response to the acquittal of a neighborhood watch man who shot and killed a black teenager, Trayvon Martin. This movement grew in 2014 with the unrest caused by the police killings of black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It has continued to gain momentum ever since.
In 2014 two police officers were killed and sparked Blue Lives Matter, a counter-movement to Black Lives Matter.
All Lives Matter has been said by a variety of people, black and white, and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Some are more vocal in this recent surge of activism that the phrase “all lives matter” takes away from the point that racial issues still exist and contribute to systemic racism against black people.
As you bravely join the conversation, just know that the conversation has been going on for several years already. Some people have very fixed opinions about what’s appropriate and what’s not. Even when you feel criticized as you try to get more involved, just know we’ve all been there. We’ve offended others and have been offended ourselves.
Thank you for being brave in spite of our mutual fragility.