These words were originally meant for people of color everywhere. Victims don’t want to relive their trauma, I’ve learned, and I think in the end an apology is empty without appreciable change. They’ve heard the apologies. They’ve seen white people write words… lots of words, falling empty, into the endless bowels of blogosphere with the sole purpose of disillusioned redemption of white people’s guilt. So no, these words aren’t an apology for black people. They’re meant for people like me, who grew up in a middle-class Christian family. They’re meant for people like me, who were taught that skin color didn’t matter. They’re meant for all of us, for wherever we are, on our journey toward humanitarian equity.
I get it. I haven’t always. Say one thing about the rioting, it’s this: we are finally paying attention and those burning buildings aren’t black people’s fault; they’re mine. I lit that match. I did this. I’ve heard white supremacist are lighting trash cans in the name of black people and it makes bile rise in my throat how the nation jumped to conclusions about who was doing it but really, it was me. I’m not a white supremacist. But I am racist. And I share responsibility for all this mess.
You see, I didn’t think I was racist because face to face, I have always treated people of color no differently than my white friends… at least I thought. But in the past, I’ve told my wife, “I just love the way she’s got that black person laugh.” Why couldn’t I have just said, like I do with my white friends, “I love her infectious laugh.” Why? I thought I was giving respect to the culture of being black by using this word as an adjective. But I see the nuances here. I see the way my words weren’t really kind at all. Because I used their skin color as a way to belittle the beauty of who they are, individually. I used their skin color to invoke a certain image in my audience’s mind. Does a black person laugh make people think jovial and infectious or obnoxious and unruly? When all I really want to say is this: Her laugh makes me wish I had that untamed joy and I honor her carefree spirit.
“I’m not a racist,” I’ve said, “I just judge every man for his personal character.” But when I see skin color first, my preassigned stereotypes have outlined that person’s personal character making it nearly impossible for their personal character to shine through. Black people’s personal character is that they are black. No further adjectives needed. And when I see a black person in a car with flashing lights behind them? I see their skin color first and I shove down the very inequality and injustice that have led them to their current situation. By noticing their skin color, and subsequently identifying what stereotype they belong to, I have ignored the economic, psychological, and social racism that have been the true handcuffs around their wrists. I see now how I’m not a racist statements always, always end with justification for simply being… a racist.
We witnessed a peaceful protest the other day. Southern Gal, my wife, commented how it almost made her cry and I nodded, tears pooling. We watched the hurt and the sadness and the bravery on the tear-stained faces as they chanted I can’t breathe and in that moment, I realized how much I needed to call out my own racism, how I needed to educate myself and start asking hard questions, how I could no longer hide behind the illusion that I wasn’t part of the problem. I wanted to run into the crowd, then, and be one of the masses just plugging up the streets with my sadness and rage for all of us and how we’ve failed to love; how I’ve failed to love.
I went for a run tonight on a bike trail, along a silent creek, its banks bursting with purple and white delicate flowers. The vast majority of joggers I passed, I noticed, were people of color and I thought about how my black friend once told me, “Yeah, I drive to the trails to run because it’s not safe to run in my neighborhood.”
“Peace on the left, justice on the right,” I hear George’s brother saying.
I raise my hands to sky. My left hand, two fingers outstretched to the setting sun. My right hand, a fist held blunt against the dying day.
I am calling for a new beginning. A new tomorrow. I am under no illusion, however. As I write these words tonight, I have no doubt that I see so dimly the things I need to see and I’m seeking within myself a need for a new faith in humanity, a new hope for our future, and a new love for people of color. Someone really wise once wrote that the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)
What does love look like? It looks like action. For me, it looks like rioting within my mind, flipping tables in my soul, and lighting fires to my old prejudices.
I won’t apologize for being a racist.
I know people of color need more.
They need change.
They need love.
They need us.