I am white.
I have never been black.
Black people, I can say that I understand, I sympathize, I empathize, I stand with you; but because I am white, I can never truly do these things. I live in my world of white privilege. Perhaps I have a clearer picture than some because of my years of teaching in urban, primarily African-American, schools, which allowed me to know and care about young black teenagers in a way most white people will never have the opportunity to. But I have never lived in black skin.
I am as sickened by George Floyd’s murder as everyone else. At first I resisted watching the video clip. But I forced my eyes to turn to it, because I know that it is a reality that many do not have the privilege to avert their eyes to. Who am I to say that I shoudn’t have to watch that. We all should have to watch it – to feel the rising bile as we watch the smug look on the officer’s face and the life drain out of that man under his knee. It is the closest many white people will get to feeling the depth of disgust, fear, and rage that is rippling through every person of color right now. So if you have been avoiding that video, white people, I implore you to watch it. It’s the least you can do.
As I writer I am compelled to post about this event and the underlying perpetual racism and culture of white supremacy that allows these things to keep happening. I am not an expert. I am only one person who has decided that it is important to speak my truth, as I see it, because I believe that this has to stop.
And I believe that the only way we can change as a society is to open our eyes to our truths.
And I believe that this is not a BLACK problem or a WHITE problem. I believe that if I hide behind my white privilege and shake my head but stay silent, then I am part of the problem.
I taught for 10 years in high schools that were predominately black. On my first day of teaching in 2007 in Kansas City I was the only white face in the room. To be honest, I was terrified. I had never been in that situation before. I had no idea how I would be received by my students: 25 young black teenagers in school uniforms, eyeing me with varying degrees of cautious skepticism. I did the only thing I could; I breathed, I smiled, and I was honest. The best compliment I got that year was from a student who told me I was her favorite teacher because I was genuine.
Through all the classrooms, schools, and subjects, what I valued most were my relationships with my students. They mostly came from backgrounds different than mine, but I continued to be honest with them and curious about their lives. When I moved to Chicago I began teaching at a charter school in the notorious North Lawndale neighborhood. We occasionally heard gunshots from down the street during school hours. Many of my students were gang affiliated, teen mothers, orphans, or lived in homes full of undisclosed domestic abuse; and some did not. They were beautiful, curious, scared, strong, determined, angry, eager young people. I loved them.
I helped my students discover what they were passionate about, find talents and abilities they had hidden or pushed down, and build self-confidence…sometimes I just let them be sad or angry or quiet because that is what they needed at the time (they were teenagers after all). When I met my husband and got married, and when I was pregnant with my son, they celebrated with me. When my cherished dog died, they mourned with me. I helped them catch up on schoolwork after suspensions and cheered for their graduation days. I fed them snacks from my desk drawers when they were hungry and hugged them when they cried about breakups, miscarriages, or friends who had been killed.
I watched the news daily with an underlying fear that one of the faces I would see would be one of my kids. And every once in a while, it was: a mug shot underscored by a felony charge or a smiling school photo with a death announcement.
I’m friends now with some of my former students on Facebook. They post photos of themselves standing proud and professional or with their giggling babies, and I smile. Some of them have disappeared from my social media feed, and I fearfully wonder how/where they are. The same is true for all good teachers and their former students I suppose – black, white, brown – we are part of each other’s lives.
Perhaps I have digressed.
The truth is, I don’t know what to say about George Floyd and the many other people who have been mistreated at the hands of the law. Except that it is NOT OK. And that the roots of these horrific events are way deeper and way more entrenched than most of (WHITE) American society is willing to accept. An extreme and maddening event like the murder of George Floyd brings it to the surface, but it is only the tip of the iceberg.
White people, wake up. Racism is still here. It is subversive, and it is ever-present in how our society operates. We have to acknowledge this truth. White people, we have to be brave enough to know that we are a part of the machine that drives these kinds of behaviors and events and start working towards change. We have to stop hiding in the safety of our white privilege and turning our backs to things we would rather not see.
I can only tell my own story. I’ve never lived in the black skin of my students, but I’ve lived close to their lives and I’ve felt strong emotions with them. They deserve to live in a country that supports and respects their dreams and freedoms.
I’m not trying to say the right thing, because who knows what that is. I’m just trying to say something, to add my voice to the difficult conversation about race, privilege, and injustice. The conversation has to get louder and perhaps more challenging, and white people can’t bow out of it. Things have to change. I may not know exactly what to say, but I know, as a white person, I cannot remain silent.