Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the kids and I celebrate by reading some good books on the topics of civil rights, social justice, and racism. I always select library books that contain a lot of diversity and represent a wide range of peoples and cultures. However, on MLK Day, we really take time to talk about prejudice in the past and present and learn more about Martin Luther King Jr.
This year, we went to our local library [in our small town in southern Illinois] and checked out every single book they had on Dr. King and the civil rights movement – a whopping total of 5 books.
We read these books together [I summarized a few since my kids are only 7, 5, 4, and 2]. The picture book, My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris, is big and beautiful and a really nice way for kids to relate to Martin Luther King Jr.
We also watched an episode of Sesame Street about Martin Luther King Jr Day, in which all the Sesame Street characters contributed to a “peace tree” by choosing a way they promise to promote peace and equality all year long. I thought this was a great idea and [if I remember], I’m going to make a peace tree with my kids next year.
When I saw how few books our library has for kids about the civil rights movement and it’s leaders, I decided to purchase some new books to donate.
Public libraries are a source of free education for a community and if I want them to carry more books with diversity and social justice themes, I might as well start by supplying some myself. It’s a small thing to do, but hopefully these books will impact little readers in years to come.
Yesterday was Juneteenth, an annual holiday in America that I had never even heard of until last year. I was sad, but not surprised, to discover that there was a piece of history that had been conveniently overlooked in my education on slavery – the part where Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in the slave states with the Emancipation Proclamation, but it took over two years for all of the slaves to find out about it. So every year on June 19th, there is a celebration of “Emancipation Day” or “Freedom Day” which is recognized as the end of slavery [though slavery was not completely outlawed in our country until the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865].
Why isn’t Juneteenth a federal holiday? Why isn’t all of America celebrating the end of our greatest moral failing, the institution of slavery? I know, as a white person, that it is initially very uncomfortable to face the facts of slavery and we will live under the shadow of these terrible injustices [which continue to this day] forever, but this holiday should be a time that we can celebrate that slavery is illegal. Banks should be shut down, mail should be paused, employees given a paid holiday, parades should be televised. We have a lot of holidays with questionable histories [Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, to name a few], but this is one I would think we could all get behind. But, then again, a lot of people in this country still celebrate “Confederate Heroes Day” so maybe I am wrong.
Since I didn’t know about it before last year, I couldn’t celebrate it, but I celebrated it this year. I talked to my kids about it, about what it means, about what slavery is, and about why we celebrate the day it finally ended. We ate cake. We watched a family movie [I wanted Zootopia for its message of inclusion, but my kids chose – without any guidance from me – The Princess and the Frog]. This will become our tradition, and hopefully include participating in local events around the holiday when this pandemic is over and we are free to move about the community again.
I would like to know more about Juneteenth. Do you celebrate the holiday? If so, how did you celebrate?
We shouldn’t just say their names – we should know their stories.
In order to familiarize myself with the stories of those who have been unjustly killed by the police because of their race, I went through a list of their names and looked up each story. I’m sharing a basic summary of their stories here – knowing that this list is not even close to exhaustive and these men and women are just a small representation of the countless black lives that have been cut short due to racial bias and discrimination.
Another powerful way to experience these stories is through the interactive cover of The New Yorker – found here.
As a white person who benefits from white privilege, I am so sorry. I hope that we can learn from these mistakes.
Amadou Diallo – New York City, New York – On February 4, 1999, Amadou Diallo, who was unarmed, was shot 19 times by four plain-clothes NYPD officers, Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon, and Kenneth Boss. Diallo was standing outside of his apartment when the officers drove by and apparently thought he looked a little like a rape suspect. When they called out to him to raise his hands, he reached for his wallet and they opened fire, shooting a total of 41 rounds. All four officers were charged with second-degree murder and were acquitted at trial. NO CONVICTION.
Oscar Grant – Oakland, California – On New Years Day, 2009, Oscar Grant was fatally shot in the back by police officer Johannes Mehserle, while another officer, Anthony Pirone, held him down with his hands cuffed behind him [he was unarmed]. The officers had been called to the location to break up a fight. Mehserle was indicted and convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but not second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. He served 11 months in the Los Angeles County Jail.
Aiyana Jones – Detroit, Michigan – On May 16, 2010, Aiyana Jones, a ten-year-old, was shot in the head and killed by police officer, Joseph Weekley, during a raid. After two mis-trials, the charges against Weekley were dropped. NO CONVICTION.
Trayvon Martin – Sanford, Florida – On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordintor who suspected for no apparent reason that Martin was “up to no good” and began chasing him. After some sort of violent altercation between them, Zimmerman shot Martin. Zimmerman was charged with murder, but was acquitted because he claimed it was self-defense. NO CONVICTION
Jonathon Ferrell – Charlotte, North Carolina – On September 14, 2013, Jonathan Ferrell was fatally shot twelve times by police officer, Randall “Wes” Kerrick. Ferrell had crashed his car and went to a nearby house and knocked on the door. The resident called the police and three officers arrived. Ferrell ran toward them and one officer attempted to fire his taser at him, but missed, so Kerrick opened fire. Kerrick was charged with manslaughter, but after a mistrial, the charges were dropped. NO CONVICTION.
Eric Garner – New York City, New York – On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was killed by NYPD police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who held him in a choke-hold while Garner famously said “I can’t breathe” eleven times before he lost consciousness [he was unarmed]. Garner was being arrested for supposedly selling single cigarettes without tax stamps, which he denied. A grand jury determined not to indict Pantaleo for the murder. NO CONVICTION.
John Crawford III – Beavercreek, Ohio – On August 5, 2014, John Crawford was fatally shot by a police officer named Sean Williams in Walmart for holding a BB gun that was for sale in the store. Evidence showed that the officers shot him without giving any verbal cues, or a chance to obey them. A grand jury chose not to indict Williams. NO CONVICTION.
Tamir Rice – Cleveland, Ohio – On November 22, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by Timothy Loehmann. The police had been called about someone pointing a gun at people. Tamir was holding an airsoft gun and when police arrived, they believed him to be drawing his weapon and shot him twice immediately. A jury declined to indict Loehmann for the murder. NO CONVICTION
Walter Scott – North Charleston, South Carolina – On April 4, 2015, Walter Scott was fatally shot in the back by police officer Michael Slager, who had stopped him for a broken tail light. Slager plead guilty to civil rights violations so that the state murder charge would be dropped. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Freddie Gray – Baltimore, Maryland – On April 19, 2015, Freddie Gray died from injuries to his spinal cord which he received while being transported in a police van. Officers did not follow the policy to secure him inside the vehicle, which had been recently put into affect after a history of transport related injuries while in police custody. Six officers were charged when Freddie’s death was ruled a homicide. Caesar R. Goodson Jr, Edward M. Nero, and Brian W. Rice were acquitted. William Porter’s trial ended in a mistrial. And charges against the other two officers, Garrett E. Miller and Alicia D. White, were dropped. NO CONVICTION.
Samuel Dubose – Cincinnati, Ohio – On July 19, 2015, Samuel Dubose was fatally shot in the head by Ray Tensing, a University of Cincinnati police officer, during a traffic stop for not having a license plate on the front of his car. Tensing claimed that Dubose was trying to drive away and dragging Tensing by the arm, but body cam evidence showed otherwise. After two two trials both ended with hung juries, the charges against Tensing were dropped. NO CONVICTION.
Corey Jones – Palm Beach Gardens, Florida – On October 18, 2015, Corey Jones was fatally shot by a plainclothes police officer named Nouman K. Raja while waiting for a tow truck. Raja shot six times, hitting Jones three times, claiming that he was acting in self-defense, which a video recording of the shooting proved to be a lie. Raja was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Philando Castile – St Anthony, Minnesota – On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was shot fatally shot by police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, during a traffic stop. Castile informed the officer that he had a gun, which he was licensed to carry, but as he was reaching for his license, Yanez became afraid he was pulling his weapon and shot him at close range five times. Yanez was charged with manslaughter, but was then acquitted of all charges. NO CONVICTION
Terence Crutcher – Tulsa, Oklahoma – On September 16, 2016, Terence Crutcher was fatally shot by police officer Betty Jo Shelby for refusing to show his hands while he walked towards his vehicle which was stopped in the middle of the road. Shelby was charged with first-degree manslaughter, but a jury found her non-guilty. NO CONVICTION.
Keith Lamont Scott – Charlotte, North Carolina – On September 20, 2016, Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by a police officer named Brentley Vinson. The police account indicates that Scott was armed and that he refused to drop his weapon, but a video recording showed his wife saying that he didn’t have a weapon. Vinson was never indicted. NO CONVICTION.
Jordan Edwards – Balch Spring, Texas – On April 29, 2017, Jordan Edwards was fatally shot in the back of his head by police officer, Roy Oliver, while riding in the passenger seat of a car that was driving away from the officer who was attempting to stop it. Oliver was convicted of murder and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
Stephon Clark – Sacramento, California – On March 18, 2018, Stephon Clark was fatally shot multiple times by police officers Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet, who suspected that he was holding a gun – but he was only holding his cellphone. Neither of these officers were charged with any crimes. NO CONVICTION.
Botham Jean – Dallas, Texas – On September 6, 2018, Jean Botham was fatally shot in his own apartment by police officer, Amber Guyger, who claimed that she thought she was in her own apartment and believed that Botham was a burglar. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to ten years in prison.
Atatiana Jefferson – Fort Worth, Texas – On October 12, 2019, Atatiana Jefferson was fatally shot by police officer Aaron Dean, after a neighbor called police to inform that that her door was open. When he arrived, body camera footage shows she came to the window to observe the police and he shot her through the glass. Dean was indicted for murder and the trial is still pending.
Ahmaud Arbery – Brunswick, Georgia – Arbery was out for a jog on February 23, 2020 when he was pursued and confronted and fatally shot by two white men, Travis and his father Gregory McMichael. The McMichael’s were not convicted until a video of the murder went viral on May 5th.
Breonna Taylor – Louisville, Kentucky – Shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, three police officers entered Taylor’s home with a “no-knock search warrant,” and shot twenty rounds, eight of which hit Taylor and killer her on site.
George Floyd – Minneapolis, Minnesota – On May 25th, 2020, Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Video footage went viral, sparking protests around the world.
Rayshard Brooks – Atlanta, Georgia – On June 12, 2020, Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot outside of a Wendy’s where he had fallen asleep in his car while in the drive-thru. The officers gave Brooks a sobriety test which he failed. When he resisted arrest and grabbed one of the officers tasers, he was chased by one officer named Garrett Rolfe who shot him from behind. Rolfe has been charged with felony murder and other charges.
All of these tragedies show that while the American justice system is supposed to be built on the idea that someone is innocent until proven guilty, that has never been the case for black Americans. The assumption of guilt, based on racial stereotypes and prejudice, is responsible for most of these murders and the rest are a result of a gross lack of concern for black humans.
The saddest part of all is that for every death that gets media attention, there are likely many more that we never hear about.
I am a mother of four kids, who are my whole world. I have other identities – partner, minimalist, personal trainer, environmentalist, baker, health freak – but they all revolve around my primary role as a mother. Sometimes I am envious of other women who have glamorous corporate careers while I spend a large portion of my day chopping food into bite-sized pieces. But I am glad that I am able to spend these formative years with them, since this is a luxury that many mothers do not have.
Because being a mom is such a large part of my life, and because this blog is about motherhood [well, motherhood and other things, obviously], I wanted to share how I am trying to raise my kids to be racially-aware, inclusive, and anti-racist.
Are Kids Born Racist?
I don’t believe that racism is a part of the human nature, though its existence is evidence of the general selfishness of humanity. Rather, I believe that racism is a learned behavior, passed down through the generations, whether intentionally or subliminally.
Racism: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
There is evidence to support both sides of the issue. Some studies have concluded that children are born with a preference for their own race, and other studies have shown that children learn racist beliefs from their parents, schools, and culture.
I agree with the research that indicates that we are most comfortable with people who share our race and culture because it is most familiar to us. That just makes sense. Our first encounter with a different race may be startling or uncomfortable, but that does not mean that we are racist – that we believe that our race is superior. It means that we fear the unknown. Which is why research has also found that the more time we engage with people of different races [and cultures and beliefs and lifestyles], the more comfortable we become with these differences.
Because institutional racism is so ingrained and so automatic and so accepted, without enough people wanting to enact true, long-lasting change, institutional racism ends up becoming our personal bias.
Sarah Gaither, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University
A great article about this can be found here [partially quoted above.]
I can also see from my own kids that we are not born racist. My children are happy to play with any other kid, it doesn’t matter in the least what color skin they have. My daughter, who is incredibly outgoing, won’t let race, age, gender or even a language barrier stop her from becoming best friends with other kids at the library or on the playground.
Breaking the Cycle of Racism
It is important to understand that racism is learned because that gives us hope that our children do not have to necessarily become racist adults.
[I know many adults don’t believe themselves to be racist, but as I wrote about it in My White Awakening, unless we have been actively working to overcome our own prejudices, we all have racial biases that inform our view of the world and we all benefit from a racist system based on white supremacy].
We have the ability to end the cycle of racism.
What this means to me is that I have to be especially careful not to taint their worldview with prejudices or biases or any negativity toward people who differ from us. Of course, I would never do that intentionally, but, as I realized while examining my own childhood [which I wrote about in my first racism post], racism often gets passed down from generation to generation very subtly. So in order to not unintentionally perpetuate racist beliefs, I have to intentionally teach my children inclusivity and equality.
It is up to us as parents to ensure that we put an end to the subliminal messages of racism.
1. Talking about our differences [including race]. The first thing that usually happens when kids encounter people who are different is that they ask about it – usually very loudly and in front of the person they are talking about. Rather than being embarrassed and trying to hush my kids, I usually give an apologetic smile to the individual and then give my kid an honest answer. Sometimes if the stranger is standing there, I let them answer for themselves. I view these moments as opportunities instead of embarrassments [even though they are usually still embarrassing], because they allow me to talk to my kids about how we are all different and that’s okay. And this is not limited to race. Some people ride in wheel chairs, some people have curly hair, some people wear hijabs, some people have nose rings, some people are missing teeth, some people speak a different language, some people have lighter skin, and some people have darker skin, because we are all different – but we are all people.
These are some unwritten rules that I have been teaching my kids:
We praise our differences. I allow my kids to ask questions, without feeling shamed for noticing differences. It is okay to notice that people are different from us. The key for me has been to speak positively about these differences. Differences do not divide us, they make us unique and special. They make the world a more enjoyable place to live.
We recognize that we are all different. I want my kids to understand that to us, someone’s skin may be dark, but to them, our skin is light. It works both ways. We may think they eat strange food, but they probably think that our food is strange, as well. I am trying to teach them that the world does not revolve around their perspective. This is the beginning of apathy and compassion for other people – being able to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine what they world feels like for them.
We treat everyone with kindness and respect. Again, this is not just limited to race. In fact, I think these are all very important lessons for loving and accepting all people, regardless of their race, culture, religion, orientation, family structure, outward appearance, abilities or disabilities. Teaching my kids the inherent worth of all human beings is vital to ending racism.
Of course, accepting that people are all different is great, but our culture will still teach them racist ideas if we don’t intentionally intervene, which is why the job is not done here.
2. Exposing them to many races and cultures. I love other cultures, so it is a lot of fun to learn how other people live. I want my children to understand that the world is a very big place and it is filled with all kinds of people who believe different things and eat different things and wear different things and, yes, sometimes look differently. One of our traditions during the Christmas season is to celebrate other holidays from around the world. We also like to attend the “Diverse Voices Story Time” at the library, which includes songs in another language and some stories about people from diverse backgrounds. Hanging out at libraries and parks and public places gives us the opportunity to meet people of different cultures and races. And we enjoy going to local festivals and events which offer opportunities to expose my kids to other cultures. As more of my kids enter school, they will meet more kids of different races and I look forward to watching their relationships develop unhindered by the negative affects of racism. I hope that all of my kids experience a much more multi-cultural upbringing than I did.
As I mentioned previously, research has shown that the more exposure we have to different races [and differences, in general] the more positively we feel about them. This makes a lot of sense, because oftentimes, we don’t interact with people outside of our own race and so we really have no experience to teach us that racial stereotypes are wrong and hurtful. We have to engage with people who are different and when we do, we will discover that they are just people like us.
I don’t want to raise my kids in a white world – I want to raise them in the real world.
3. Teaching the history of racism. This year around MLK Day, we picked up several kids books about the Civil Rights Movement. These books were the perfect way to discuss some of the unpleasant truths about racism in America’s history. One of the books also talked about the holocaust and anti-Semitism. I realized that I need to be more intentional about teaching my kids these important stories. We need to talk about the injustice that minority groups around the world have suffered at the hands of white society. We need to know their stories of struggle. We need to feel the weight of our whiteness.
Additionally, I need to teach my kids stories of minority leaders and heroes and champions and victors. I cannot allow them to grow up with only white protagonists. The same books I mentioned earlier told the stories of MLK and Anne Frank and Audrey Faye Hendricks, real-life heroes who I want my kids to look up to. There are also excellent books about leaders, mathematicians, scientists who prove that race and gender do not determine intelligence or capabilities.
4. Providing diverse toys and books. As a white family, it is easy to end up with all white toys and books, but this is not sending the right message to my kids about other races. I want them to grow up surrounded by diversity, and that starts in the home. In order to do this, I have to basically enforce affirmative action for the toy bin. I want the toys and books and television programming that my kids experience at home to mimic the real world.
We don’t buy a lot of toys for our kids [and at these ages, they are usually animals anyway – Paw Patrol, My Little Pony, Baby Shark] but I have started intentionally including diverse books and being more aware of what races are represented in our home. Black is not the only race that needs to be represented. My kids also need to be exposed other minority groups – some of which are harder to find represented in the toy aisle, evidence that we still have work to do.
We also no longer allow toys that depict racial stereotypes [such as “cowboys and Indians”]. We don’t allow programming that depicts certain races as inept or inferior or as always “the bad guy.” And, though a slightly different discussion, we don’t allow toy weapons of any kind because weapons are for the intention of harming someone or something, and that should never be a part of play.
5. Model anti-racist activism. In my previous post, I wrote about all the ways that I am supporting the racial justice movement. I can’t turn all my kids into little activists, but I can show them by my example that there are things that we can do about injustices that we see in the world.
As I have said before, there is a difference between “not being a racist,” and “being anti-racist.” An anti-racist actively denounces racism in all its forms and promotes equality for all races, ethnicities, and cultures. As a parent, I want my kids to not be racist, but I also want them to be anti-racist.
My hope is that by immersing my kids in the “melting pot” that is American society and modeling an anti-racist mindset, my kids will be able to break the cycle of systemic racism that is so often perpetuated in white families.
How are you promoting racial equality with your kids? Would love to hear other input – especially from parents of older kids.
There is a big difference between “not being a racist” and “being anti-racist.” An anti-racist actively denounces racism in all its forms and promotes equality for all races. To be anti-racist implies action.
anti-racism (noun): the policy or practice of opposing racism and promoting racial tolerance.
Since I learned about the existence of systemic racism and white privilege several years ago, I have been asking, “What can I do about it?” I read book after book discussing the history and the reasons and the causes and the effects, but what do I do??? I basically wanted someone to say, “Call this number. Say ‘Black Lives Matter.’ And done. Problem solved.”
As if it was going to be that easy. But that’s what I wanted. I wanted an easy solution. I wanted something I could do quickly, that wouldn’t interrupt my day or challenge my lifestyle or disrupt my status quo. I wanted a solution that didn’t cost me anything.
Unfortunately, that’s not how change works. So I stopped asking, “What can I do?” and started asking “How much do I care?”
Turns out, I care enough to give money to the cause, to show up at the protests, to speak to all of my friends and family about race, to spend hours reading and re-learning history, to teach to my kids about racism, to fill my home with diverse toys and books, to participate in my communities interracial programs, to celebrate other cultures, to learn more about my own heritage, and more. The opportunities for involvement are endless, but first we must be willing to make some changes.
So, here’s how I’ve become an anti-racist, and how you can too, should you want to make the world a more just and fair place.
#1. Get Angry
I had to get angry enough to do something about racism. I cared before, but I wasn’t angry enough to do anything. I had to confront all of the uncomfortable truths about race and racism and how white people have treated people of color throughout history. I had to read the true stories of slaves being beaten, families being torn apart, segregation, lynchings, suffrage, black people being wrongfully accused, convicted, and murdered by the government, redlining, mass incarcerations, and voter suppression – many of these things continue to this day.
Last year, when the miniseries “When They See Us” was released on Netflix, I watched the preview and looked up the case of “The Central Park Five” since I had never heard the story. I was so horrified that I told Brett that I couldn’t watch it right then because I knew it would be very upsetting, but I added it to my list for later.
I should have watched it right away. I should have been willing to get angry back then. Instead, I preferred to not look too closely, to not confront the truth, to not get too uncomfortable, to not get angry.
As a white person, I don’t feel the effects of racial inequality personally, so it is easy for me to deny or forget that it exists. But when I watch an unarmed man being killed in the street because of racial bias, I get angry. When I watch the portrayal of Bloody Sunday in the movie, Selma, I get angry. When I read Solomon Northup’s story of being kidnapped and sold into slavery, I get angry. When I hear my brother’s stories of his best friend being harassed by police because he’s black, I get angry.
Anger at injustice is the fuel we need for change.
The black community in America is already angry, and rightly so. But as white people, we also need to get angry. And in order to do that, we need to know the truth. As James Baldwin said, in the film, I Am Not Your Negro, the problem is not that white Americans have anything against black people, the issue is apathy and ignorance. And we can solve both of these problems by opening our eyes and ears to the truth.
Relearning the Past
First, I had to understand the history of racism and how it remains deeply imbedded in our current society. If I don’t know how systemic racism came to be or how it still affects people of color today, then I won’t be of any use putting an end to it.
It continues to shock me that we actually have a “Black History Month,” practically admitting that we spend the other eleven months studying white history. The fact that this month exists shows that we have a problem. It is proof that we have not given black history enough of our attention in the past. If the schools won’t teach it, then we must teach ourselves.
Here are three sources of information that have had the biggest impact on my understanding of racism:
“Explained: The Racial Wealth Gap” – a 16 minute Netflix show explaining how the wealth gap is a result of systemic racism
13th – a documentary by Ava DuVernay about the connection between our current system of mass incarceration and the racism that it perpetuates
Waking Up White – book by Debbie Irving about understanding racism as a white person
I have read many, many books, but I still have a very long list to read. I have watched numerous movies and documentaries that deal with race and racism, but I am still learning. This self-taught class on black history will most likely take me the rest of my life. But that is okay, because I need to be continually reminded that my life of privilege is at the expense of another life. This is what motivates me to take a stand against racism.
Listening to the Present
Besides just re-learning history, we have to learn about the current experiences of people of color. The best way to do this is to listen to the people of color around us. Sometimes it is easy to try to explain away a racist comment or make excuses about it or simply not believe someone’s experience, but if we want to know the truth, we have to be willing to listen and accept it.
As my friend Brianne puts it so well, “I don’t want people to feel ‘guilty’, but I do want them to acknowledge the things they have that others do not, and that one reason they have them is because of their skin tone. I would want them to try and be empathetic to the plight of millions of their countrymen and to listen to them when they try and explain how they feel. Don’t be defensive. Don’t tell me how you didn’t personally own slaves. Just listen to someone when they tell you the things that happen to them on a daily basis.”
We need to do more listening and less defending.
I attended a few “round table” discussions so that I could hear the responses of the black community to George Floyd’s murder. I also learned a lot from at my city’s protest about what it is like to be a person of color living in my town. And here are two more ways that I learned about what it is like to be black in America today:
“Where Do We Go From Here” – Oprah Winfrey’s Town Hall Special available on Youtube
Between the World and Me – a book by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I love this article by NPR, because it is 100% true. Educating ourselves about racism is just the first step to changing the system. And it’s also not a one-time fix. White America needs to be continually educating ourselves about race so that we do not allow the strong emotions surrounding George Floyd’s murder to slowly fade back to business as usual. In order to truly create change it will take time. We cannot correct five hundred years worth of wrongs overnight, or even over several months. It will require that we get angry, and that we stay angry until the problem has been solved. Which is why we have to move from being angry, to the next step.
#2. Show Up
Once I was angry enough to do something about racism, it was time to show up. I thought about saying “step up,” but the truth is that white people have a tendency take over. If history has taught us anything it is that white people always believe that their way is best. Sometimes, however, like in the fight for racial equality, it is best for white people to take a supporting role. It is not our job to dictate how or when or where protests happen. It is not our job to criticize or correct or give our unwanted advice. It is not our job to patronize or discredit the stories and experiences of people of color. What we need to do is be supportive and show up. Not take over. Just show up. We provide support with our presence, with our voices, with our fists in the air, when necessary, but always in support.
That being said, there are a lot of great ways to show support for the racial justice movement, and these are the ones that I am doing:
Giving money. As a white middle class American, throwing money at the problem is probably the easiest thing to do, so it was the first thing I did. If you are uncertain where to give money, look up organizations in your area that are promoting racial justice and policy change. Or you can give to Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, or the ACLU.
Talking to people about race and racism.In the white culture I grew up in, no one talked about race. And when I did start talking to friends and family about race, it was not received well. I was viewed as “liberal” and “divisive” and “argumentative” and “accusatory.” Navigating these discussions can be tricky and you may upset a few people. [I read the book Talking Across the Divide by Justin Lee to help me communicate more effectively with people who disagree with me on these issues. I highly recommend this book.]
Voting in local and federal elections. It is hard to admit that I didn’t used to vote at all, especially now that I understand how hard people of color and women have fought to have the right to vote. Voting is not the cure-all, as it is sometimes believed, but with the help of social change, voting can make a big difference. We have to vote for the people who will promote equality and justice, and we have to vote for the policies that ensure fair treatment for all people.
Signing petitions, making calls, and writing letters. Once we understand the issues, we have to make our voices heard to our local governments, our schools, our police departments. We have to ask for change.
Getting involved in protests. We show our support for the cause when we physically show up on the day of the march with our signs and say, “We care about your rights as much as our own.” I went to my first protest a few weeks ago and it was a moving experience. If you believe in the movement, then I highly recommend you physically participate.
Examining my own racial prejudices and changing myself. I’ve done a lot of this work already, which I talked about in my last post, but it is an ongoing process. I still have work to do. Our worldviews are deeply ingrained and very hard to interrogate objectively, but we have to consider the possibility that we are in some ways [or many ways] part of the problem of racism in this society. And then, once we can accept our responsibility, we must commit to changing ourselves.
Breaking the cycle of racism by raising anti-racist kids. I will talk more about this in my next post.
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many, many ways to promote equality, and I intend to continue to improve in this way over time.
I found that for myself personally, I wanted to do something, but not know what to do was becoming an excuse for not doing anything. I realized that if I really want to see change happen, I have to push myself out of my comfort zone and do things that are hard. It is easiest for me to give money and tell myself that I am doing my part, but I care more than that. I can do more than that.
Change never comes easy. I’m a personal trainer. I know. I work with people who want to change all the time, but the truth is, no one can change themselves or their community and definitely not their world without digging deep and doing the hard stuff.
That brings us to the final thing that I am doing about racism.
#3. Break the cycle.
As a white parent, the most important and most challenging responsibility I have is to raise anti-racist kids who will not only accept and embrace people of all colors and orientations and religions [as most of us were taught to do], but will actively take a stand against injustice at its root which is in the system and within ourselves.
Because this area is so important to me, I’m going to post separately about how I as a white parent am teaching my kids to be an anti-racist.
The current events around the murder of George Floyd have brought a lot of attention to racism in America and I want to share my story of how I became aware of my own whiteness and the ingrained racism that comes with it.
As a white person, I had the luxury of growing up without ever thinking about my race. This is one of the greatest privileges of being “white” – never having to feel like an outsider in my own country, never experiencing an act of racism or being called a racial epithet, never being in a situation where my race was not represented. In fact, I lived in a totally white world and my concept of race and racism was always in the context of other people.
My journey to racial awareness began in 2017 when I read Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King Jr., which was the first time I really confronted the issue of racism and began asking questions. Shortly after reading the book, I watched an episode of Netflix’s docuseries “Explained” entitled “The Racial Wealth Gap.”This sixteen-minute show was the first time I really saw how unfair our current system is and I could not believe it. I began talking to all my white friends and family about race. I was amped up. I could not believe that no one had told me how unfair our system was. No one told me that there really was legitimate injustice embedded in our policies that has caused the wealth gap and ghettos and mass incarcerations and other forms of oppression that still exist today. I immediately began telling everyone that we had to do something. My understanding of the problem was very limited at the time, but I told my white friends and family that we [being all “white” people] had to correct this injustice by #1) apologizing to the black community for allowing this to continue and #2) providing reparations in the form of money or housing or land or whatever is necessary to right these wrongs.
Let me tell you, I was met with such a strong and powerful resistance from my white community. I have had many white people – God-fearing, Bible-believing, good white people – sit on my couch and tell me that there is no such thing as systemic racism or white privilege. That we don’t owe people of color anything. That slavery was unjust, but it is in the past and we don’t have to pay for the sins of our ancestors. That giving people handouts just makes them lazy and not want to work for anything. That handouts are what has caused the problems for poor communities to begin with. That people claim to be oppressed because of their race, when they are really just wanting special treatment. That reverse racism is the real evil in the world.
In my opinion, these statements are just excuses that we [white people] make to protect our wealth and interests. I believe that if white Americans took responsibility for the injustices that continue to oppress the black community, we would have to make sacrifices in order to right these wrongs – sacrifices that we, as of yet, are unwilling to make. If there is anything that I know about America [and maybe all of humanity], it is that we base our social, financial, and political decisions on protecting our wealth. If the love of money is the root of all evil, then America has to be the most evil place on this planet.
There are so many white lies [and by “white lies” I’m talking about lies that white people tell themselves] that are purely for the purpose of justifying our selfishness. For example, white people love to tell themselves that they are not wealthy, despite being in the top 1% of the wealthiest people on the planet. White people love to tell themselves that they have worked hard for what they have and are entitled to it because of their efforts, completely ignoring the 400 years of slave labor they received which created their wealth in the first place. White people love to tell themselves that if other people worked as hard as they do, then they would also have plenty, despite the overwhelming evidence that all of our current systems work to assist white people and hinder people of color. But the most heinous of all the white lies is that racism doesn’t exist and the white community is not responsible for the suffering of the black community, when our success is directly related to their oppression.
These are the lies that I heard from the white people I discussed race with. And it simultaneously broke my heart and pissed me off. I can only imagine how infuriating it is to be a person of color in this country where racist ideas are so deeply ingrained that the majority don’t even believe that they exist. That is when I discovered that racism runs much, much deeper than just mean-spirited acts of racism or overt racist jokes and slurs. Racism is a much more subtle, insidious disease that affects even the most well-meaning white person.
Turns out, before I could even deal with what racism means for people of color, I had to confront my own whiteness and discover what racism means for me.
Growing Up White
I have started my own racial healing, by way of the book, The Racial Healing Workbook by Anneliese A. Singh. The first exercise in the book asked me to think about my own experiences of “race” and “racism.” It took me a while to even think of anything, but over several days, memories began coming out of nowhere to remind me that I was not isolated from the affects of race and racism. I am sharing these memories with you now in the hopes that you will see that even good, Christian white folks have experiences that shape their understanding of race and often times, though not mean-spirited, these experiences perpetuate our culture of racial prejudice rather than putting an end to it.
My first memory of recognizing a different race was when I was a little kid I saw a picture of myself as a baby being held by a black man. I was told that I loved this man, which surprised everyone. They had expected me to be afraid of him because he was “so black.”
Later, as a kid, one of my favorite movies was the Disney film, Polly, which [I’m horrified to admit] we always called “Black Pollyanna.” I didn’t even know the real name of the movie until I was an adult trying to look it up so I could revisit some of my favorite songs from the film.
In seventh grade, my private school performed the play, Helen Keller, and because there was only one black student in the school [a problem in and of itself], I was cast as one of the “servants” in the show and they literally painted my face black.
In my Christian High School and my Bible College, there were only one or two black students and everyone talked about them being the “token black kids” who were always called on for the school photo shoots to give the impression of a multi-racial campus life in the school brochure.
When I was growing up in Flint, Michigan, my church was all white, except for one family who attended for a short time. My father, the pastor of our church, told me how he had to ask a greeter in the church to stop wearing a confederate flag pin because it was offensive to this black family. What I don’t remember was him using that opportunity to explain to me all of the hatred and oppression represented by that one symbol. Then, just three years ago when I moved into my current home, I complained to my mother that my neighbor proudly hung a confederate flag. My mother defended him saying “Maybe his grandfather fought for the confederacy,” as if that makes it ok. [Side note: my neighbor’s flag has since been taken down.]
My grandfather, the wonderful man that he was, was apparently “uncomfortable with having a black pastor,” which is a nice way of saying that he was racist. But this was excused because he was living in Flint during the time of the race wars.
I have Native American heritage on my mother’s side of the family, but no one knows who or when or how. It’s as if this part of our family history has been completely expunged, my grandmother preferring to be proud of her Irish ancestry. I find it ironic that the most American part of my heritage is the part that no one wants to talk about.
I don’t share this to give the impression that my family or schools were “racist,” because they were not. I could give you a list of a million memories to prove that they were kind, well-meaning people who taught me to love my neighbor and give generously and not judge people based on outward appearances and all of those important lessons about inclusion. However, whether it was unintentional or not, these experiences of race and racism definitely affected my worldview.
Besides my family stories, I also had to admit that I have made many racist assumptions and remarks due to my own ignorance. I have asked people “where are you from?”, minimized black experiences by doubting their truthfulness, been unnecessarily fearful around people of color, made assumptions about a neighborhood based on the race of its inhabitants, and even claimed that people of color use “the race card.” There was a time when I was against affirmative action and reparations and didn’t believe that black kids my age had it any worse than I did.
Look, I am ashamed of all of this. I feel really badly even writing it. But this is the truth of the subtle and insidious way that racism seeps into our culture. It’s small things, like an off-handed comment about babies being afraid of black men. Or growing up surrounded by all white people so that other races are always viewed as different. Or not feeling safe in a community of colored people.
As I’ve thought over these experiences, I can clearly see how my whiteness has informed my view of the world and impacted my beliefs about other races – whether I like it or not.
And I do not like it. Not one bit. I have gone through the first three stages of grief regarding my own participation in this racially unjust society. I spent the first thirty years of my life denying that racism existed. Then, when I discovered that it did exist, I was really angry about it. Then when I realized that I am a contributing part of it, I was overwhelmed by shame and grief. Now I am on way toward accepting my whiteness so that I can take the appropriate action against racism.
From Grief to Action
Thus far on this journey, I’ve been spending my time trying to learn and understand and become racially aware because these are things that I wasn’t taught. I mean, to me, Christopher Columbus was a hero, and Thanksgiving was when the pilgrims and Native Americans sat down for a happy meal together. I have had to literally go back and relearn history through a more inclusive lens. But despite all of my reading and listening and watching, I’ve only been passively anti-racist. The more I learned about the problem, the more I felt overwhelmed by how massive it is, how insignificant my contribution would be, and how isolated I felt in my own white community.
In March, I read Waking Up White by Debby Irving, which was the first time I had heard a white person confirm that systemic racism and white privilege exist. I felt such a deep appreciation to Debby Irving for helping me to not feel so alone. Then I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and I felt terrible for even being white. Then I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and my heart broke for all of the unspeakable crimes against black people throughout our country’s history. Then I read about the wrongly convicted “Central Park Five” and I was livid that this type of injustice is possible during my lifetime.
And then I heard about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and I was so upset that I couldn’t sleep that night. I was enraged and devastated and so frustrated that something as heinous as this crime could happen in my country let alone go unpunished for so long.
And then, I was sitting on my brother-in-law’s couch on the evening of May 26th, when Brett said to me, “You’re going to want to see this.” He sent me the video of George Floyd’s murder.
In that moment, I – like so many other people in this country – had finally had enough. I had to put my foot down. I could not be passive about this war on colored bodies any longer.
Since George Floyd’s murder, I have immersed myself in the voices and stories of people of color. I have soaked in the music, the podcasts, the posts, the articles, the movies, the documentaries pretty much non-stop. I went to my city’s protest, which was one of the most powerful and inspiring things that I have ever experienced. I watched Oprah’s two-part special called “Where Do We Go From Here?” I watched the movie Selma and the Netflix mini-series, “When They See Us” and the documentary 13th. I have been so upset that I sat down at my computer and typed away long into the night. I have had passionate discussions with family members and friends. I have been overwhelmed by sadness. I have been uncomfortable and upset about every new heartbreaking injustice that I have learned about.
I have been sitting in this grief for several weeks now. But all this grieving – though it has an important place in healing – isn’t changing anything.
Now it’s time to do something.
Tomorrow I am going to talk about how I have chosen to support the important work of racial equality and justice – and how you can too.