As a white woman, my core race fears are being misunderstood, offending someone and not being liked. The lunacy of that statement is not lost on me. Every day, in the black community, dread of being wrongly arrested, killed, hated, verbally/physically attacked, discriminated against, losing a loved one and more is choked back in order to try and live the American dream. If these men, women and children can be audaciously brave on a daily basis, I can certainly overcome discomfort and engage in an authentic conversation on the topic.
I hail from a long line of empathetic white liberals. I grew up in a family, even in the South, where discrimination and racism were thankfully abhorrent. I never heard anyone in my family utter the n-word (or any other racial epitaph for that matter). Nor were there racist undertones. But here's the problem. I was (and maybe still am a bit) proud of that fact. Yes, we live in a society where I get to be proud not to be racist. As if I should receive a medal for not being ignorant, vile or discriminatory in a country where these traits are far too commonplace.
Growing up, I attended diverse schools, made as many, if not more, other-race friends than white. In my young eyes, we were all the same. I didn't "see color", for recognizing our differences meant acknowledging an unjust societal hierarchy I inherently knew (even as a child) I was at the top of, despite hating that fact. Throughout the years I protested, lost "friends" and raged against racists, holding the totem of how we're all just people. We all love our families the same and cherish the lives we've created. Not realizing that even feeling the need to argue that fact is a travesty. I've blundered in other ways too; confusing two stunning black women for one another (who look nothing alike) and most recently, attending a black church the Sunday following the Charleston massacre - hoping to show solidarity, but also to assuage my own guilt. I cry in the comfort of my own home each time another son never returns to his mother or when kiddos in Detroit suffer deplorable conditions in their schools. I rage at the heavens at the injustice of it all. But I do little. Not because I don't care. But because I don't know all the steps to take, much less the first, and the hopelessness paralyzes me.
One of the people I cherish most in my life is black. I realize how that sounds..."I have lots of black friends", but it's still true. When I think of all the times he and others have been kind in my ignorance, I want to weep with shame. But I also know shame is at the heart of the problem. When we stumble, it seeps in, whispering orders to retreat, disengage, and succumb to despair. When it comes to race (or anything important for that matter), cocooning is the last thing we need; for it's within silent darkness that shame triumphs. And when it does, engagement and progress die. In a country ripping itself apart from the inside, this cannot continue. And I can no longer abide knowing I too play a role in the wrongness.
The truth is, I can't change the past, how I'm hardwired, or my experiences in this white body. But I can at least be honest. I can own how I benefit from privilege and that I'll never fully understand what it's like to not be white no matter how many books I read, movies I watch or conversations I have. I can appreciate the fact I've never truly feared for my life or wondered if anyone in every room hated me for the mere shade of my skin. And while I worry for my children - that they'll manifest their deepest desires and abilities, that their heartbreak will be minimal, and that no irreparable harm will come to them - I have the comforting luxury of knowing others will seek to see the content of their character first, then the color of their skin. Not the other way around.
I can also cease perpetuating the "we're all the same" notion as I've come to see how unhelpful and even hurtful it can be. Saying I don't see color is the same as saying I don't see you. To do so inadvertently dismisses what makes a person their own unique, beautiful tapestry. This doesn't mean our commonalities don't outweigh our differences. I still believe they do. We're all part of this messy, gorgeous human existence, each of us the sum of our experiences, blissful, heartbreaking and ugly. But we can't pick and choose what parts of a person to see. To have rich and real relationships, we have to stop wanting to try.
Finally, instead of using discomfort as a warning sign to back away, I can embrace it as the flashing arrow forward it is. For I know I'm always the most ill at ease when on the cusp of clarity. Yet every single time I push through, something better awaits.