I grew up believing I was immune to racism and racial bias.
I was a lower middle-class white girl growing up in Detroit. One of my best friends growing up was my next-door neighbor, an African American girl the same age as me. Our bedroom windows faced each other. I loved and respected her mom and I often enjoyed talking to her more than my own mother. I sat at their kitchen table and watched with fascination as her mom would style Melissa’s hair with beaded hair ties into styles that my white blond hair would never hold. Half of my classmates at my inner city Lutheran elementary school were black. I attended birthday parties and slumber parties with classmates and was generally accepting of any differences I saw at my friends’ houses.
We moved from the big city to a much smaller town in Illinois when I was nine. Suddenly my world was oddly but comfortably white. All of my new friends, with the exception of one or two classmates, looked exactly like me, their parents talked like my parents, and the only thing that made me a minority in this new space was the difference in economic status between me and my more financially comfortable peers.
It would take me years before I fully understood that both of those incredibly different spaces were built for me and my white peers, not the many black peers I had played, learned, and celebrated with during my most formative childhood years.
Really, there was just so much I didn’t understand.
I didn’t understand that the white flight that plagued the city of my youth wasn’t just a case of self-segregation by white neighbors; it created a wealth vacuum that destroyed economic, educational, and growth opportunities for hundreds of thousands of African Americans that were left behind.
I didn’t understand that the reservation schools that I visited with my father when we lived in Wyoming were poor substitutes for the educational opportunities that I had in the high school in our central Wyoming town.
I didn’t understand that the economic and educational divide between the two towns we eventually lived near in western Michigan was the result of racist policies and fears that kept our black neighbors on the other side of the river from achieving the wealth and opportunities that we had at our nearly all-white school. I didn’t see that the subliminal messages of “don’t be caught across the river after dark” did more to heighten racial tensions than ensure our safety. I didn’t fully grasp that the warnings served to both segregate and affirm the racial bias that had been in the region for decades.
I grew up post-civil rights during a time when we were all supposed to be enlightened young adults ready to face the new millennium head on.
But in the 20 years post-college I have learned that I really didn’t know anything. I have learned that racism is much deeper than “I hate _____ people.” I have learned that the systems that have benefitted me and my white peers were never truly intended to help my black and brown peers succeed. I have learned that erasing racism is far more complicated than just saying “I love everyone.”
These lessons have been hard to absorb, lessons that have often forced me to repent of my naivete and self-righteousness over the years.
We don’t like hearing when we’ve been wrong. It makes us uncomfortable to learn that we might have been living a lie. We like to believe that we are good people without “a racist bone in our body” when the truth is much more complicated than that. This is not because we are all secret racists, but because we are sinful human beings who have been raised in a country where bias still drives most of our judicial, educational, and economic policy. Americans love their country. Most do not want to live anywhere else. We are proud of our accomplishments, and we should be, but we also need to start facing the truths about how our country came to be formed. We need to be honest about the land that was stolen, the lives that were extinguished, and the forced labor that built our country from coast to coast.
Therapists tell us that the only way to truly heal is to confront the trauma that is holding us back. Yes, our non-white brothers and sisters can forgive the wrongs of the past, but forgiveness is only part of the equation. Reconciliation requires work from the oppressor. No, my family of German immigrants did not own slaves. Yes, my immigrant ancestors struggled to make a new life here. But they also benefitted from an educational and economic system that was designed for their success. It allowed my grandparents to find fulfilling employment, my parents to attend college and own homes nearly everywhere we lived, and for me and my husband to find jobs that kept us above comfortably above the poverty line as we started our own adult lives together at the ripe old age of 22.
There were many struggles along the way for my grandparents, parents, and even for us. It hasn’t always been easy or comfortable. But we had privileges along the way that many of our non-white peers did not. It just took me until well into adulthood to truly understand what that means for many of my fellow Americans.
We can’t renounce our white privilege. We can’t make it go away. It is there and will follow us for our entire lives. But we can learn why it exists. We can read and watch and listen to the stories of the various people of color in this country that make us a country of immigrants. We can learn how to raise up opportunities for our fellow Americans so that they have equity of opportunity, not just equality on paper.
And we need teach our children. Just like our conversations about sex, we need to be open with our children about the bias in the world around them. We need to encourage them to call it out when they see. We need to expose them to books and movies and experiences with people who are not like them. They are more capable of understanding this than many adults give them credit for.
Actually, I think they are more capable than most of the adults in their lives.
We tend to be very open with our kids about what is happening in the world around them, both of them becoming increasingly indignant when they see different injustices playing out around the world. When we decided that I would attend the family march for George Floyd in downtown Houston, we explained to our 11 and 9-year-old exactly why I was doing it. We described what happened but didn’t show them the video. My conversation with our daughter went even deeper as we talked about Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, helping her understand that this was not an isolated incident but one of many over the years that have led to this boiling point.
The night after I marched, my daughter asked me why we never talk about things being white but we always distinguish other races. Then we talked about the shows that she watches and the lack of representation even in her Disney Channel favorites. Without being told, my eleven-year-old had figured out that she fits in her world because the world she occupies was built for her. And I wondered why it had taken me 30+ years to figure out something that my daughter understood without an inspirational TED talk.
My fellow white Americans, we have a lot of work to do. To say that there is nothing we can do is to continue to ignore the growing cracks in our country’s foundation. We need to listen to the oppressed and ask them what they need so that we can start taking the appropriate steps for necessary change.
For some of us, it means starting at the beginning. We need to read and study to learn about the injustices that our history books glossed over or skipped entirely. For some of us it means actively participating in protests and organizations to motivate and move people to action. For some of us, it means actually getting to work on the ground.
For many of us it means checking in on our black and brown brothers and sisters and asking them how they are really doing. They have been doing this alone for far too long. They never get to leave this behind because it is with them 24 hours a day. Empathizing with their pain and frustration is the least we can do.
For most of us it means becoming painfully aware of all the ways we struggle with bias toward others every single day. It’s there and we need to be honest with ourselves and with others and we see it in them.
For all of us it means voting for people and policies that will make lives better for all Americans.
All of these things need to happen, but we must walk before we can run. We must figure out where we are personally and build from there. It took a global pandemic and a series of horrific murders caught on film for many to realize that they couldn’t turn a blind eye to the injustices anymore. It will be hard. Some days it will be emotionally and spiritually crushing work, but we’ve had the privilege of not getting into the fight for far too long.
We are strongest when we are strong together. It is time to listen. It is time to learn. It is time to walk alongside and work to a fix the cracks in our foundation before the whole house collapses.