I know. I’m a thirty-something white-privileged woman who grew up in the rural Midwest culture of hunting and fishing, drinking, and football. The most common threats I face are wild animals, snowstorms, and drunk drivers.
I’m not here to tell you I get it – the complex layers of race issues in America, the history and the causes and all of the intense hurt surrounding injustice.
But please don’t think, because of my status, that I’m unaffected. Few people are unaffected these days by such sad times in our country.
Yes, racism exists. I knew it long before the formation of Black Lives Matter. I knew it before it was on the news every single day — before we knew the names Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
I knew it when I was twenty and I exited the interstate in downtown Chicago rush hour traffic in desperation for a public bathroom. I found a fast food restaurant and walked in, quickly noticing that I was the only white person there. All eyes, and I mean all of them, followed me to the restroom. All eyes stared at me through the restaurant and back out the door as I exited.
Before that day, I’d heard what racism was; after it, I knew how racism felt. I gained an acute awareness that how I’d been made to feel for five minutes – suspicious, shunned, unwelcome – was a mild version of how many individuals have been made to feel for the better part of their lives.
Years passed, and I became a wife and mother.
On a trip through the Midwest, my family stayed overnight in an Indiana hotel. At the pool that evening, two families were present: ours, made up of two white parents and three white boys; and theirs, two black parents and four black children, including a newborn baby.
The mother sat near her infant child on the opposite side of the pool from us as the father entered the hot tub with his other children. After a few minutes, a girl of about four years old noticed a game I was playing with my kids, and walked over to the pool, interested. I smiled and said hello as she came down the stairs. She proudly told me she had a new swimsuit, and I said it was lovely. She sat down on the stairs.
After a few minutes of playing with my boys, I turned and saw that she had entered the pool. She was in over her head, flailing to get to the surface but finding herself in deeper water with each step. I rushed to her, lifting her by the arms back to the top stair where she choked and gasped, coughing up water between sobs.
Her parents, both engaged with their other children, hadn’t seen her go under. The whole incident took thirty seconds. With my hand on her back, I ushered the scared girl back to her daddy (who was closest to us) and calmly explained what had happened.
He and the girl’s mother, a few feet beyond, stared coldly at me, saying nothing.
Seconds passed before I turned away, feeling suddenly ashamed for crossing a boundary I hadn’t been aware of moments earlier – the boundary between black families and white families.
That evening and in the days to come, each time I felt the shame, I had to remind myself the little girl had been in serious trouble. It was my human responsibility to help.
Yes. Yes. Racism exists.
There are hundreds of years of offenses to prove it. The wound is deep.
I may not feel I contribute to it, but I also don’t feel justified in throwing my hands up about it.
I hate that some white people have behaved so cruelly towards black people (and other minorities too, of course) that entire groups of people have developed fear of, and hatred for, people with white skin.
I hate that having white skin makes me, in some people’s eyes, guilty by default.
I hate being afraid that I could be, or my kids could be, victims of all this madness — that in some ways, we all are already.
I hate living with fear in my awareness — fear that we are losing, or have perhaps already lost, the right to live peacefully. I think we all agree by now that hatred doesn’t just affect one or two people who have beef with each other — hatred breeds hatred and acts of violence that harm the masses.
Violence seems close to home for all of us these days. Two police officers were shot in my state last week. The news report delivers information on racially-charged violence or terrorism each morning. More innocent people will die today.
Meanwhile, American children are more aware of and more exposed to hatred and violence than ever before, learning the language and conduct for creating another generation of chaos and pain.
And really, isn’t all crime and violence just a symptom of that – chaos and pain? A symptom of a heart problem? A soul problem? A nation of people existing in survival mode? We exist so much in the mode of meeting physical needs, either out of necessity or obsession for more things, that we have forgotten to tend to the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions of our selves. We have forgotten how to nurture our own souls and the souls of fellow humans.
We’ve forgotten how to love and forgive and even how to grieve.
America, I’m grieving.
I’m grieving for the people of Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa, the five Dallas police offers shot because of all this madness.
I’m grieving for the people of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and Delrawn Small and so many other names I wonder if I even have the right to speak.
I’m grieving because these lives cannot be reconciled, and the wounds cannot be healed by a band-aid or a hug or some trite words.
I grieve because I live here and love here, too. I’m a daughter and a sister and a wife and a mother — an American girl who grew up singing words like “sweet land of liberty” and “crown thy good with brotherhood” and dammit, I believed those words.
I grieve because the Midwest is my home, yet I feel the eyes on me in that restaurant – and I know there’s a reason for it. Because I feel the Everything wrapped up in the Nothing from those parents at the pool – and I know there’s a reason for that too.
I don’t know what to do.
I don’t know how to be a voice. An ally. I don’t know which hashtag to use or which t-shirt to wear.
I don’t know if I can change anything or if I’ll make it worse by trying. I’m not sure if black people want me alongside them or want me to go away.
I don’t know if my words matter, or if they will be stifled as others’ words have been stifled.
I know how to tell stories. I can start there, in my own home with my own children. I can tell them all the stories I know, put faces and families and lives to the names on the news.
I know how to teach. I can teach my children and the children in our communities that there is more to a person than what you see, but there’s significance, too, in what you do see.
I know how to love and how to forgive — to cling to what is good. I try each day to show my boys that compassion trumps hatred. Good feels better than bad. Screaming the loudest doesn’t change anyone or anything – it only tires your voice. And hurting others never speeds the healing of our own wounds.
I may not know the perfect thing to do or say, but I can’t let that stop me from doing something, because of this I am certain:
Every last one of us is in the pool.
We’re in over our heads. We’re flailing. We’re sinking. And we’d better hope the guy next to us isn’t too scared or small, too this color or that, too privileged or victimized or angry or removed to help us back to the surface. Because if we don’t stop pointing fingers and start extending hands, we’re all going to drown together.
*Featured image via Canva