Thoughts About Racism, Anti-Racism, and White Supremacy (Lockdown Day 66)

It’s Day 66 of the South African lockdown. I don’t normally blog on weekends and today I was supposed to work on another task. But I’ve decided to do that task tomorrow and blog today, because I can’t stop thinking about racism and white supremacy.

I should have written this post long ago. As America is literally on fire this weekend in response to the brutal killing of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police — the most recent such killing in a trail of many — I suddenly don’t know what’s taken me so long. So here goes.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I am a descendant of slaveholders.

My grandmother‘s family was part of the Southern aristocracy in Richmond, Virginia. One of the first books I can remember reading on my own was a biography of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War. The book was written for children and it portrayed General Lee as a hero. My family is related to Lee’s family, a fact I was raised to be proud of.

I am no longer proud of this fact, although I don’t want to deny its existence, either. And typing that sentence was uncomfortable for me because there are members of my family, people I love and care about, who probably won’t like it.

In high school history class — at a private prep school in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early 1990s — I was taught that the Civil War was not about slavery, but “states’ rights”. I didn’t question this teaching at the time. I didn’t give it much thought at all until many years later, when I realized it was utter nonsense.

I am a white, American woman and a lifelong beneficiary of institutionalized racism. It’s taken me decades to become consciously aware of this. Now that the message has finally gotten through, I want to take responsibility for my whiteness — not in a guilty, shameful way, but in a humble, compassionate, respectful way.

I don’t believe in saying, “I’m not racist, but…” (In fact I don’t believe in denying racism at all.) I don’t believe in saying “I’m color-blind” or “That’s all in the past” or “It’s not my fault.” I don’t believe in using the word “they” when referring to people of another race. When white people say these things to me (which happens frequently), I tell them I disagree. I try to explain why, even when it’s uncomfortable to so do.

I want to make amends.

I can’t stop myself from being racist. Those unconscious thoughts and feelings are too firmly entrenched in my psyche. But I can try. I can believe, with every fiber of my being, that Black Lives Matter, and state it publicly. I can use my platforms to elevate the voices of people of color. I can read literature written by people of color, listen to radio stories and consume art made by people of color. I can support black-owned businesses. I can vote.

I can shut up and listen and I can speak out, over and over again, no matter how tiring or hopeless it feels.

I can try to understand. I can step aside. I can make sacrifices for those who have suffered and continue to suffer.

I can condemn racism and white supremacy. I can condemn racial injustice and police brutality. I can condemn the economic and political systems that have marginalized, exploited, and murdered people of color for the past 400 years — the systems I have benefitted and continue to benefit from as a white person.

I can and will be vehemently anti-racist.

I haven’t done enough. I need to do more. And I will.

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  • Reply Catrina May 31, 2020 at 4:39 pm

    Well said, Heather! Agree with every word. 👍🏻

    • Reply 2summers May 31, 2020 at 4:43 pm

      Thank you. This was a hard one to write.

  • Reply Albert May 31, 2020 at 4:42 pm

    That murder of George Floyd was truly horrific to watch. And this cop seems to have been a serial police brutalist. Mind-boggling enough Amy Klobuchar was the prosecutor in the previous case that declined to prosecute him (!)

    • Reply 2summers May 31, 2020 at 4:44 pm

      It’s just shocking.

      • Reply Albert May 31, 2020 at 5:01 pm

        Thank God for citizen journalists…. Impossible to just sweep this one under the carpet.

        • Reply 2summers May 31, 2020 at 5:02 pm

          Yup. Smart phones with video cameras have changed the world forever.

  • Reply Dieter Aab May 31, 2020 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you for saying what cannot be said enough. We are all different, irrespective of our racial origins, and yet we are all the same. I had to come a long way as a white South African to accept that, although I was never comfortable with apartheid, even as a little boy.

    I eventually left after I could no longer accept that I should defend racism with an assault rifle and have spent the past forty-three years in a neighboring African country to escape the white priviledge which was weighing on my concience.

    I do miss South Africa, but still see so much deeply entrenched racism. Since 1994 black and white can eat in the same restaurants but I rarely see them at the same table.

    • Reply 2summers May 31, 2020 at 4:48 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment, Dieter. I’m sorry you had to leave your home all those years ago. South Africa and America have so much in common 🙁

  • Reply dizzylexa May 31, 2020 at 4:46 pm

    Well put and as I grew up in the Apartheid era as a white person I too can resonate with your post. However I’m very sad that the murder of George Floyd has gained so much attention yet the eight people who died here through security brutality, during the lock down period, have been forgotten and shamefully how many of them can be named?

  • Reply Jeanie Freeman May 31, 2020 at 5:25 pm

    Excellent job, Heather. I’m proud to be your mother ❤️

    • Reply 2summers May 31, 2020 at 5:28 pm

      Thanks Mom. Love you!

    • Reply RBB May 31, 2020 at 5:49 pm

      And so you should be, because as far as I can tell (only having ever met Heather once, briefly), your daughter is an intelligent, insightful, compassionate and generous human being.

      • Reply 2summers May 31, 2020 at 6:08 pm

        Thank you 🙂

      • Reply John Sneed May 31, 2020 at 11:21 pm

        Well said Heather. A good model for us all to think about this.

  • Reply Brenda R May 31, 2020 at 6:06 pm

    I think I was 35 when someone mentioned the “slave cemetery” across the road from my kids’ upstate New York country village school. Slaves? Whaddya mean slaves?? Wasn’t that a Southern thing? It was when I found out that there had been slavery there and some of the families so proud to be descended from Huguenot settlers, along with ignoring what happened to the First People in the area, were also ignoring the fact that they were the descendants of slaveholders.

    • Reply 2summers May 31, 2020 at 6:09 pm

      Yup. The northern states don’t get a pass by any means.

  • Reply catji May 31, 2020 at 6:36 pm

    Virginia… You were saying something the other day about accent, and I think you mentioned Carolina, and I was thinking that it’s Virginia that has that most difficult accent. I can’t remember why, but one day I had a phone conversation with someone from Virginia and it was very difficult, thank goodness she understood, and it was a nice conversation. I can’t remember whether it was her or someone else that said it was like they have a peach in the mouth. 🙂 …It was really difficult.

    • Reply 2summers May 31, 2020 at 6:44 pm

      Hahahahaaaa. Yes some Virginia accents are very strong. My grandmother kept hers until the day she died in her 80s, even though she left Virginia in her 20s.

  • Reply Margaret Urban May 31, 2020 at 6:37 pm

    None of us who are white get a pass, regardless of personal circumstances, class or nationality; not in today’s world.

  • Reply AutumnAshbough May 31, 2020 at 7:39 pm

    I’ve got slave-owners as ancestors as well. Cherokee slave-owners who fought for the Confederacy. (How messed up is THAT?!) But I am definitely a white woman. I get no pass, and I struggle every day to learn and do better at recognizing and disassembling white supremacy. Onward.

    • Reply 2summers May 31, 2020 at 7:56 pm

      Onward! (Sounds like an interesting family history.)

  • Reply Russell Pollitt SJ May 31, 2020 at 8:47 pm

    Thank you Heather. That resonates, you articulate it s well. Appreciated. I wish every white South African could take this for their reflection.

    • Reply 2summers May 31, 2020 at 8:48 pm

      Thanks Russell. Americans and South Africans have a lot in common 🙂

  • Reply Amaechi May 31, 2020 at 10:55 pm

    Thank you for speaking up, feeling the discomfort and acknowledging, in a way, the privilege of being able to feel it.i was wondering if you might consider, perhaps as an adjunct or addition of a worthy cause, to direct others to some of the platforms where voices of POC are heard, whichever social media accounts or blogs or whatever resources you want to direct people to. As a way of giving voice to others. I’m imagining there might be other white people, American or otherwise, who might be inspired or moved by your words to want to shift perspective but unsure whom to follow or where to start.

  • Reply eremophila May 31, 2020 at 11:43 pm

    Well done Heather, for finding your voice on this. I agree with Margaret. I live in a colonised country, that is still struggling to acknowledge the Aboriginal massacres across the country. My own heritage is that of the oppressed,Irish, and the oppressors, English.
    Thankfully I have an amazing Aboriginal friend who educates me to the realities.
    Thanks for your compassionate heart dear friend.

  • Reply David Bristow June 1, 2020 at 6:47 am

    Well said. I do wonder how long it will take us here in South Africa to see white an black sitting easily at the same tables, when English and Afrikaans speakers barely do yet.

    • Reply 2summers June 1, 2020 at 12:44 pm

      Yes. Although I also think this issue goes so much deeper than just people of different races/cultures sitting at tables together. That’s actually the easy part!

  • Reply tomatom June 1, 2020 at 7:24 am

    I think many of us have closr links to slavery than we release. I’m summer I probably do through one posh arm of the family. In England investing in slaves was as legitimate as buying a government bond as an investment at one time. In fact the government spent so much buying back these slave investments in England that it took about 200 years to pay off – in 2015. Myself living in South Africa has opened my eyes to racism and how it touches us all – particularly following and listening to Eusebius – and how casually racist my own family is. I remember my father categorising cars on the road by the colour of the driver – a dark or milk chocolate box. Terrible! And it makes me ashamed. The thing is we all can do so much more. Being a bystander isn’t an option. I could do better.

    • Reply 2summers June 1, 2020 at 7:29 am

      Yes. I recently listened to the podcast series 1619 (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/1619/id1476928106), a deep dive into the history of slavery, and it really opened my eyes to how deeply the entire economies of the US and Britain (the whole Western World’s economy really) were built upon slavery. It’s sickening and something none of us can escape.

  • Reply Momo Street June 1, 2020 at 10:03 am

    Thanks Heather. I grew up as a Japanese Canadian and there was always racism, some subtle, others more direct. My mother’s family was sent to an Internment Camp. My father’s family avoided internment but were isolated by the government in the interior of British Columbia. My wife is a “coloured” South African. My children are Canadian South African, but when I take them to Japan, they will be seen as “hafu’s”. Racism is woven tightly into the fabric of humankind.

    • Reply 2summers June 1, 2020 at 10:18 am

      Thanks for the comment, Michael. Humans can be so horrible. I feel so f*cking angry about that right now.

  • Reply Maarten June 1, 2020 at 12:25 pm

    Hi Heather, It’s true this is an important topic and I can tell you that I’m thinking about this already since my wife and I moved to SA in 2007. Being white, being privileged, having opportunities that other haven’t and so on and so on……. I told you that I have worked for a big NGO in Tsakane for 12 years and this was always part of the discussions during training and workshops and we never could find the real answer why this is always a topic and why we all feel bad about this and why it doesn’t change. Both for the people from all colours of live.
    Even when we support the local community, the homeless and the poor with food parcels, with extra clothing, building a shelter, assist in difficult times, even when we transfer money into all kind of foundations to support the work they are doing, even when I spent 12 years of my time (as volunteer) at the NGO. I think there is no real answer on this and I think all of us need to be aware of this issue for the next 10-20-30 years to come.
    Yes I’m white, yes I was born in the Netherlands and for that reason I’m privileged because I could go to school and could find a job after some years being unemployed, but still people look at you and at your colour. I’m not used to look at colour as I was not raised like that. But still.
    I appreciate your blog and that you wrote about this in your blog. I hope we can discuss this together with all the people in Melville of all colours of life and I reapply hope and pray that we will grow together as one community. There is still a long way to go, for all of us.

    • Reply 2summers June 1, 2020 at 12:31 pm

      Thanks so much for the comment, Maarten. It’s such a difficult topic with absolutely no answers. I guess all we can do is keep talking about it.

  • Reply Margaret Urban June 1, 2020 at 4:17 pm

    Thanks Heather for putting this topic on your blog. You have a diverse audience and can help all of us listen and learn more and more. I look forward to your reading, listening, etc suggestions.

  • Reply Rebecca and the World June 7, 2020 at 10:27 am

    Thanks for sharing this Heather, completely agree with every word.

  • Reply No Wires Radio June 22, 2020 at 7:13 pm

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