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.
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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.