Several years ago, around the time that incidents of racial violence started to gain white people’s attention because of the ubiquity of cellphone videos, an old college friend reached out to me about some posts I made about the issue and what he said to me was something along the lines of, “Thanks for your posts. But you know that I told you about this 20 years ago when we were in college, and you didn’t believe me.”
It’s true. I didn’t believe him.
I grew up in Georgia and I knew something about our history. I knew about the Klan. I knew about segregation in the abstract and about white violence, but I just didn’t get what he was telling me. I don’t think I wanted to get it.
Even when the facts were right in front of me.
I was working at the dining hall in the summer of 1995, taking a break out back with the largely Black summer crew. I was reading the paper and smoking a cigarette and I came to an article about a naked Black man who had been shot to death in the street by police. Initial reports said he was on drugs. Later reports said he was crazy. Ultimately, the officers were cleared.
In a kind of shock and surprise, because it struck me as absurd and stupid, I laughed out loud. I couldn’t believe the police would do a thing like shoot a naked man dead in the street. I couldn’t believe it had happened in 1995. I told the people around me what happened, and I got an immediate corrective education. The man was killed because white people are allowed to harm Black people in America, anytime and anywhere. My friend was one of my lecturers. And 20 years passed before I listened.
I’m not from some family that hated Black people. Indeed, they tried really hard to be the opposite. I have no excuse. I was in eighth grade when my parents explained that racism was why they were voting for Jesse Jackson. Jackson was the only one who really knew what this country could be. I was in maybe 10th grade when my grandfather told me about the time he gave up trying to integrate the University of Georgia, and warned me that my lowest moment would come when I stood down.
No one in my family ever told me that Gone with the Wind was a good book. No one tried to convince me that my slaveowning ancestors were actually nice. One uncle tried to make me believe that there was nobility in the Lost Cause, but that got shut down by my parents so fast I’m not sure it happened.
I had a solid education in being a progressive liberal, and it wasn’t enough. I thought I knew things. I thought I had lived enough to understand other people’s reality better than they did.
And the idea that this America that I love so deeply could be a place in which white people were allowed to harm Black and Indigenous people was lost on me in spite of the evidence.
Always, there were other reasons for terrible things. The English wanted a place to live. The Southerners wanted to make money. The police were not trained for encounters with naked people. Mistakes were made.
I didn’t want to believe what was right in front of me. I didn’t want to accept that racial violence is widespread and systemic and permitted and encouraged by our society.
What changed for me wasn’t actually the videos. When I was pregnant with my son, before we knew his sex, I was worried that I would have a daughter, and I was frightened at the thought. I didn’t know if I could handle raising a girl on this planet where gender-based violence is widespread and systemic and permitted and encouraged by our society. My fears for her safety might be too great to bear.
And then, in the wake of George Zimmerman’s trial, I heard Melissa Harris-Perry explain that when she was pregnant she hoped that her child would be born a girl. Because she didn’t know if she could handle raising a Black boy on this planet. Her fears for his safety might be too great to bear.
I was 37 when I really started to understand that we have a race problem.
I’m never going to be the best person to speak about race. I’m never going to be comfortable, or get it all right. I have a lot to learn.
But I’m also not going to stop talking about it.
White people, what we can do is read the books and attend the talks and listen and believe, even when it doesn’t track with our experience or our knowledge or the vision we have of our country, our people, our friends. If there’s one thing I wish I could do, it’s go back and listen.
Listening, believing, that has to come first.
White people, we have a race problem. We built this country on racial violence, and though we’ve made progress, we’ve never really addressed the core truth. Racial violence isn’t a one-off or aberration. It can’t be explained as a side effect of other motivations. It’s not just ignorance. Racial violence is widespread, systemic, permitted, and encouraged by our society. And it has to end if we’re ever going to be the people we want to be.
Racial violence isn’t just murders. It’s woven into workplace regulations, banking and lending policies, housing development, school dress and behavior codes, healthcare systems, and environmental degradation. It’s everywhere where harm is possible, and the evidence is right in front of you.
It’s your job now to believe the testimony of those with lived experience, to accept that it’s time for change. And to explain it to other white people. To stop it in its tracks, whether that means telling your boss it isn’t ok to only have white people in the office, telling your town officials it isn’t ok to have policies which result in whites-only neighborhoods, or demanding accountability from the local police and sheriff’s departments. We have to talk to our schools and our doctors, our business owners and our bus drivers, our leaders and our friends. We can’t stop talking about it.
It’s our job as white people to do the work to eradicate racial violence. To be humble enough to recognize when you have things wrong. And to be hopeful enough to try to make things right.