For the last few years I’ve been making a conscious effort to increase my personal awareness of race in America. I’ve written about it a few times, but this is a conversation that needs to continue. And it’s Black History Month, so I’m going to talk about it again.
This process has been hard and uncomfortable, but necessary. To ignore issues of race in America, or to discredit the claims of racism or injustice around you, is a privilege. As a white woman, my skin color privileges me to ignore racism. I do not have to care about race, and if you look like me, you don’t either, but I’m here to tell you that you should. If you are a follower of Jesus, if you are a friend to a Person of Color, if you are a registered voter or desire to be an informed citizen, you need to pay attention. You need to be aware of the conversation about race in America. If you disagree, we can talk. I recently read where Aaron Niequist wrote, “We can’t pretend to love our neighbors while we ignore the systemic realities that hurt them.”
Let me urge you to believe that our brothers and sisters of color are not making these stories up, nor do they tell them for entertainment purposes. A few years ago I wrote an essay, asking my fellow white brothers and sisters to listen to what People of Color have to say. Please, believe that it is much harder for them to share these experiences in settings that may not receive them, or believe them, than it is for us to acknowledge our privilege. To fall into the belief that the effects of slavery no longer affect us today and that the Civil Rights Era accomplished what it set out to do is to live beneath a lie fostered by textbooks written by white people, a lie afforded to us by our privilege.
We live in a time where we can choose to ignore news and stories simply by scrolling past them. Earlier today, I saw something about a crisis in Zimbabwe, and I scrolled past it because I didn’t want to feel the weight of it. The people of Zimbabwe, however, don’t get to make that choice, they are confronted with the reality of their neighbors being killed as they protested a 150% raise in fuel prices and their economy continues in a state of unrest (I went back and read the article, obviously). My choice to ignore that article about Zimbabwe is a privilege afforded to me by my nationality, just as my choice to ignore the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 or the initial comments that a man running for president was openly racist was a privilege afforded to me by the color of my skin. (It was those comments, eventually, that put me on this journey, by the way.)
I will spend the rest of my life making up for that choice and a million others like it. The comfort afforded to me by the color of my skin is a privilege, one I intersect with any time I’m pulled over or walk into a store or do a million other things. I can’t change the color of my skin, or the decisions I made to ignore things when I was younger, but I can change the way I use this privilege, the conversations it allows me to have, and the spaces it allows me to occupy.
Choosing to pay attention to race has changed the way I look at our country, and even the way I look at some people that I love. I’ve had hard conversations with friends and with myself, and have remarkably stayed away from any endless arguments on Facebook. I’ve felt rage, sadness, hopelessness, and annoyance. Choosing to educate myself has meant consistently choosing to confront my own privilege. It’s meant picking up a burden that the color of my skin would allow me to put down and walk away from, a burden that my brothers and sisters of color have carried since they were born. It’s meant choosing to hold on to that burden, to continue to lean into it and ask questions about it, rather than putting it down and walking away.
I often look at my bookshelf, now littered with works by James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, works on the intersection of race and faith, of gender and race, and with novels that have allowed me to get a peek into the experiences of People of Color. I sometimes wonder what life would be like if I’d never started this journey, never watching Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th or read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. My life may have felt simpler then, less burdened, but what a gift it is to know about the world from a perspective outside of my own.