Hope is a frightening thing.
Mostly because, in order to hope something, you make yourself vulnerable. You peel away layers of jaded, cavalier carelessness and reveal that you really want something. You want it so much, in fact, that you will be hurt - crushed, maybe - if it doesn't happen.
The hope in me is strong this morning as I sit down to write this out. I'm upstairs in my house and a dense fog has settled over the mountains in Asheville. Looking out the picture window at the top of my stairs, I can't see anything but the houses immediately across the street from me. Later today, as it heats up a bit, the fog will burn off and the Blue Ridge Mountains will leap into view. This is not a hope of mine - it's a fact. I've watched the rhythm of this exact set of circumstances, this natural dance, take place many times since we moved here.
Hope is in the the things we want to believe in, but we can't yet see. We don't have the same certainty about the things in which we hope. That's what makes hope so fragile, so earnest, and so scary.
My husband, Jordan, found me crying on Saturday morning. At 5 1/2 months pregnant, this isn't a terribly rare event. I'd just finished watching crude video footage recorded on someone's iPhone of the white nationalist march in Charlottesville on Friday night, where white people of all ages carried tiki torches and chanted things like, "You will not replace us," and "Jews will not replace us." I guess they were worried it was unclear who the "you" was.
That by itself got me. I couldn't believe these naked-faced folks were gathered by the hundreds to reclaim what they feel is their true identity in the social hierarchy: Number One. As though there were ever a moment when white men weren't the most powerful and influential group in the United States.
But apparently, that's not how it feels to them. Because displays like that are born, if we're honest with ourselves, out of fear. No one stands in the front of a room and screams, "I'm in charge here!!" if it's clear that they're actually in charge. Trust me, I was once a teacher. I know that feeling well.
Jordan, a medical professional and a consummate realist, kindly deadpanned me: "Sweetheart, why are you surprised by this? This is how these people are. This has been going on for hundreds of years. It's disgusting, but it shouldn't shock you as much as it is. We have to accept this in order to deal with it. I'm sure, in a few hours, the President will tweet something vague and unsatisfactory. This is the way it is right now."
(A few hours later, exactly that thing happened.)
I grappled with his response for the rest of the day. On the one hand, I felt like my reaction was born out of my allegiance with my brothers and sisters of color: I AM SHOCKED AND I AM UPSET ON YOUR BEHALF. LOOK AT HOW MUCH I CARE FOR YOU!
But people of color aren't shocked by this. My ability to be surprised by the behavior of hundreds of white people shouting racially charged things is born out of privilege. I don't have to live in a world where I'm subjected to these sorts of realities. I get to skim the surface when I feel like it, and then turn off the TV.
The way that Jordan sees the world - for what it is - is, in fact, a more progressive view than my own. What chance do we have of fixing things when every time they happen, the first few hours begin with crying on the couch? Sure, we all process in different ways, but I would argue that people of color don't have the luxury of couch-crying. There isn't time for that. There isn't space for that. And Jordan is right. This IS the way it is. The more quickly we acknowledge that, the more quickly we can get to the business of fixing it.
Monday, one of my dearest friends texted me asking what we should be doing in the face of this mess. At 28, she's the principal of a high-performing charter school in Nashville that focuses on advancing children of color in that community to and through college. She is brilliant, accomplished, and generally sparkling.
But she had no idea what the next steps were, and neither did I.
"I feel lucky that my job is the answer to the question, 'What am I doing to help?', but if I didn't have this job, I would come up blank. Posting on Facebook doesn't seem like enough. So what is there to do if I don't want to be silent? There's the obvious 'be kind to everyone,' and the extreme, 'Join Teach For America!', but concrete actions in the middle are hard to identify. I don't think young white women like us really know how to be supporters. What do we do?"
I told her that I totally agreed, and that I had no clue where to start. For the next four days, I collected every resource I could find from the Internet, watched every piece of footage I could, and started a list.
- The first thing we can do is watch this 20-minute documentary on from Vice TV. It is really upsetting and really dark. We should all watch it to get a beat on some on-the-ground reporting, to get a grip on what a white nationalist sounds like, and to bear witness to what is actually up.
- We as white people can stop asking people of color to tell us what we can do to help. I saw a well-meaning tweet from a former classmate of mine that went something like this: "Black people, please help me understand how I can engage in this movement." I totally understand where this was coming from, and I support fully the motivation behind it, but it puts an unfair responsibility on our friends of color to help white people find their role in the madness. If we rely on minority groups to help explain to us where we should be plugging ourselves in, that means that those folks have to explain this hundreds of times over. That's not their job to figure out for us. Being an ally means figuring it out. If you're curious (and I certainly was), you can check out Upworthy's most recent post or the Southern Poverty Law Center's article. Both are great and offer helpful, tangible ways to plug in.
- Denouncing white nationalism the KKK is really easy. Speaking out against it, even in places that don't seem to matter (like on Facebook, where many of you will have found this very post), MATTERS. Putting that into the world MATTERS. Keep doing it.
- We can "get to it" more quickly. We as white people can stop sidelining ourselves with emotion and move to action more quickly. Assume that we don't have that luxury. This IS the way it is. But this is not the way it should be.
(Oh, here comes the part that I don't want to talk about.)
The really hard part, the part I would like to leave out because it involves me doing some work on myself that I don't want to do, is finding a way to engage not only against the nationalistic behavior we've seen, but with it. No, I don't mean in favor of it.
I mean that calling these people and this behavior racist and anti-American is exactly the right move. But then what? Do we all just go to our corners and decide we aren't going to speak to each other again? What happens then? What kind of progress are we making? That kind of stalemate means prolonging the agony, the injustice, and the kinds of misunderstandings that lead to violence, bigotry, and generations of racism.
WHITE PEOPLE: This is our job. It is our job to go on Twitter and say this is wrong, but it is also our job to turn back into our homes and examine the racist structures within which we operate. It's our job to write something eloquent on Facebook, but it's also our job to respectfully pull our relatives aside at family gatherings after they've said something racially insensitive and have a conversation with them about it. We have to be policing ourselves, we have to be policing each other.
And in case there's a chance I'm misunderstood - I don't mean doing this with hate, with condescension, or with impatience. Every time I write a piece about race, I include the fact that the only reason I have gotten to this point in my own evolution of thinking is because many people along the way were patient with and gracious toward me. We HAVE to be gracious with others.
We will not change a damn thing if the way we go about speaking to each other leaves one person in the conversation feeling talked down to, stupid, disrespected, or less than. Pride is a touchy animal and we are all guilty of letting it eat us alive.
We can't expect our brothers and sisters of color to shoulder the burden of confronting racist, aggressive white people about their racist, aggressive beliefs (even though, to our shame, those brothers and sisters often do whether they want to or not). The reporter in that Vice.com video linked above is white, and that's not an accident. Do you think this group would've ever opened up to a non-white person? This is our mantle. This is our job. We have an "in" and we must use it.
If you are a person who's decided to shut down toward the bigots of the world and are using that as a form of protest, I beg you to reconsider. People, even people whose ideologies are terrifying and dark and the represent the worst in humanity, have been made into whatever it is that they are. What is done can be undone. Hate is taught, as Nelson Mandela reminds us - no one is born hating. If you are refusing to engage, but including phrases like "Love wins" in your Twitter bio, you (forgive me for saying so) are missing the point.
Who do you think are love's instruments? Other people?
No. It's US. It's EVERYONE. Opting out is not a form of resistance. It is a form of privilege at work.
Radical love means that you must stay engaged - it means that we must reach across a line that disgusts us and learn how to understand and reconfigure an American Nazi.
(That is a sentence I never ever ever ever thought I would type, ever.)
Here is a fascinating article from Vox.com that will help with that.
- Lastly, I humbly submit, though I know people will push back against this, that we have to stop wasting energy being outraged that the President isn't doing much in the way of working these issues out. My dad always says - "You can be upset by someone's behavior, you can be disappointed in someone's behavior, but after enough of a pattern has formed, you have to stop being surprised by it." This has nothing to do with politics or which way I happen to lean, and everything to do with paying attention to the behavior we've gotten from our President to this point: Stop being shocked. Stop expecting better. We aren't going to get it. I don't mean it isn't despicable for him to condemn violence on "all sides" - it is. But your lack of tweet about him, specifically, will not be missed. We are the solution. He clearly isn't going to help, so we must double down ourselves.
In the two hours I've been up here, the fog burned away. The sky is a bright, nearly cloudless blue. I knew this would happen.
Tears are brimming in my eyes finishing this post; not because I think it's important for anyone else to read, but because typing it out has arrested me in a new way, as a person of faith and an American citizen. I'm newly committed to keeping my arms open; to resisting the urge to close down and bow out.
We have to keep working against and alongside and within each other as we are called to each of these tasks. This is a complicated mess we've made. It's easier to break things than it is to repair them. Where there's a lot to lose, there's a lot to protect. There's a lot of work that must be done in order to shield this fragile thing called justice for all. It's going to take all of us.
But isn't that the point?
God, I hope so.