When I was in high school, I remember an evening at a friend’s house. This friend, and her family, were Good People(tm) by all definitions I knew at the time – they were kind and charitable, they attended and supported their church, they lived comfortable but not extravagant lives. This one evening I remember distinctly my friend’s father bursting out with a torrent of vitriolic hatred toward blacks – I have no memory of what prompted the outburst, only that the words he used to describe black people were deeply ignorant, dehumanizing, and offensive. I was shocked and afraid beyond words and lacked that knowledge or capacity at the time to respond at all, much less to counter his bigotry and hatred. But I don’t think I ever went back to their house, and I know I’ve never forgotten the hateful screed I witnessed that night.
It’s that memory that keeps coming to mind these past few months, these past few days. Racism, hatred, bigotry, and irrational fear are bred into the very fabric of our white society. It lurks in “normal”, in the tacit understandings of our neighborhoods, in our churches, in our schools, in our town halls and police forces. It’s “the way things work”. It’s “trust the system” and “if only they understood that blocking traffic doesn’t help their case.” It’s “they should protest by donating their money to make their lives better, not by disrespecting the flag.” It’s when black people’s lives are less important than white people’s inconvenience, when black people silently protesting violent, institutionalized racism causes white people’s discomfort and complaint.
I don’t have grand answers. The only answers I have are small, infinitesimal, grains of sand on the beach, teaspoons in the ocean. The only answers I have are these: Look at what you think is normal, at what you teach your kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews, chosen family, friends and strangers is normal. Look at what lies underneath that normal – how you shape it with your words, your actions, the choices you don’t consciously make. Understand that the difference between “them” and “us” is something we created to justify creating a normal that benefits us more than them. Maybe not consciously, not by everyone who worked to create and maintain our normal – racism and bigotry and hatred are not newly sophisticated and clean-cut – maybe not intentionally by you but absolutely, without doubt, the patterns of systemic racism have been incorporated into the foundations and fabric of our realities for hundreds of years. And whether or not we were complicit in creating the normal we enjoy, we benefit from it. Try to start seeing it. And when you do, when you start to recognize it and it starts to niggle at you, point it out to other people. Talk about it with your families, show them how maybe normal isn’t “just the way things are”. How normal isn’t just at all.