The last 30 days have been tough around here, in our home, in our town, in our country. For starters, exactly one month ago tonight, flash floods drove two rivers together into a wall of water that destroyed communities, homes and lives. My parents’ house was one of those homes, and they’re still working to piece together, dry out, clean, replace and completely repair their life.
This was complicated even further 17 days ago when my dad found out he needed emergency quadruple bypass surgery, which the next day turned into a much more extensive and complicated 11-hour surgery. It was intense and scary but the surgeons were happy with the results, and so the last 15 days my dad has been in the hospital trying to find his way back. It’s been really rough. But today he was moved to an inpatient rehab hospital for at least two more weeks and hopefully slowly, very slowly we’re seeing glimmers of possibility that we’ll get our dad back. It will be a long road. And it’s been a long month. Of course those are just the top-line items. The connected myriad of details and pivots and sleepless nights compounded the difficulty, the to-do lists and the miles behind we are in everything.
I was feeling especially overwhelmed late last Wednesday evening right before I heard the news about the nine souls who were gunned down by the man they welcomed with open arms. In church. Because their skin was black.
It was the final straw. My final straw of what I could take in the moment. And hopefully the final straw of what we can all take as humans, and geographically, as Americans. If we can’t be united about the absurdity of racism that kills people in church, I’m not sure we can call ourselves United in any way.
But honestly over the last week, I just haven’t been able to find clear words about this because my mind is currently only functioning in weird, sleep-deprived lists. Thankfully, I have friends who have not only said it all so much better than I can right now, they have inspired me to think in complete sentences. And to find ways to build more bridges once the waters calm down a bit around me. Here are a few things that have inspired me over the last few days.
Perhaps you don’t talk about racism around your kids because you want to protect them from the bad things that happen in the world? Well, I do understand the instinct there, but the reality is, if you’re not talking to your kids about race in America, it’s because you enjoy a privilege that many don’t.
If you’re raising children of color, you have to talk about race. It’s not a choice. You need to tell your kids what they can wear, what they can say, and how to behave so that they’ll hopefully be treated “normally”. You talk to them in the hopes that you’ll lessen the risk of your unarmed child being shot by someone like George Zimmerman, or by a police officer.
(There’s so much more and it’s so good.)
Here’s the thing: as much as I love jokes, as much as I love humor, I’ve never found anything funny about these casually racist slams. So instead of laughing, I usually react by trying to leave and/or making eye contact with the other people in the room who aren’t enjoying it, either. Then I’ll call the joke-teller an asshole in my head and vow to limit all future contact. But you know what I haven’t really done? Not really? I haven’t said, “Shut up. That’s wrong, and it’s racist and it’s harmful.” And I—and, in my opinion, everyone —need to start saying that.
Perhaps I cannot be a friend to the black community because I am not even a friend to a black person.
How is it possible that I have arranged my life in such a way that this could be true? I don’t know. I just know that’s one of the many reasons I don’t know how to lead you. I’m sorry that I have not done the hard work that prepares a person and a leader for a moment like this.
Here a couple of things I do know today:
To those who claim, still, that this is simply about one man’s mental illness; who think the answer to this tragedy lies entirely “inside the mind of the killer” — Let me say: No. That’s denial. Don’t look at him. Look at US. Our country’s denial of racism is — at best — a severe, deadly collective case of delusion. Let us not carry on with the denial that will keep us sick. Looking into our OWN collective mind is a critical part of the answer. Because at this point the denial of racism can only be racism itself.
The key, I’ve found, is to pace yourself, have an open mind, and avoid being combative. Polite, open discourse is fantastic, and sometimes a friend who is feeling ambivalent about speaking about injustice just needs to see that someone else was brave enough to start the conversation. Your bravery gives others courage, as trite as that may sound.
It’s okay to tell someone that their racist joke sucks. It’s okay to declare that you believe black lives matter. And it’s okay to not have all the answers. Being willing to learn and listen to other narratives challenges ignorance, increases empathy, and moves us to action.
Words feel inadequate to express our sorrow at the killings at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this week, and yet it is critical to say them. We have been listening carefully to members of the Black community who are expressing their anger and pain in blogs and on Facebook and Twitter. We will continue to share voices for understanding and healing as they are heard.
Donate to Emanuel AME Church via the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund.
My Complicated Relationship With South Carolina by Shani Gilchrist.
Carvell Wallace wrote this searing letter to his late mother, after Charleston, on The Toast.
Jon Stewart had no jokes on The Daily Show last night, but he did share his thoughts in a moving, trenchant nearly six-minute monologue.
This Charleston Syllabus from the African American Intellectual History Society is a great resource for anyone wanting to read more on the topic of race and the role it plays, and has played, in America.