Last Tuesday, I got a phone call from a college friend I hadn't spoken with in many years. She is a Black woman living in New Jersey, and she wanted to talk about race. She wanted to talk about our differing experiences and the questions and misunderstandings we might have—and she wanted to do it on Facebook Live, welcoming anyone who wanted to listen.
Initially, I jumped at the chance. I loved the idea of an open conversation. It made me feel like I was doing something in this fraught moment, something beyond donating money and sharing Black voices who are leading the way. I jumped at the chance—before abruptly changing my mind the next morning.
The idea that sharing my thoughts was a way to "do something" made me freeze in my tracks. My thoughts, at that moment, felt profoundly irrelevant in that conversation. My instinct was to listen, not talk. Getting on a public platform to talk about my experience with race (and my questions about it) felt like I was making this situation about me... when it is most definitely not about me.
Except it is.
At its core, this moment is, of course, about about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Atatiana Jefferson, and dozens more killed and marginalized by systemic racism and police violence. But it is also about what white people have seen, what we have been incapable of seeing, and what we have chosen not to do about it in the past. It's about being outraged and heartbroken after each gruesome injustice—and doing nothing substantive to stop it from happening again.
So now all of a sudden, white people want to do something. I want to do something, but when my friend called, I was torn between shutting up and listening—and stepping up to speak out. As the week came to a close, I realized this is not an either/or situation. It is both/and. I can both listen and act at the same time. None of it will be perfect, and that's okay—but listening cannot mean silence. I'm not sure if my choice last week was made with cowardice or respect—probably a little of both—but I do know that my only choice going forward is to speak openly about what I see, in ways both big and small. So here's a start:
I experienced white privilege last night—specifically female white privilege—at a four-way stop sign here in Nashville. I drove up and stopped, just as a white guy in a pick-up truck took his turn and pulled into the intersection. On seeing me, he stopped and waved me through, though there were cars waiting on both of the other sides. I don't know if the guy in the truck was leering or being polite. I don't know if his intentions were questionable or generous, but I did know as I drove through that intersection, ahead of my turn, that this would not have happened if I were black, male or female. I can't assume that the guy in the truck was a bad person just because he is a guy and white and in a truck—but the series of events was clear. He (and two other people) had right of way, and he stopped to make sure I got to go ahead.
I need to see that behavior for what it is... and so does he. If he is willing to let me skip through the intersection, maybe I have leverage to help him see the benefit of the doubt afforded to him everyday when he is walking, driving, speeding, applying for jobs, shopping, or otherwise existing in modern day America... and how that benefit is afforded to me as well. And next time, my recognition of the situation needs to come fast enough that I will wave him and the other two cars along before taking my turn.
We aren't getting anywhere until everybody comes to the table. My friend invited me to the table, and I should have said yes. Going forward, I will say yes, and once I'm there—if everyone feels safe—maybe I should invite Truck-Driver Dude to join us... and maybe he could invite his dad. Then, maybe somehow, we can all pause together long enough to shed some light on this complex, unjust, bottomless wound we're all just beginning to tend to.
In Physical Disobedience, I quoted an extraordinary speech given by Sikh-American civil rights advocate Valarie Kaur to the congregation at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, on New Year's Eve just after our current president was elected. She said, “Black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls seen as someone else’s property, and when we see these bodies not as brothers and sisters, then it becomes easier to bully them, to rape them, to allow policies that neglect them, that incarcerate them, that kill them. . . . The future is dark . . . but on this watch night . . . the mother in me asks, ‘What if?’ What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not a country that is dead, but a country that is waiting to be born? . . . What if this is our nation’s great transition?”
In this moment of transition, what are we birthing? What are we breathing life into? Healing begins with relationships and with the simple, but still elusive, recognition of our common humanity.
What is one relationship in your life (with anyone of any color) that offers a safe place to explore what's on your mind this week? And how are you breathing life into that conversation?
We need connections with people that look like us and people that don't in order to grow. I lost my voice for a minute last week, but I've got it back now. And the next time I have a chance to speak—with my friend or with Truck-Driver Dude—you can bet I will be there, with both cowardice and respect.
Some of the most impactful moments I have had in recent years that helped me wrap my head and heart around the experience of being Black in America have been through works of art.
This is a painting by Titus Kaphar that I shared last month on Mother's Day. You can watch a 40-second video about his series of paintings, From A Tropical Space, here and read a beautiful article by Jacoba Urist on the impact of his work here. Another of his paintings is on the cover of Time Magazine this week. His TED Talk, Can Art Amend History?, is here.
And this is a 16-foot bronze sculpture by Simone Leigh, called Brick House, that stands at 30th Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan. I took this photo while walking the High Line with my family last fall. According to the High Line website, "This is the first monumental sculpture in Leigh’s Anatomy of Architecture series, an ongoing body of work in which the artist combines architectural forms from regions as varied as West Africa and the Southern United States with the human body. The title comes from the term for a strong Black woman who stands with the strength, endurance, and integrity of a house made of bricks." The sculpture is massive, imposing, and feminine, and it took my breath away.
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