Updated: Oct 1, 2021
How is it that I could go from birth through college graduation without having to contemplate the persistent injustice of racism in America? And to not once question the direct line that connected the privileges and outcomes in my life to White supremacy?
It was not until January of 2015, when I started my MAT program at the Citadel, and stepped foot into my first course, ENGL 535 African American Literature, that I truly took the time to consider Black life. Never had I before been challenged to analyze the narrative of my own life through a critical lens.
That's racism, by the way. It is beyond a person. It is a system. A machine operated by White people that does not and could never work against us because we created it and we maintain it, both directly and at the unconscious level. It is a system that is so often illustrated as brutal, visceral hatred and violence, which makes it easier to distance ourselves from. But what it is truly characterized by is the privilege and weapon of White indifference, whose effects are more painful than those representations of racism we can easily distance ourselves from.
Fast forward to now, as I enter the last few classes of my doctoral program. Over the last two and a half years, I have saturated myself in criticism and literature on racism and anti-racism, Whiteness and White supremacy, the achievement gap, the opportunity gap, culturally relevant pedagogy, critical theory, social justice education, action research... I have often resisted the pain of cognitive dissonance by withdrawing from people and diving back into/hiding in literature. I developed a bitter taste for social media, not fully able to articulate my aversion to it, but justifying it through a distaste for influencer culture and an overwhelming sense of impostor syndrome anytime I started to post something not inherently life-changing.
Now, I realize that my distaste stems from reality not matching with perception. It was...is...painful. To live a lie. It is painful to know the truth but live in a world that insists upon blinding itself to it, to the detriment of everyone. Though it is certainly nowhere near as painful as to experience the injustice associated with that lie, day in and day out.
I have gone through the motions of defensiveness, acceptance, sorrow, guilt, shame, anger and withdrawal, as, over the last five years, I continue to evaluate the way I think, speak, act and teach. I continue to learn my role in maintaining White supremacy. I make it a personal mission to take this journey, but without stepping on anyone's toes, and that is where I fucked up.
I convinced myself that forcing the issue would prevent people from hearing the message. I realize that is a sad excuse and a way to stay safe. There is no such thing as neutral. Any journey of introspection and acknowledgement ultimately leads to one or several reckonings. And I am now at this point that is like reaching the end of summer camp, your favorite book, or Jedi training. I have learned…I have named my excuses and sloughed them off...I have practiced...I have failed...not as much as I need to, but enough to make a difference and stop caring about how I am judged for working at something I believe is so important.
I have known for a while that there should be no higher priority in America now than dismantling racism at every level of society, and that the onus of dismantling racism must not fall on the shoulders of Black people alone, especially since Whiteness gives birth to and perpetually nurtures racism.
White people have a responsibility to do their part, individually and collectively, to eliminate racism. And we must not make the mistake of thinking ourselves immune to it. If you are white, you either contribute to or benefit from the system, and likely both. This truth is not something to take personally, defend or debate. It is so much bigger than just you or me, but as we have seen over the last few weeks, we know that white people have the power to decide when and where to show that we care. We can each do something visible, something palpable, at whatever level we are at, and the easiest way to do something is just by learning. Just allowing yourself to unlearn and learn anew.
There is no higher priority in America now than dismantling racism at every level of society. What does that look like? I think it has to come from a place of humility but also assertiveness. Of being understanding but also insistent. And realizing that this is a journey, not a destination. No checkbox next to racism indicating that it is okay to move on, back to regularly scheduled perception/programming.
I understand and am okay with this journey being messy, because I realize that its curation is not the point. I expect to challenge and be challenged, to ask questions and have discussions, to highlight anti-racist voices and texts, to get to know people a lot better, and most important, to hold and be held accountable. To do my best not to get stuck in my shame. To use more effective tools than shame to have important conversations.
I think that leaning into this dialogue, instead of withdrawing as I have done in the past, is the best way for me to continue my daily practice of unlearning, relearning and growing, and I am thankful to still have the privilege of being able to share these thoughts when it is trendy, comfortable, and long after I should have been doing so publicly.
Protests will end. Other news will distract from this priority, as we have always allowed it to, because that numbs the pain of cognitive dissonance. I invite you all to follow up with me and keep the conversation going until the volume of it quakes the very bedrock our institutions are built upon.