I grew up in a small, rural town in Southeastern Idaho, where wheat and potato fields, landscapes freckled with black lava rock, and miles of interstate separated us from the next city. In school and on the news, I learned about black lives without personally knowing any black lives.
I remember learning about slavery in elementary school in a project-based learning activity. For a day, the children in my class alternated between “owning” slaves and being enslaved, forcing each other to carry our backpacks and bring us our lunches. We looked forward to that day. I had some caring, talented educators who tried, in their own ways, to integrate the realities of black history into our very white schools. My early education featured Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. However, I cannot recall a single instance of learning about African American history after elementary school. Perhaps it was in my curriculum and I forgot it. Was it a unit? A footnote? And I was one of the high school valedictorians.
I have more vivid memories of learning about black history in the United States from novels than I do from school. I read about Addy in my American Girl book collection, most specifically that the white man who enslaved her forced her to pull a caterpillar from a tobacco leaf and eat it. I read Mildred D. Taylor’s books Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Let the Circle Be Unbroken. I liked them. I remember thinking, “How unfair that in a very distant era and a very distant place, people had been cruel to a very distant group of people.”
College expanded my worldview with wonderful friends and new experiences. It narrowed the distance between me and black lives. A little. I had an absolutely wonderful college experience--at a very white university. I joked with my black friends that their photos always ended up on the university’s marketing materials. I’m positive now that I must have thought this joke was much funnier than they did. I was a senior in the fall of 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president, and it was the first presidential election I’d ever gotten to vote in. I was excited for his victory, but probably more excited to have a reason to party afterward. The full gravity of the moment is still taking hold of me, but I didn't see it then. That night was the first time I ever remember seeing politically divisive comments on my Facebook news feed. I remember posting a glib quote from Mean Girls as a response to them: “I wish we could all just get along like we did in middle school. I wish I could bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles and we could all eat and be happy.” Then I went to a party.
Up to this point in my life, I understood racism through the context of individual people and their behavior. I distanced myself from racism because I defined it as explicit discrimination, hate, and cruelty. Racism was white supremacists groups. Racism was what happened to Trayvon Martin. Racism was using the n-word. When I witnessed those things, now living in Los Angeles near black friends and colleagues, I still kept the same distance from it I had as a kid in Idaho learning about slavery. “How unfair that other people in other places can still be so cruel to other black people.”
I should have observed systemic racism sooner, but I’d never given myself much reason to notice it. I studied education and pursued a career as a teacher in Los Angeles. For three years, I taught in “urban” schools in neighborhoods I lived miles away from. Left to my own devices, I still may never have understood the way policies had cemented race into systems like education. I didn’t know property taxes funded local schools. I didn’t know that as a result, schools in neighborhoods with lower home values would perpetually remain under-resourced, giving them less access to experienced teachers, technology, and books. I didn’t know that neighborhoods in cities like Los Angeles (and later I’d learn, in Dallas) remained racially segregated as a result of redlining policies when segregation was legal. That people of color couldn’t receive financing for home loans. That white flight existed. That we’d passed restrictions on bilingual education programs in California for English Learners. That black, male students experienced extreme bias in disciplinary settings in school. That the freeways I commuted on were built as physical barriers to separate races and the neighborhoods they lived in.
Left to my own devices, I may not have learned any of that. But my colleagues were talented educators and fierce advocates. They challenged the systems that put barriers in front of our students. They questioned why we would educate a school full of nonwhite students with the “canon” of classic literature--none of which were written by people of color. They protected DREAMers in our hallways. Finally in a position where I couldn’t sit comfortably in my whiteness (even though I’m sure I tried), I was forced to narrow the distance between myself and racism. Yet, still I thought, “How unfair that systems put in place by other people can have such cruel consequences for people of color.”
Later, I moved to Dallas. Once again, I found myself surrounded by inspiring advocates. I worked with a nonprofit group trying to establish food access equality in the food desert in South Dallas. I met leaders working to make higher education more accessible to black youth. I visited the primarily black neighborhood of Bonton, which had been redlined into a floodplain during legal segregation in the 1920s, bombed in an actual “bombing campaign” in the 1950s to warn upwardly mobile black residents to stay in their place, and physically barricaded with a freeway system to separate it from North Dallas. I found myself in rooms where I could listen to stories from black voices. They were different stories than the ones I’d heard from my black friends in college. They were different stories than the headlines I saw on the news. As an adult I was experiencing a new education that filled in the blanks between slavery, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King. I banked these stories with Addy’s and the fictional Taylor family from books in my childhood. They were layered on top of what I’d learned from my students and colleagues in Los Angeles. They were woven into the context of the world in which I lived, giving me a worldview that I dubbed as empathetic and woke. I was pleased with myself and how far I’d come. I was pleased my children had black classmates and teachers. I was pleased at the diversity of my neighborhood and my network. What a good white person I had become.
I didn’t say anything about Ahmaud Arbery’s death. I have been silent about the murder of George Floyd. In fact, I've rarely if ever taken a position on race online. I’m currently quarantined at my parents’ home in Idaho. A couple of weeks ago, I drove along the interstates of my childhood. Wheat and potato fields separating one town from the next. Landscapes freckled with black lava rocks. So much and so little had changed. Safe and healthy with my family, I listen to podcasts about COVID 19 being especially deadly to the black community. One national NPR story mentioned the disparity of testing sites between North Dallas and South Dallas, and I thought of the activists from South Dallas that I pride myself in knowing, but I have neglected to contact.
How unfair that in a very distant era and a very distant place, people had been cruel to a very distant group of people.
How unfair that other people in other places can still be so cruel to other black people.
How unfair that systems put in place by other people can have such cruel consequences for people of color.
Despite the efforts of teachers and books, colleagues and friends, cities and articles and think tanks and TED talks and activists and tours and nonprofit groups, it has taken this week’s gut wrenching screams from our nation to jar me from the delusion that I have any distance from systemic racism in our country. There is no distance, no other, just me. Just us--and the nation we have built. The stories we haven’t told. The voices we’ve ignored. The freeways we’ve paved. The barriers we’ve erected. The elections we’ve voted in. The fears we’ve constructed. The history we’ve glossed over. The problems we haven’t tried to solve, or even understand.
How will we choose to emerge from this moment? Will we wait until the next murder to be outraged again? Will we stop posting when the headlines change? Will we close our open hearts?
Will I hold myself accountable to understanding my own contributions to systemic racism? Or will I let it slowly stretch and slip to a more comfortable distance?
I'm not qualified to give calls to action. Who am I to ask others to do what I have not yet been able to do myself? Yesterday I stumbled all over the internet finding causes of those advocates I’ve met along the way, discharging my guilt on their “donate” buttons. A friend reminded our friend group in LA of today’s primary election, that change in the police force happens at a local level. I agree. I’m also committing to make up for the times I’ve voted uninformed in my own local and judicial elections, now with a better understanding of how my vote for judges implicates our criminal justice system and mass incarceration. I’ve appreciated the efforts to circulate lists of black-owned restaurants to support and causes to champion.
At this point, I think it’s better to pass the mic to other voices with more worthy narratives than mine. Something that has not changed in me since my childhood is my belief in the dazzling power of stories. Stories close distances. They connect time and space and people. They make us understand. Is it easier to understand the narrative of looting a Target because we’ve all been to Target, than it is to understand the fear of losing our lives to a police officer because we do not all live with that fear? Stories can start to narrow that distance.
Luckily, so many of those stories are being broadly circulated. Here are 75 action items, things white people can do now for racial injustice. And here's a fantastic resource list for those who want to work on becoming an anti-racist ally. This Racism Reading List from Bad Form Review lists nonfiction and fiction books by people of color. On Instagram, follow the hashtag #amplifyblackvoices, and use your platform to share the voices of people of color.
I encourage us all to immerse ourselves in the stories, voices, and experiences of people of color. The non-white stories of our histories. The more complete stories of our cities and school districts and religions and governments and organizations.
Lastly, I challenge us all to remove the blame and distance from our inner dialogue--to hold ourselves accountable for the change that needs to come.
I have helped create an unjust and cruel world for people of color. And I will work to create something better. Black lives matter.