How My Friend Woke Up

With every mention of the change in her apartment complex, the sly skirting of any true honest words like African-Americans or black people, choosing rather to imply that things were “just going downhill,” I had cringed and sought to find a path towards understanding. For months she had shared the concerns of many white’s with limited exposure to actual people of color and excess involvement with internet sites and biased news, societal depictions of bad guys in black so pervasive she didn’t even realize her perceptions were tainted. I wondered aloud if these kids she worried were doing drugs had shown evidence of that or were just skateboarding like the other boys? The little ones who played without supervision, how much did she watch her child outside, how much did any of the other parents? Blessedly her boy played, shared snacks and raced about the parking lot with all of the kids, regardless of skin color, more interested in Pokemon battles and squirt gun fights where he is almost always the one who gets shot because he loves to fall down dramatically.

“I was wrong,” she said to me yesterday. Huge important words that we all must be willing to say, to speak out loud to another person who will hear us and not let us go peacefully back into our ignorance but say yes, child you were and now lets go forward, one more step. The horrific events of Charlottesville and the aftermath of a leader who cannot find a unifying message of condemnation for hate to bring hope and healing has at the very least brought this young woman further along on her own journey. She told me that she worried when she let her child go outside, what could happen when he played with these children of other colors. She didn’t mean to be racist, but her own history of substance abuse was adding prejudice, coloring and distorting who the bad guys were. Missing the irony that she herself had once been the very person she now feared, she fell into the us vs. them trap. No more, she vowed. She asked for ways to gain more information, she wanted some way for a mom at home to be active yet safe. Her big steps in attitude gave me the hope the president failed to provide.

“I know now that while I feared for my son to go outside, they fear everyday. They are probably afraid of me!! They fear everywhere. I was afraid of them, they are always afraid, wondering what could happen to their children at school, on the bus, who might say something or do something. My God, that is horrible!” I listened, I cried, I offered support as she shed her own hate like the robes and shields and white hoods we have all worn to some extent. White privilege allows us to choose when to get into the battle, when to go back home to our safe neighborhoods and schools and return to our lives, until the next rally or vigil or sense that the violence might be reaching into our spaces. After all, how many of us were truly outraged when Philando Castile was killed? Was it the loss of Eric Garner? Michael Brown? Freddie Gray? Laquan McDonald? Alton Sterling? My God, wasn’t the killing of Tamir Rice enough to wake us? Yet no, it required the streets to be crawling with proud young men spewing hate, unfurling flags of bigotry and taking the life of a young white woman, threatening a synagogue, for America to grasp the horror that has permeated communities of color for decades. Still, collective awakening from comfortable illusions means we are now joining with our sisters and brothers, tagging in with sheepish faces knowing we hold guilt and our own shame and yet must act or accept more of the same, an unconscionable choice. What grace we are given, those of us who come so late to the game, and yet still we are invited in, we have to come in, we hold the power of privilege. So I listened and shared books and action steps and carried this newly woken friend along as she wept her shame into the phone.

Accepting our role in voting for a man who was supposed to bring jobs but instead has wrought divisions and fear, facing exactly what it means to be free, the responsibility required of us all to ensure that very freedom reaches everyone within our borders, regardless of color or ethnicity or gender or who we love, we are waking up, one white American at a time. Integrated apartment complexes where children of all colors swap a Jigglypuff for a Pikachu and race on bikes long into a summer evening, where the only hoods worn are those of batman and spiderman as shouts of little boys fill the air, this is how we ensure a different future.  And phone calls to someone who hears us say we were wrong, this is the first step. Many steps will follow, but we have to begin with this brave honest self-evaluation. Our future depends on it.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 MARTIN NIEMÖLLER

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