Friday, June 19, 2015

Thoughts on Racism in the Wake of a Hate Crime

I am at a loss as how to comprehend the shooting on Wednesday at the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. Three black men and six black women are dead because a young, white man decided to target this race based on his understanding and hatred that black people “rape our women. And [are] taking over our country.”

Racism is not an inherent trait, but a learned one, as is White Supremacy. White Privilege, however, is something we, as white people, choose to understand as our basic right. It is not. As a white women, I clearly fall into a side of the spectrum of White Privilege. Because I am white, there are things I am able to receive and achieve easily. Because I am a woman, some of those things I must fight for, and work for, but they are still available to me more easily because I am white. This is not a point of pride, it is a fact.

I work hard to educate myself, to break down barriers in places that do not allow women to progress, and to gain respect for myself and others like me. What is clear to me now is that I must add to this list is a sense of deeper pride in making not only a difference for women in general, but also in trying to help shape the future of this country and its stance against racism.

It's sad to say, but in my 33 years, I've been given plenty of opportunities to become a racist. But I have chosen not to let those events shape my beliefs in equality for all, in my belief in One Love, or in my belief in voting for and electing a black president in my lifetime. I grew up in Chattanooga, TN; a city riff with cultural racism dating back to the displacement and massacre of Native Americans on the Trail of Tears, to our involvement in the Civil War. Yet, Chattanooga has seen enough political change to make that history dissipate by carefully holding onto the truth of it. Unlike other Southern cities, ours does not hide the truth, and understands that being a part of shameful past events does not define us for life.

Had I been raised by a different family in the same city, I might have learned a different kind of history lesson about those events. Luckily for me, most of my family is liberal, open-minded, and interested in equality. Sure, there are outliers who are not as involved in shaping the future into a less hateful place, but they themselves are not hateful people. They are indifferent to the actual struggle that is happening today because it does not affect them directly. It's hard to argue with people you love about things that seem so simple and true to you but do not to them. I still love them despite their decisions to stand aside and let the world happen. Even the ones that choose to believe Fox News. I still love them too.

Because of my family, and the people I surrounded myself with growing up, I was able to get a clear understanding of love. With this understanding, I could apply love to those around me who were different from me. There were underlying messages to this love, of course, because no Southerner can outlive the shame of our past entirely. Some of those in the south still instill bigotry, so I won't pretend that I wasn't also shown racism growing up.

Leaving Chattanooga to attend college in Asheville, NC, further opened my mind and heart to others who were different from me. I found my Tribe with people who come from all over the world, and the color of their skin never mattered. Yet, Asheville is a special place, and the whole town believes in One Love, so of course it was not hard to find a Tribe there. The bubble that exists in Asheville allows for more freedom to be who you are without the threat of violence or criminality, though I know it exists, even there. Hell, I kept my North Carolina license when I moved to Washington D.C. just so I could vote for Barack Obama in that state because I knew my vote would literally count more there.

Living in D.C. was a different story, and I became more aware of my ignorance of what was really happening in America outside of my so-far-pretty-lovely life. My five years there tested the truth about my open-mindedness by forcing me to face my own fears and racial understanding by meeting more people who, for all intent and purpose, were other-worldly to me until that point. By working in a corporation, I further understood that classicism is just as widely rampant in this country as racism, it just shields itself more carefully. A bi-product of White Privilege is forgetting about the struggles of immigrants in this country trying to work hard and make something of themselves until you are face to face with it. Another lesson I learned even more during my most recent months in New York City while trying to help a colleague get a work visa, and watching the immigration system in America fail for him.

New York City is its own beast. Opportunities for racism are on every street corner in this city, and even for someone like me who has an open heart, I have to fight off moments of doubt and fear when faced with circumstances that are new to me, but somehow familiar in my consciousness. Just as the shooter in Charleston said in so many words, we as white people are taught that black men are to be feared. Even though I was never explicitly told this growing up, it was still all around me. The southern white culture ensures that it stays a palpable fear in order to continue to hold back the promise of a better future for black people.

What haunts me the most, and what I work on the hardest not to let envelope me and my unconsciousness, is that it is this fear that continues to allow racism to survive. Part of my story involves something that happens to most women in this country. I was raped. By a black man. When I tell my rape story, I usually leave out his race, because it doesn't matter to me. It doesn't make what he did to me any less real or sad or more horrible. It is just an adjective that further reminds me of his face and brings me to tears. The reason I don't share this detail is because I refuse to allow it to take over my general understanding of other black men. I do not want to ever feel like I must be fearful when in the presence of a black man just because one black man in particular violated me. Because that is racist. Assuming that all black men are rapists of white women is exactly what led the shooter into the church. Allowing anyone to spread that assumption around is racist and a result of White Supremacy ideology.

I fight to forgive my rapist for many reasons because I do not ever want to be a part of a culture that holds on to hate. So I fight to forgive him because if I don't, I can fall victim to that hatred too. I fight to forgive him so that I can move on in my heart. I fight to forgive him because otherwise I cannot forgive myself for being afraid sometimes when I find myself alone with a black man.

This is how we must all work to change what is happening in this country. As Jon Stewart said, "Once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other in the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn't exist." If I, (even if I try not to), and we as Americans, continue to pretend that racism does not exist, and is not taught to us, then we will all walk around afraid of each other. And more innocent people will die at the hands of hatred instead of more people thriving in the hands of love. If equality for all were simple, we would have achieved it by now. I understand it is complicated, but we can at least start with the truth. We can change things if we are willing to do so. The best place to start is to let go of hate and fear, and try to find love and hope instead. For those are the things that have brought me this far in my life, and I can only keep trying to uphold them and look for ways to help others see them too.    

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