Soon the wind will whisper, “You don’t have to think about racism today.”
The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and calls for justice have raised the awareness of many White people who had previously lived in a bubble of disengagement and inattention. We may have been resting in the belief that of course we were against racism, but we hadn’t seen it personally, and/or there must be some other explanation for what happened, and/or we didn’t realize that it was still that bad, and/or we didn’t know what we should do or could do.
If racism did rise to the level of our awareness, it usually involved the obvious misdeeds of an overt bigot that earned a well-deserved shake of the head from us. That’s terrible! Life goes on.
In the recent climate of widespread attention created by the televised, gut-wrenching, and undeniable illustrations of the deadly nature of racism, White inattention and silence is less easy to cultivate. On top of that, many of us are seeing our White friends, co-workers, and family members join protests and circulate posts on social media about how to be a White ally. The ones who used to say nothing are piping up, and the ones who used to be outspoken are going non-stop.
In this climate, some of us are feeling encouraged to venture beyond our customary rationales for silence (e.g., “I’m not really a political person”). These ventures might take the form of liking an antiracist post or even posting something of our own. Maybe you wanted to say something, if only you could think of the right words. Maybe you ordered a book on racism or White privilege, maybe you made a donation to advance the work of Black activists and educators, maybe you supported the protest in your town.
If you are taking a new step, know this: what you’re doing is so vitally important. You are absolutely essential to making sure that this upsurge in attention doesn’t just come and go like all the others in the long shameful history of White people saying that they wanted an end to racism (but instead just passed it along to the next generation).
You are essential to making sure that this is an upsurge that gathers momentum rather than loses it, until there are no more murders like George Floyd’s. You are part of that gathering.
You might not be exactly sure where this journey will take you next, but right this minute, tell yourself this: whatever I do, I’m not turning away.
It is crucial to tattoo this on your heart today because very soon, you will hear something in the wind whisper to you, you don’t have to do this anymore. After all, when there was a problem to be against, weren’t you against it? Yes, you were. You did that. Now that it’s over, things can get back to normal. Besides, you’re very busy.
The ease that White people have in melting back into their version of normalcy after the news cycle ends and the furor dies down is one of the primary reasons that we have never ended racism. That’s because what we call normalcy is exactly where racism lives in its most insidious and resilient form. Neo-Nazis and the KKK are not the problem — they are the easy part. They are relatively few and far between, and they stand out like cartoon villains. It’s easy to spot them and be against them, which allows the rest of us to feel that neither the problem nor the solution has anything to do with us personally.
On the other hand, the kind of racism that leads White people to instinctively see Black people as dangerous, that leads the Amy Coopers of the world to instinctively throw Black men at the feet of the police, that leads those police officers to instinctively shoot them as criminals — that’s the racism not of cartoon villains (i.e., them) but of everyday Whiteness (us).
We need to catch ourselves in the act of drifting back towards that normal. What we need is a new normal.
Whenever we do something new, it has to be conscious and deliberate. When you first learn to drive, you have to overthink every single motion that you make and you still do things like oversteer or hit the breaks way too hard. Later on, you can drive for miles and barely notice that you are driving.
A new antiracist normal has to be conscious and deliberate, too. We need to overthink the ordinary assumptions and actions that are part of everyday life, and every once in a while we will oversteer or hit the breaks way too hard. We can right ourselves again by staying the course, educating ourselves, and following the lead of Black activists in the fight against racism.
Whatever you do, just don’t turn away. Don’t stop. Promise yourself that you won’t.