Gift Horse

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I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be white in America. For me, personally; your mileage may vary. I’m a suburban hetero mother of three, no religious affiliation, no particular attachment to geography. I don’t know where my family hails from. In school, I was taught about the history of people who look like me, so I assume many of my ancestors were European. I’ve lived and worked with people of many ethnicities, of course, but most of them have been white. Most of my family is white.

People talk a lot about the privilege given to people like me. That’s an important conversation and it’s long overdue. I’m here for it. I accept that I’ve been the beneficiary of this unearned privilege and haven’t done enough to fight it. That’s changing, and it needed to change. We need to see each other’s struggles and intervene to make a better world.

What we don’t talk about is the longstanding shame so many white people carry. Other communities have reasons to feel proud, to feel part of something grounding and positive, to know that their struggles have been courageous and meaningful, with an inherent dignity. My only cultural association puts me on the wrong side of everything I abhor—a brutal history where my ancestors forced my neighbors’ ancestors into slavery, perpetrated horrifying war crimes, and wiped out indigenous populations everywhere they landed. These are my ancestors. This is where I come from. We have the biggest per capita asshole ratio in the world.

Someone told me recently that white people shouldn’t feel shame, they should just do better. But shame doesn’t work like that. If you’ve ever felt it, you’ll know that shame is heavy, and just like fear or grief, you can’t simply decide to set it down. Nothing that makes me who I am provides any source of pride at all; I’m the descendant of a bloody past—a past that’s left me privileged. Would you even believe it if I said I didn’t want to be? Would you ever accept that I was born into this shit show just like everyone else, and have just as little power to change it? Privilege is like an extravagant gift you didn’t ask for and can’t give back, for which you have appear both grateful and apologetic at all times—because, to be clear, those are the correct responses.

Yes, white people need to be talking to white people about race. We need to be better allies and use our privilege constructively. We’re working on it. (Witness: Twitter, and many a Thanksgiving dinner.) But have you met some of these people? You see what we’re dealing with?

This is why I think it’s so hard for left-leaning white people to talk about race. It’s because of the shame. You want to disassociate. You’re more inclined to detach yourself from a conversation around race when you know that you and yours have been fucking it up for millennia. That’s human nature. No one wants to get it wrong. No one wants to feel like the bad guy, especially when there seems to be no possibility of redemption, and anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.

This conversation around race is not about me. But I still have to locate myself in it and figure out what part I’ve played. In as much as the murder of George Floyd is about the many offenses by whites against the Black community, the crimes against him are once again being perpetrated by a racial majority that includes me. I’m ashamed of that, and while that shame is mobilizing, it’s a burden as real as any other. No, I don’t expect anyone to break out the world’s tiniest violin, but I do want to suggest that chronic shame is not a healthy state of mind (I think there’s ample evidence for this assertion) and that we should make space for white people to do the necessary work and eventually lay that burden down. This is how people heal and grow stronger, so they can help others to do the same.

Look

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This week has been rough. The world is hurting in so many ways. I’ve spent this time making the head space to take on a burden my neighbors have been carrying for far too long on their own. I’ve been trying to listen and learn while this conversation about race, police brutality, white privilege, and repeated trauma has been going on around the world. And can I tell you, I have a shit-ton of learning to do.

We all have our faults. One of mine is the tendency to turn inward, to neglect, to fail to see—sometimes deliberately. It took me days to work up the courage to watch the murder of George Floyd. I knew how painful it would be, that I’d have to carry it with me always, that I’d have to look into Derek Chauvin’s face and be confronted by his unsettling resemblance to my ex-husband, a retired highway patrolman. I thought I didn’t have to watch it, because I was already fully onboard, already mindful, that my heart was in the right place. I considered it somewhat exploitative to watch the end of a person’s life on YouTube or the six o’clock news, and I felt I could take in the reporting on the story without having to see the violence actually play out. But the option itself is an expression of privilege; in a Black home, you don’t get to opt out. You have to confront what’s expressed in that video on a daily basis and process the trauma, over and over and over again. I can’t imagine the strength and the courage it takes to deal with this shit every day.

I’m not strong. Or brave. But eventually I did manage, with some stops and starts, to watch the end of George Floyd’s life. It was what I thought it would be. It did what I thought it would do.

It made me understand that I don’t have any real sense of what it’s like to be afraid, except in the way women are always afraid, which is a different thing altogether. I don’t know what it’s like to fear for my sons and daughter in this specific way, and to have that fear crawl through my brain while I go about my daily life. There’s no mechanism to help me really wrap my head around the experience of this kind of repeated trauma, no way I can truly comprehend. But if people like me don’t find the courage to watch events like this, and think deeply and unpack the details and refuse to turn away, we are never going get to the point of real empathy, the point at which good wishes and kindness are not enough, when what’s so obviously called for is rage.

I don’t have any insight or solution to contribute. I’m only doing the obvious things, the short-term actions that might make a short-term difference. I’m listening more deeply, trying to come to terms with the shame of being the recipient of undeserved privilege, and having those words make themselves at home inside me. I’m trying to learn and find ways to help on a long-term basis.

There are so many lessons I still have to learn, but this one is finally clear: The end of George Floyd’s life will be with me until the end of mine. And that’s a good thing.