It’s been over a week now since the events of Charlottesville and I’ve remained fairly quiet about it all. I’ve been busy and haven’t even sat down in front of my laptop all week to type anything out. When something traumatic like this happens I always need to sit and linger with my feelings a bit before crafting any sort of meaningful response. That being said, I can’t say that what I’m about to write will actually be meaningful in any way. I feel like most of what can be said or needs to be said already has been said by others much more eloquent and informed than me. But I’m still gonna write what I can because 1) maybe everything’s already been said, but it hasn’t all been heard or absorbed by everyone that needs to hear it and maybe adding my voice will reach an extra ear or eyeball or two. And, 2) “writing it out” is always a necessary reconciliation for myself between my mind and my heart whether or not anyone else reads these words.
It’s also been a daunting prospect to write because simply, my soul is weary and overwhelmed. My privileged white soul is weary and overwhelmed even though I never have to worry about being the victim of racism myself. The most overwhelming part is the knowledge that my brothers and sisters of color in this country have been screaming into the void, trying to get us to wake up, for ages, but they continue to have to fear for their lives everyday in a country that pretends to be for all people as they watch their sons and daughters continually killed, imprisoned, and oppressed. How much greater the toll a week like this has on them and yet they continue to be denied and dismissed. No matter how many politicians “condemn bigotry and hatred” people of color in this country know that condemning the neo nazis with the tiki torches in the streets is not going to ultimately change the policies that make everyday life for them a head on battle with discrimination. The racists in the polo shirts were yelling their racism out loud in blatant and unavoidable language. But for years our government has been legislating just as appalling of racism with laws suppressing the votes of black people, and making sure that black people are more likely to go to prison and serve longer sentences, and making it more difficult for black people to own homes and get jobs, and creating access to quality education only outside of communities of color, and turning a blind eye when those communities of color are poisoned by their drinking water . Everyone’s angry that the president defends white supremacists as fine people, all the while our vice president and secretary of state and senators can say that the KKK is a scourge on our society, but we all know that the next day they’ll be signing laws that the klansmen would applaud, just with sneakier, less outrageous language. But the end result is the same.
People of color have known these things forever. The difference now is that the events in Charlottesville have held a mirror up to white people to show them that the racists actually look like them and it’s forced many white people to start to acknowledge their own complicity in the system. It’s come out from under hoods and shed the robes and it looks too familiar. This is a white people problem and we have to accept our duty to dismantling the system that benefits us. Speaking out in times of crisis is not enough. We have to actively deconstruct the inherent system of supremacy that has skewed the balances of power so far in our favor. How do we actually do that? I don’t really have the answers but there are resources out there with good suggestions if you Google it. But I would start by stopping the tweeting about monuments and what Donald Trump said. Those things are important but mostly symbolic at the end of the day. Start looking at how you can do your part to change the system. That means looking at how you vote, it means looking at what organizations you support, it means rethinking about where and how you volunteer in your community, it means being conscious of the media and news that you consume, it means considering your involvement with your children’s school and keeping your chosen place of worship accountable for social justice issues. It means having actual conversations with people of color who are affected by the systems everyday and actually listening to what they have to say without trying to advise them or help them. Amplify their voice if possible. It means, if you’re white, being willing to take a back seat in conversations about race. In fact, if you’re reading this, I hope you go read at least 5 articles by writers of color on the issue, their voices matter more than mine here. Maybe at the end of the post I’ll include some suggestions.
Now I’ve made it this far in my blog post and I’ve completely deviated from the content that I set out to write because once I started typing I guess I just needed to rant a bit. I intended to write about the nuanced intersections of racism in the United States and effects of global racism on the little country of Haiti where I live, but I guess maybe that will have to be a completely different blog post. Now I’ve passed the point of no return. And I need to continue to rant a bit as I still wrestle with how to understand the situation myself and what my own role is in the big picture.
We can’t continue to condemn the actions of the racists in Charlottesville in such ways that we pretend it’s some far off novelty carried out by a small group of wack jobs. No matter where we live in the United States, there is racism in our backyards and there are systems in place that affect all of us that maintain white supremacy. We have to be prepared to have the uncomfortable conversations, with compassion when possible, but with severity when necessary. We need to confess the places where we’ve embraced the benefits that white supremacy has afforded us, and as my pastor in Iowa said this weekend, repent and change our minds about how we live within those systems moving forward.
There are a lot of white people these days who have begun to admit that they benefit from white privilege, but it’s much more difficult to actually accept that that privilege is a product of white supremacy and the systems that uphold it. We may not be in the streets yelling out that whites are the supreme race, but we willingly welcome the better education access, the better protection from the law, the freedom from being followed and side-eyed at department stores. I, myself, have benefited greatly from my white privilege. The very work that I do and life that I live would not be possible if I weren’t a white, middle-class, college educated, cisgendered male. I love being able to work as an artist and community organizer in my region of South-eastern Haiti and collaborate with such dynamic groups of Haitian artists on both a local and international level. But if I had been born a black man, to a single mother, in Detroit, and decided in my late teens that I had a dream to do work similar to what I do now, there’s no way, NO WAY, in this country of the United States, that fulfilling such a dream would actually be possible. Because of where I come from and what I look like, when I began to pursue working in Haiti through the arts, it was very easy for people to assume that I was going to be “doing good”, “helping others”, and “making a difference”. And because of that, I was able to get the support that I needed to actually succeed in that pursuit and make a life out of it. I won’t say that it was easy to do so, but it was an absolute breeze compared to how difficult, nay impossible, it would have been if I had come from a more urban, less economically advantaged place, and had darker skin and different life experiences.
My white privilege allows me the opportunity to do work in Haiti that Haitians themselves aren’t able to do in their own country because of the inherent white supremacy systems that impact access to resources and power. Early on in my career in Haiti when I was young and starting out, I was enthusiastically encouraged on all sides to pursue specific projects, but when young Haitian men, my own age, with just as much intelligence and potential, attempted to do the same exact projects for their own communities, they would be criticized as being too ambitious, only out for their own good, having ulterior motives. Everything from their sex drives to their taste in music would be used to discredit them while at the same time I would be praised for changing lives. Seeing this, I made it my mission to raise up those same young men as leaders in their communities and empower them to prove the naysayers wrong while trying to take a more supportive, less dominant role in the community work myself. And yet, no matter what I try to do to push them to the forefront and communicate that they are the ones doing the work, I usually end up getting most of the credit, because our systems of white supremacy have taught us to assume that white people are the saviors even though history would suggest that white people are usually the oppressors.
And now I’ve taken this post in a different direction again and gotten away from Charlottesville with my rant. But maybe that’s the point. Charlottesville was not an isolated, insidious incident. It was a symptom of centuries old structures that affect our lives every day on a national and a global level. And for centuries the victims of those unjust structures have been calling out. It’s time for those of us who benefit from the structures to stop and listen to what they have been saying and to actively work to break down those structures with them so that together they may be rebuilt in a more equitable and just way.
As for suggestions on voices of writers and commentators of color to check out, my good friend, Gwenn Mangine, put out a blog post this week about listening to priority voices with some good suggestions. Gwenn’s not a writer of color, but it’s easier to share her list than make my own. So check that out here. I’ll add podcast recommendations for the most recent episodes on Charlottesville from Politically Re-Active, It’s Been a Minute, and Black on the Air. For articles, check out this one from my girlfriend, Roxane Gay, and this one from Vann R Newkirk at the Atlantic, and this interview with Patrisse Cullors. Also, although not directly commenting on Charlottesville, I recommend reading Kara Walker’s most recent Artist’s Statement. It is brilliant and tremendously relevant to the situation.