I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. It was an insulated upbringing. My world was white. White staff at school, white classmates, white pastors at church, white friends. There was some diversity, but little enough that it was very noticeable. I never had to think about race. I fully assumed that my culture was just “normal life.” Anything else was “ethnic,” “exotic,” “other.”
My mom worked for the local police department for a period of time, so I knew some of the officers on a first name basis, and would roll my eyes if they pulled me over while driving around with my friends, knowing they wanted to scope out us high school girls. Never once worried about the results of such an encounter.
I would go for long, long bike rides down miles of suburban and country roads. I would jog around the local lake by myself. I would have friends over regularly for bonfires. We’d sneak around in the dark to TP each other’s houses. I worked as a lifeguard at the lake, and various other fast-food jobs throughout high school. Never once worried about my skin putting me in danger.
I went away to Marquette University in Milwaukee and finally encountered more diversity. Not really within my classes at MU, which was still predominantly white. But through the neighborhood, through volunteering with groups like Big Brother/Big Sister and different soup kitchens and after-school tutoring programs. I noticed the differences in Milwaukee’s communities of people of color, noticed the fear of wandering too far off campus into the “dangerous” outlying neighborhood.
I was fortunate to have been paired with a random, freshman roommate who became a sister for life. Her family was from India, and through her I ended up joining the Indian Student Association on campus, and participated in their cultural events and dance shows. I learned a Diwali candle dance and Bharatanatyam style dances. Most importantly, I was exposed to a huge friend group of people who mostly did not look like me. And, still ignorant to my white privilege, I remember thinking how FUN it was to be the only white person at some of our parties, and how cool I felt. Not realizing that for a lot of my new friends, the experience of being the only brown person in the room a majority of the time could be alienating and exhausting.
I traveled farther away for one semester to Melbourne, Australia, and there I made friends from all over the world. I made lots of friends from Australia, but also from Malaysia, Mexico, Japan, Canada, Germany, France, the Philippines, and lots of fellow Americans from around the States. And I began to appreciate the absolute beauty that comes from diversity, from seeing humanity in all it’s beautiful, colorful, varied, fascinating and messy differences. I was in the minority again, this time for being a Christian. Australia is very atheist, and there is a strong presence of Islam from different ethnic groups. I was beginning to see more of what my identity meant beyond “the norm.” The way I lived and acted, ate and worshipped was not the norm for most of the rest of the world.
Fast forward to young adulthood. I’ve gotten more political, started paying better attention really to the world around me. And the terrifying reality of white supremacy was showing itself to me. I started watching the sickening pattern in the news:
Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd.
I started reading books:
When They Call You a Terrorist by Asha Bandelle and Patrisse Cullors
The Warmth of Other Sun’s by Isabel Wilkerson
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey
Defining Moments in Black History by Dick Gregory
Me and the White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad
Seven Sisters and a Brother: Friendship, Resistance, and Untold Truths Behind Black Student Activism in the 1960s
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Granny
Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin Curtice
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkens
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
So You Want to Talk about Race By Ijeoma Oluo
The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit In by Ayser Salman.
I started to learn more about the full history of our country. Of course I’d always known that white Europeans came over and wiped out the Indians, ended up kidnapping and stealing people away from their homeland in Africa to work as slaves, and established America. But SO MUCH got glossed over, and not fully examined in that history and the long-reaching after effects it has had on the very fabric and nature of this country.
There is a lot of history there and a lot to learn. And white people don’t have to bother since we are often not directly affected by race. Unless you marry someone of another color, or someone in your family does, or you or someone you know adopts a child of another color (and even in all those situations), it is very easy to remain ignorant. But we do so at the peril of Black and Brown lives.
America was founded on the idea of white supremacy, that the “Christian” (I don’t know how to call people who believed in manifest destiny and were totally ok with genocide and owning other humans Christians without the biggest eye roll in the world) founders of this country believed that they were superior to the people already here and the people they’d stolen away from their homelands to work for free and literally build the country. To stomach genocide and owning people, white people had to lie to themselves that those folks were less than fully human. And that lie has stuck around in a thousand different ways.
And not only has the belief that white is better, that white is “normal” and anything else is too [loud, ethnic, foreign, different, aggressive, etc etc] stuck around, but racist practices and laws were molded into the very fabric of America. Red lining, funding differences to predominantly black school districts, sentencing differences for crime, racial profiling; race laws are as prevalent as they are ugly.
Racism is still here, because it is a core part of America. White people NEED to recognize that, to educate themselves on the topic since our white schools did not teach us the full truth, and we need to speak up. We need to be calling our elected officials; we need to be voting in anti-racist politicians. We need to increase our exposure to diversity and read books, watch movies and shows, and follow black and brown artists. We need to examine our whiteness and what the invisible effects that has had on our lives. Me and the White Supremacy is a great book for that, and there are a lot of black activists out there doing the work that we can follow and support. The Great Unlearn / Rachel Cargle, Lisa Sharon Harper, Writing to Change the Narrative/Nyasha Williams, United Street Tours / Chakita Sharnise, Speaking of Racism, TNQ Show (The Next Question) / Austin Channing Brown, Latasha Morrison, Ibram X. Kendi, Black Lives Matter, there are many.
To my fellow white people: PLEASE do the work. Please learn about racism and white supremacy. Please be humble, be aware of our history and how that has affected us as white people over people of color, whether you feel it personally or not. Please try not to get defensive or to bury your head in the sand and pretend like we had a Black President so racism must be over. It is not. I promise you. And the longer we stay ignorant, the more of our black and brown brothers and sisters will keep dying. There is a lot to learn and a LOT of work to do to overcome it and become truly a country with Liberty and Freedom for ALL. And we need everyone on board.