Retrofitting Vintage

Things That Aren’t History: Racism in America

We progressive types like to think we’d have been heroes in the past.

When I read about history, I automatically assume I would have been awesome in other generations. I’d have been an abolitionist during American slavery, probably with my own underground railroad station in my basement. I’d have fought in the Resistance, and refused to cooperate with the Nazis. I’d have been working at Hull House, or reporting undercover like Nelly Bly, fighting turn-of-the-century urban poverty. Protesting Japanese internment. Refusing to take land from Native Americans. You know, awesome.

With the smug 20/20 vision of hindsight, I wonder how all those bystanders, all those people who were neither fighting injustice or enacting it, could live with themselves. How can you know about terrible things, and then do nothing to fix it?

But I think I owe an apology to the lackluster people of the past, because white supremacists keep killing people, and I haven’t done much.

In so many ways, I have surrendered to the racism in society without ever really fighting it. I shamefully want to know how much I have to stay informed before I can stop learning more horrifying things, because it hurts my heart so much and I feel like I can’t do anything.

I don’t know what it was about this particular set of murders, but since the shootings in Charleston, I see my self-preservation as the cowardice it really is: a broken heart is the price you pay for being aware in this world. I’m not looking away.

There’s a lot of discussion of what being a white ally in a world of racial violence means. Here are some things I’m trying:

  1. I am absolutely going to stop referring to segregation, prejudice, and racial violence as if they were something in the past, or like we somehow solved them as a society.
  2. I’m not going to pretend that this is a Southern problem.
  3. I would have been BFF's with Lucretia Mott.
    In my imagination, I would have been BFF’s with Lucretia Mott.

    I will not shut up about “benign” racism in jokes, or pop culture, or things people say to me because they think I’ll agree with them.

  4. I will not cry “white lady tears” when someone points out my own racism.
  5. I will listen to people of color more than I talk.

What are you going to do?

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