For those of you who know me well, you know that I am more conservative than liberal, more Republican than Democrat (although lately, I’m more Libertarian than anything else), more believer than non. And for those of you who know me really well, you know that, even when I don’t know what to say, I say plenty anyway.
This past week has me at a loss.
A confession: I did not take the fact of racism seriously until marrying a man whose family has lived in the South for generations and who has seen, or whose family has seen, firsthand, the kind of thing I’d only heard about on the radio or read about in history books.
A confession: Six-and-a-half years after moving to Virginia, I still don’t quite get it about racism. At the risk of sounding cheesy, why can’t we all just get along? Is it really as bad as people say? Can’t we all give each other the gift of believing the best about each other?
A confession: I have a hard time accepting as truth examples of racism that I hear from others. I have a handful of anti-Semitic slurs, broken synagogue windows, and mind-boggling ignorance in my past, too. I have, oh…about five thousand years or so of universal hatred of my people to fall back on. Despite that, and thanks to the wisdom of those who know me and love me well, I make conscious decisions to believe that the people who have hurt me in the past either didn’t know what they were doing, or they aren’t worth the effort I would need to expend in order to keep being angry. In either of those cases, why on Earth would I waste my time getting angry?
A confession: I have been angry. I have been told that Mainers hate black people because there aren’t any black people in Maine (patently false, on both counts). I have been told that Virginians hate black people, because they stare at them (dude, that’s called making eye contact, and I get it — we Yankees aren’t used to it on the street, with strangers. But Southerners make eye contact with everybody. Yes, it’s disconcerting at first and hard to get used to, but it certainly isn’t racist). I have been told that I wear my privilege like a second skin and that there’s nothing I can do about it (well…okay, fine. But it hasn’t gotten me anything that anyone else couldn’t get, too — trust me, I’ve been broke, desperate, unemployed, hopeless, in despair, all that good stuff — and anyway, if there’s nothing I can do about it, why worry?) I have been told that, by merit of being white, I am racist, whether I think racist thoughts, feel racist feelings, or commit racist acts (um, isn’t there a word for judging me based on the color of my skin?).
So, yes, a confession: I did not mourn the passing of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, or any of the myriad of young black men who have been killed in our country in recent years at the level of many of my peers. I did not watch the videos, or read too many of the commentaries, because all I could see or hear were slurs and accusations.
But when five police officers were targeted and murdered in cold blood, at the hands of a vengeful sniper, I was furious. Five men, doing their jobs, protecting those who were taking advantage of their right to peaceful assembly–slaughtered. Five families–shattered. Five lives–ended. Where were the op-eds, the tearful pleas for mercy, the hour-long specials on NPR, for them?
In church today, our pastor listed the names of those who’d been killed in the past week near the end of his sermon, and for whatever reason, I felt released to mourn. I was overwhelmed by the loss of life. The foolishness. The anger. The brokenness. The men who died–all of them–were my brothers, my countrymen, and now they’re gone.
Now, readers, before you get too far ahead of yourselves, know that I believe that police officers have increasingly difficult and dangerous jobs. I cannot comprehend the discipline it takes to put on your badge and go to work, knowing you might be killed for that badge, day after day after day. I commend the police for fulfilling their duty, which is, after all, coming into situations that no one else can handle. Police officers are not paid to make people feel better. They are not paid to be social workers. They are paid to defuse situations that, otherwise, cannot be defused. When we encounter a police officer on duty, we never know what he has just witnessed, and he never knows what we are planning. I certainly don’t mind bending over a little backward, if it helps reassure him that I mean no harm. I still believe that people are innocent until proven guilty. I still believe in due process and in our legal system.
But the fact remains: whatever are the details of each circumstance, it is absolutely true that these are tragedies, worthy of grief. Dozens of lives have been lost in the wake of these deaths, sadness and despair have been compounded, faces have turned inward, distrust has run wild.
Listen, I have no idea what it’s like to black in America. I know firsthand what it’s like to be a minority and to be hated by the majority. But I do not believe that the past–either for white people or for black people–should be an excuse to mistreat each other. I do not believe that the past should have the power over us that we so freely give to it. I do not believe that black people see nothing but a privileged, closet racist when they see me, nor do I believe that white people see nothing but a lesser-than when they look at a black person.
This past week has been painful and has revealed some deep deep scars in our collective American tissue, but I ultimately believe that good will come. Love will win. Light will triumph. I don’t know what to do, how to pray, what words to say. But, holy Lord, I do know that.