Black lives matter

Bear with me, as this post is somewhat long and tangential, and I have gone back and forth on whether I wanted to publish it at all, having started writing it three weeks ago on May 28th. I am writing this from my perspective, as a white person, and probably only or mostly white family or friends will read this, and that is who I am speaking to here. But I do think this is likely one of the most important posts I could ever write.

I went to every prom and homecoming dance in high school solo and with a group of friends, except senior prom. My class was small and close-knit, despite the typical cliques and friend groups. Most of us had known each other for years before high school, some even since preschool. For senior prom, every person in my class went with a date, most of us pairing up with good friends just to make sure no one felt left out. I was very happy when a classmate I had known since middle school, though we generally kept to different friend groups, asked me to go with him. It was a great last high school dance and I couldn’t have had a better date. The friend who asked me to prom happened to be black.

My family are the absolute best people I know. They’re kind, and loving, and don’t have a genuinely hateful bone in their body. They’re Christians who live the teachings of Christianity in all the right ways. My parents grew up with friends that were black, sure, they have friends and coworkers of varying races and backgrounds that they love. But they grew up in a generation where systemic racism was very real. It’s unfortunately still real. My grandparents were never genuinely prejudiced people, either. But they grew up in a generation where segregation was still a thing and civil rights movements were only just getting started. And so little bits of unconscious racism, unconscious prejudice, are a part of my family’s worldview (and therefore mine as well), even though they are the best people I know, who would never consciously judge or wish harm on someone based on the color of their skin.

My parents knew my prom date, they knew his mom. They loved him and all my classmates. But when they excitedly told family members that I finally had a date to a school dance, they couldn’t help but add, as an aside, “he’s black.”

I mean, my prom date’s family also probably made mention of the fact that he was going to prom with a white girl, but being a white girl doesn’t carry the same history of prejudiced undertones. Like I said, my family are good people. I know they didn’t actually care that my prom date was black, because they knew him as a good person. But something ingrained in them needed to mention it, needed to be accepting of it more actively than if my date had been white, when the color of his skin wouldn’t have caused a second thought or a reason to be suspect of his character. And that’s where racism is still pervasive, in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious. That’s why “race” still matters, even though many would prefer to claim they are “colorblind” or say that “all lives matter” or that “we’re all part of the human race.”

We are all humans, but unfortunately, prejudice is a human issue, one that needs to be actively recognized and fought in ourselves and our communities. And as a Christian, trying to outright ignore color or race is ignoring a part of a human being, a part of God’s creation. It’s not comfortable to confront prejudice in yourself, in your friends or family, we all want to believe the best in ourselves and each other. It may not be any more pervasive now than in the past, in fact, it may be less so. But, because of social media, it is more visible. It is being called out more, as it should be. Because when good people are still being killed because of their skin color, then even the most innocuous instances of prejudice can’t be passively excused. I don’t believe we should circulate traumatic videos of wrongful deaths, out of respect for the victims and their families, but we absolute should circulate their names, their pictures, stories of the good people they were. Because there is no excuse for killing a good person due to assumptions based on their appearance, especially assumptions based solely on their skin color.

My dad’s cousin found love a bit late in life, with a woman who happens to be black. We have never seen him happier and are of course very happy for him, and to have her in the family. Last year, they had a little girl together. My grandfather visited with his sister and family several months ago, where he got to meet this little great-niece of his (before all this global pandemic stuff). When I went to see him the next week and had asked about his visit, he couldn’t stop talking about how beautiful that little baby was, he was absolutely beaming. It shouldn’t be a big deal that he found a baby cute, but I suppose it is, when the baby is half-Black and my grandfather and his sister were both adults by the time segregation in America was abolished. For his generation, racial prejudices are basically the norm, so even though I know my family are good people, it was still a relief to hear him be so verbally supportive and loving. And what a relief that that little girl will never have to grow up to worry about her father being killed for no reason, because his skin is white. What a sad sort of relief. Maybe by the time she grows up, her Black family members will no longer have as much to fear. Maybe. Hopefully.

I haven’t actively kept in touch with more than a handful of people from high school, so I couldn’t tell you how my former prom date is doing now. I think he’s doing just fine. But I would be devastated to ever see his name in the news for something like what happened to George Floyd and so many others, and I would never believe it if someone said he was at fault, because he was undeniably one of the most considerate, funny, friendly, and kind people I went to school with. I have seen similar things said by those who knew George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor, and so many others whose names have been more quickly forgotten but whose families can never forget. So, on behalf of all the wonderful people of color that I have been blessed to know in my family, at school, at work, and in my community, I have slowly been trying to educate myself to be better at recognizing small, pervasive bits of racism and privilege in my own life.

I’m certainly nowhere near perfect and have had plenty of my own unconscious prejudices. I have profiled people in my mind in the past, and have stopped and questioned myself on whether I’m judging someone based on their actions or just unfounded assumptions. Sometimes it’s so ingrained that it’s hard to tell. People in my class used to tease my classmate that he was “the whitest black person” because, I don’t know, he drove a truck and liked Starbucks. I probably echoed a variation of that to him at least once, not realizing at the time that statements like that, complimenting a black person on how “white” or “articulate” they are, are a subtle form of racism (which reminds me of this great TED Talk I found for a school assignment a couple years ago). Now I know better. I like to think we all know a little better than we did a few years, or even a few months ago. I like to think many of us are listening, and changing.

Over the last few years, I’ve been considering my personal values, what I want to achieve out of life. At the same time that I was realizing I really wanted to write children’s books, that I wanted to pursue illustration, I also realized that diversity is surprisingly important to me. It’s not something I had consciously thought about in the past, but as I jotted down ideas for books and art, I realized I felt a deep need for any characters I create to represent a variety of people. If I was going to write a book about a mermaid, or a fairy, I immediately knew I didn’t want them both to have milky white skin, nor do I find that realistic for characters that would spend a good amount of time in the sun. Why does magic and beauty have to be associated with being “fair?” I myself am fair-skinned, with blonde hair and blue eyes, and I was always more attracted to and fascinated with people and characters who didn’t look like me as I was growing up, and I related to characters more based on personality than appearance. I was so over-represented in dolls/toys and books/media that I was bored with how I looked, and in a way, that’s a big reflection of my privilege. I was bored with the blonde one always being the default character, and I think the “blonde ones” have a responsibility to challenge that norm.

I deeply believe in loving who you are, how you were made, but I don’t believe you can truly love yourself unless you can see someone like yourself portrayed lovingly in the world. As a white person, I think I have a responsibility to help portray non-white people/characters in a casual and positive way, by supporting artists of color in doing so with their own voices and talents, as well as doing so in my own life and art wherever I can. It shouldn’t be entirely up to people of color to work to make sure they’re represented. Classic children’s books like Corduroy and The Snowy Day, in which their white authors/illustrators explicitly chose to make their main characters black children, without ever mentioning their race or making a big deal of it, left a lifelong impression on me. I noticed that Lisa was black. But I also noticed that her race was never brought up, and that she was just a normal little girl, like me.

I hope none of this is coming across as virtue-signalling, pointing fingers, or me pretending to be super “woke.” None of these things I bring up even scratch the surface, they’re just the simplest examples that come to mind. I still have a lot to learn, and a lot to do, and I’m trying to open my heart and my world up to more diverse voices, and to how God wants to speak to me and through me, if at all. I couldn’t have written any of this if I hadn’t been listening to people of color explain their experiences, and reading various resources people have been sharing, learning, having conversations with people I know, and connecting dots through my own life experiences, and I have just felt a lot of value through really paying attention to these things. (Another aside: my church hosted a wonderful lecture last year by Fr. Moses Berry about Christianity and the Black experience, so if you would like to hear his interesting story and watch some of those videos click here for the youtube playlist) But no amount of talk about the ways I want to show love and support to my fellow humans means anything unless I continually back it up with actions throughout my life, and to be frank, I think that posting on the internet is a double-edged sword.

You can post a black square, you can share information and talk about how you are trying to contribute, and maybe you look good, maybe you look disingenuous. I know many people that I love often “do” much more than they “say,” and so many of us haven’t just started caring about these issues now, even if this is the first time we’re publicly and bluntly speaking up about it. So, it is unfortunate that silence on social media can be interpreted as silence altogether or apathy, or conversely, that posting resources can look like you’re hopping on some sort of shallow bandwagon. If your actions are only performative on the internet and not genuine and ongoing, they don’t make much of a difference anyway. I’m just one small, quiet person, so it also doesn’t really matter what anyone thinks, because it’s not about me. But as these events and protests have escalated, I realized that despite my own prejudices and quiet nature, there has always been something deep inside of me that knows I need to do my small part to help fight injustice in the world using whatever skills I can contribute, and a nagging realization that I have enough privilege to also have a responsibility to not coast idly through life or ignore things that don’t affect me directly.

I finally watched a bit of the video of George Floyd’s death. I couldn’t bring myself to watch much of it. I’m an empathetic person, I couldn’t help briefly placing myself in his terror, imagining pleading for my life, struggling to catch a breath. Like a bad dream where you can’t run away, knowing you’re on the brink of death. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe. It’s something I can only relate to through nightmares, but it was his reality. I saw Spike Lee’s 1989 film “Do The Right Thing” in my History of Motion Pictures class last fall. I remember the discussion after the film, talking about how unfortunate it was that it still feels just as relevant 30 years after its release. The juxtaposition of the MLK and Malcolm X quotes at the end…what is the “right” thing in this kind of fight? Peace? Violence? Neither? Both? I believe in peace, but with something at this scale, sometimes violence is inevitable, or necessary to deflect and diffuse anger and frustration from hurting people to hurting replaceable things like objects and buildings. A rare exception for righteous anger that reminds me of Jesus overturning tables and driving the money changers out of the temple, an outburst reserved for an extreme injustice. I couldn’t help but think about how we’re basically living the last few scenes of Lee’s film. I had no idea that those scenes I was watching onscreen could months later be interchanged with nearly identical footage from real life, but then again, those scenes were inspired by many similar events in the past as well.

I saw people saying forms of this recently, but it must be reiterated: it is not the responsibility of black people to teach their kids from a young age how to not get killed in everyday situations. It’s the responsibility of white people to teach our kids from a young age to not judge, or God forbid, kill people because of their skin color. It’s not political, it’s not up for debate, it doesn’t negate the need to care for other types of people, or other injustices in the world. But we can’t keep saying Black Lives Matter and then ignore our nation’s history of prejudice and hope our next generation will turn out better without some real changes. We can’t continue to stand by helplessly as Black Americans are unjustly killed in the street. With the global pandemic and current socioeconomic uncertainty, it seems like this was the perfect storm to lead to these times of unrest. George Floyd was just the catalyst for something that has been simmering too long. It’s a matter of long overdue basic human rights.

I don’t have a solution other than to start the change with yourself and your family. Obviously there needs to be wide efforts to address many of the systemic issues and patterns that are keeping Black communities marginalized in the US. Individually, we just have to keep talking about it, approaching it head on, with empathy. It is my view that empathy can move mountains. There are a lot of things going on in our country right now that make introspection very necessary, putting yourself in the shoes of both your allies and your perceived enemies, feeling the fear and uncertainty from all perspectives. Recognizing that hatred or anger often stems from discomfort with something within yourself, and identifying those deep inner struggles that make you or others feel like lashing out at certain people or groups, because hatred and anger does not inspire true change in people like love and understanding does. Confronting the ugly things within ourselves so that we can heal the world from the inside out. There will always be hateful and misinformed people in the world, people who don’t want to or feel a need to change, but if there’s anything to be learned from all this, it’s that ripples start small and grow infinitely. One person or action can effect change, one more ripple at a time.