By Claudine Sanders
It has been a little over a year since I wrote the piece that started my journey, all of the present state of that time, has now become past.
It was 8:40 p.m., a Friday night, 07/08/16, in the city I’ve called home since 1992. I was a white woman in a black church service. The church sits in the middle of one of the highest crime blocks. I didn’t feel scared, I felt at peace for the first time in too long. And yet, there was that part of me – that part of me that was screaming that I did not belong there – because it was full of people who society had separated and marginalized.
How did I wind up here?
The last few weeks had been heartbreaking. Too many lost, too fast. No breaks in the violence. I was tired. I was hurting. I had stepped out of myself to find hope again.
I was (and still am) not a perfect example of someone who is”not a racist“. I have had my share of irrational fears of people who don’t look like me. I have even told or laughed at those (inappropriate) jokes on several occasions. And I would challenge anyone who shares my skin color (yes, I’m a white woman) or any skin color if they claim they have never, ever made an insensitive racial remark.
I was raised by the generation that witnessed firsthand the integration of schools and, in larger context, society. It would have been almost impossible to have zero residual effects passed on through my parents or my community. We had/have a Confederate soldier monument in front of our courthouse, to memorialize the massacre of Confederate soldiers that happened in our little town. The facts are, that I grew up in a Midwestern rural area and didn’t really know many people who weren’t white.
I distinctly remember my little heart being crushed after introducing my first boyfriend to my parents at my first grade class Open House Night. My parents told me on the way home that I had to break up with him – because he was black. I remember crying and feeling confused because, as I explained to them, his parents were white. My parents told me then that he was adopted. Black and adopted- two lessons in one. In my generation, in my town, it was still considered shocking to date someone who didn’t share my skin tone, even if it was just a “circle yes or no” grade school boyfriend. I tried dating another boy with black skin again in Junior High but, I admit, it was just to piss off my parents.
So yes – I was raised RACIST.
The only real context I had for learning about lifestyles and culture of people of color I gleaned from watching television. Shows like All in the Family, Good Times, Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man, where the families depicted were always poor or lower middle class. Those shows seemed as though they were speaking a language I couldn’t understand – living completely different lives than me. Those shows morphed into The Jeffersons, Diff’rent Strokes, The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, where the plot showed that if the Black families had money they could almost have lives just like “us whites”.
Neither spectrum was reality but, it at least gave me an introduction into a world that was unfamiliar to me. I honestly credit those shows with how I did not become a full blown racist, Trumped-up, bigot as an adult, despite my upbringing.
I think the main difference between who I am now and who I could have become, is that when I feel, say or do anything remotely racist – I know it. Each time these actions are followed by an immediate feeling of regret and the honest desire to change. I don’t pass the remarks off as OK because it’s just reality or a version of the truth. I don’t tell myself, “it’s what everybody thinks and just doesn’t say.” I know to my core that those would be lies I tell myself to try and make me feel better, when really, I have no right to.
I don’t watch the horrors on the news and immediately feel bad for the white guy and wonder what the black guy did to provoke him. I don’t watch the videos of black men being gunned down by cops and immediately start defending the police as a whole. I don’t watch black mothers cry for the loss of their children and think all black people should just get over it. I don’t watch someone being beaten, then shot and think, “he shouldn’t have run” or ,”he should have just kept his mouth shut” or, “he shouldn’t have been stealin’ that or dealin’ this.”
I don’t see the extreme disparity of imprisoned black sentencing vs. white sentencing and think, “that’s what they get for bein’ junkies and dope dealers.” Because, I know way too many white people who’ve committed those exact crimes we make assumptions that all black males commit. I know people who have committed even worse crimes than those portrayed on TV and they didn’t get beaten or shot or locked up for decades or sentenced to life.
I don’t DENY white privilege. It is an absolute fact.
However, just because I’m not in denial does not mean I accept it either. Being white and aware that I get away with things that people of color cannot, does not equate to me being complacent. Being white does not mean it is not my problem or that I can’t do anything about it.
It is my problem. I can do something about it.
I will do whatever I can, however I can to stay true to the part of me that knows my learned racism is not OK. I will do whatever I can, however I can to stay true to the part of me that knows that this country’s racism is not OK. I will not vote for a candidate that spews overt bigotry and racism, who encourages people to hate, then shrugs his shoulders when he’s called out about it.
I make no apologies.
I make amends.
I make change.
This shit needs to change.
So that was how I wound up there; a white woman in a black church on a Friday night, instead of sitting in front of my TV or computer. I listened to the hymns and joined in the dance of freedom they brought and I listened to our Mayor when he spoke of the “slow motion mass murder” that we were/are all witnessing and sadly, I nodded in agreement. I may not have known the fears that people of color experience, but my feet can walk to recognize that I am not just an innocent witness. My eyes filled with tears as he spoke of the changes that must come.
I played with the tiny little girl in the pew in front of me. She reached her hands out to me. I tickled her palms until she giggled. Then she’d take them away. Again and again she stretched her arms out to me. She was not afraid. She didn’t care that I had a different skin tone than her.
She is why I was there.
She must be kept safe.
She deserves to be able to hang on to her lack of fear.
She deserves to keep her joy.
The service ended and we were directed downstairs for training.
Do not interact or respond to counter protesters.
Stay on the sidewalk.
If there is trouble,
volunteers will handle it.
This is a march for Peace.
This is a march for awareness.
These are the issues-
the residents of East Patrol face.
We have the highest murder rate in the city.
We must march for Peace and Vote for change.
I was ready for anything.
I was doing it anyway.
Regardless of my fears.
Regardless of what happened
the day before in Dallas.
I knew I must be the change I wanted to see.
Over 300 people peacefully marched together for 1.7 miles. There was a separate group of approximately 20 people who were screaming/chanting and trying to cause chaos.
They did not succeed.
Our group was full of love.
We were peaceful.
A church volunteer and I had a discussion about how just that morning I had wondered if we had missed our chance for change – through en masse peaceful protest, as in the times of Dr. King. She, like me, knows that we have not missed our chance, as we are taking it now.
It was the first time I had stood up for racial equality.
It was the first time I had not just been a scared white girl wringing her hands and hoping instead of doing.
It was not my last.
I had self-examined. I had found myself to be insufficient in my efforts to support my fellow man.
I have spent the rest of the past year defending the lives of people of color, against those who disagree with my beliefs and efforts. For some reason the mere mention of Black Lives Matter equates violence and exclusivity in the minds of many white people. Black Lives Matter and violence are not dependent upon one another. I support Black Lives Matter. One is a movement to bring attention to inequality, violence can occur at any protest for a myriad of reasons. For those who don’t understand the Black Lives Matter movement, it could be easy to follow the false narrative that the movement itself is violent. It isn’t. I support every single other person as well, regardless of skin color or a uniform they may wear.
I have been on the side of equality for quite some time now. It is only in the past year since a campaign of division began (& won) that I have stopped being silent. I protest the ideal of racism, not the racist themselves. It is something about themselves that they can actively change. I know, because I did.
Racism doesn’t hate a conflicting ideal, it hates the color of someone’s skin, which cannot be changed except in cases of getting a red neck, and Lord knows that color is righteous.
I’ve attended more training since that basement a year ago. I’ve learned what to do with biting words, stinging pepper spray, tear gas attacks and even active shooters. I have learned the difference between red, yellow and green participants and have always stood ready for red.
I have zero problem being arrested nor dying for equality, no matter the color and I somewhat expect it every time I march. Yet, it is extremely sad for our entire country when anyone dies for this, especially at the hands of hate, only further proving the point that racism cannot be denied.
Why go protest when you know it’s just going to cause problems? Because it’s worth it. I’m worth it. You’re worth it. We are ALL worth me raising my hand and saying, “I do!”, to the question of, “who cares?”
There are no parallels between racist protesters and protesters of racism. There is no “us vs. them”. We are all one. I am simply recognizing and validating the fact that Black Lives Matter needs and deserves my attention, my respect and ultimately, my participation. Don’t be afraid to have conversations about these issues. If the Black Lives Matter movement offends you or gets your insides all aflutter with fear, take a look at that. Talk about it.
It’s not offensive to recognize racism in ourselves and decide to do something about it.
It is offensive to recognize it, and decide to do nothing.