I am not arrogant enough to think that I have it all right, that I know the answers, or that I have the power to change hardened hearts and minds. My hope in writing out my story is that it will resonate with white people who are confused, softened, starting to question long-held beliefs. And let me be clear: there are others you should listen to long before me, starting with people of color. I am white, and therefore what I have to say should weigh far less than the words and cries of our black and brown brothers and sisters.
BUT. If sharing my story publicly helps just one white person to change their mind, to take the next step toward anti-racism, reconciliation, justice, and action, then I must do it.
It’s ok to change your mind. It’s not too late.
God has been pushing me in recent days, and I have dug in my heels in fear.
The comments will be hateful.
My police officer friends will think I don’t support them.
I just want to keep my social media light and happy.
This isn’t the place for healthy debate. Those conversations should be in person.
I don’t have the right words.
Arrogant white “woke” people will judge me for not getting it all right.
So. Many. Excuses. And they all highlight my privilege.
As I’ve debated internally, I’ve come to this conclusion: If I’m not willing to put myself out there and tell my story publicly, then my silence gives a clear picture of my priorities (and that picture is pretty ugly). If I am not willing to be open and honest, then I am nothing but a two-faced coward, claiming to be anti-racist while trying to not make my white friends uncomfortable.
So here goes. Let’s start at the beginning.
I grew up in an almost all-white affluent suburban community. I was taught from a very young age that racism was evil, that white supremacy was evil, that slavery was evil. There was no question about this. We are all God’s children and beautiful in His sight. And here’s where it got twisted: I also remember learning that two significant events brought an end to the mistreatment of black people. The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement were epic chapters of our history and solved our problems. Because of a bunch of brave people in the 1860s and the 1960s, everything is fine now.
I grew up watching the Cosby Show, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Family Matters. I watched Oprah every day after school. My childhood hero was Harriet Tubman, and I searched all over my house for a hidden entrance to the Underground Railroad (Two side notes: my house was built in the 1980s – lol. And my understanding of the Underground Railroad was very polite and romanticized, with a shocking lack of focus on the fact these people were running from my people). My favorite movie was Polly, a musical about a young black girl who unites a segregated town. I was a huge sports fan, and I idolized IU football and basketball players, many of whom were black.
So, I thought everything was good. Mistreatment of black people was over. They are successful now. Everybody’s equal. We can all look back at that horrible time and say, “Phew. Glad that’s over. What a terrible chapter in our history.”
We’re good now.
And even uglier, I believed the following lies and asked the following questions (and I am ashamed. But I list them here in case you see yourself in these lies, too.)
“Those in poverty must not work very hard.” (Forgive me, Lord)
“That black man who was killed must have done something to deserve it.” (Forgive me, Lord)
“They do this to themselves. Why are they so violent?” (Forgive me, Lord)
“I am colorblind and love all people equally.” (Forgive me, Lord)
“Why can’t they rise above their circumstances like everyone else? Are they not as smart and motivated as other races?” (FORGIVE ME, LORD)
“None of the above statements are racist.” (Lord, Jesus, please forgive me, though I don’t deserve it.)
You know what was never talked about (or at least I never listened)? Dirty politics and purposely drawing voting districts so that black voices won’t be heard. Cycles of poverty that stem from slave days, not allowing families to ever get on their feet no matter how hard they work. Laws that target parts of black culture with severe punishments, while white culture is left alone. Significantly imbalanced rates of incarceration, disease, and unemployment that come from white-built systems, not from nature, and definitely not from God.
Instead, I learned that everyone is equal. Everyone in America lives under the same laws and has the same opportunities. We all start from square one, and it is up to us and our hard work to get ahead in life. All of those terrible things that happened hundreds of years ago are over, and we celebrate MLK and Rosa (good luck asking younger me to name anyone else in the Civil Rights movement) for changing the country for the better and making it the great place it is now. (I’m cringing. Forgive me, Lord).
Here’s a part of the story I haven’t heard discussed much. I was 2 days away from my 17th birthday when the planes hit the towers on 9/11. I was old enough to sort of know what was going on, but not wise enough to see things clearly. I fully embraced patriotism and hero worship of first responders, which pervaded our society in the wake of that culture-shifting tragedy. I still believe most first responders are the good guys, but at 17, I would have totally denounced anyone who claimed the policing system was broken. THEY ARE OUR HEROES! DON’T YOU DARE SAY ANYTHING BAD ABOUT THEM! THEY ARE PERFECT AND SUPERHUMAN AND DO NO WRONG. As the years flew by, I didn’t think about it anymore, but the idea that the police must always be right, that they all have pure hearts, and that they always protect the innocent had settled in my bones.
I heard all about Trayvon Martin in 2012. My unwilling mind thought, “He must have done something to deserve it. Surely no one would just kill him…”
I saw all the reports about Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014. “There must be more to these stories. Surely it was their fault…”
Then I watched the protests in Ferguson, and I started hearing the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” By the grace of God, that hit me in just the right spot in my otherwise unwilling-to-see heart. Crowds of people needing to wear shirts that declare “black lives matter”? OF COURSE they matter. What brought them to this place of having to scream it in outrage? Of course you matter… you don’t need to tell me that. It didn’t sit right with me — Not their protest, but the NEED to protest. What was I not seeing?
I went to the Black Lives Matter website, expecting militant language and calls for violence. I think deep down I still wanted to discredit them. Instead, I found a well-organized group calling for peaceful protest, a war on misinformation, and policy change. But not one white person around me knew this about BLM. They all talked about “how disrespectful” and “how violent” the movement was.
I started paying more attention to the high profile murders of unarmed black men (and boys. And women). Because of the beliefs I held for so long – that every one was equal and had the same opportunities – I would sit there and think, “Well, that doesn’t seem right. But there must be more to the story. He must have done something illegal. Right?” (Not to mention that “doing something illegal” should not automatically be a death sentence. But I was not there yet.)
And these were just the big names with the big protests. I learned later there were so many more names I never heard.
It kept happening. More killing. More death. I started researching, but in secret. I told no one about my interest and learning. I was embarrassed to let on that I was waking up. Heaven forbid if I offended white people with my sudden questioning of those things we held dear…
I got more and more confused. Everything I grew up believing was coming into question.
Then, in preseason 2016, Colin Kaepernick sat and then knelt during the National Anthem. My mind instantly went to the long history of American heroes who fought for freedom from England, freedom for slaves, the freedom to vote, and freedom from inhumane laws. We idolize the idea of the Boston Tea Party, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a speech about a Dream in Washington, and sit ins at lunch counters.
It seemed very clear to me what Colin was doing: Using his platform, with millions of eyes on him, to bring attention and awareness to what was happening in our country. He was being 100% American.
Looking back, I was SO naive. I was actually shocked by the outcry from white America. The screams. The hatred. The twisting of his intent when it seemed obvious what he was doing. White America rose up and outshouted him by claiming that he was dishonoring our worshipped military. “If you don’t like America, then leave!” they screamed. (For the record, I’m incredibly grateful for the good guys in our military and police, for their bravery that goes beyond anything I could ever imagine. My problem is with the long-standing systems that allow the bad guys to wear badges and uniforms and guns. My problem is with the overall structure AND the tainted ones)
I was horrified. Flabbergasted. The people who scream for America and claim to be ultra patriotic have no concept of how very American it is to protest? What on earth is going on? Do we just WANT to be mad?
I still kept my thoughts a secret except in a few conversations with close friends about what Colin was doing. But Colin and the sea of white people started changing my mind.
My grief and despair came to a boiling point in summer 2017 when the police dash cam video/audio of the murder of Philando Castile was released (nearly a year after his death). He did everything he was supposed to do. Before reaching for his drivers license and registration, he calmly informed the officer that he had a gun in the car (which he had a license for, by the way). The officer immediately assumes Philando is trying to pull the gun out of the glove box. Philando assures him he is not pulling it out. Then 7 shots at point blank range.
I remember feeling faint. There was a buzzing in my head. Watching/listening to the video, I think any reasonable person would hear immediately that Philando is following the instructions to get his license and registration. HE WAS FOLLOWING INSTRUCTIONS AND WAS MURDERED FOR IT. If that officer had taken one second to give clear instructions (“Since you have a weapon, please put your hands on the steering wheel.”), he would be alive today (And yes, he had time to request that. Philando was calm and never even had his hand on his licensed weapon. Find the video and listen for yourself).
Instead, the officer made a lot of assumptions he likely would not have made if Philando was white. Can you imagine an officer shooting a white man 7 times at point blank range while the white man was calm, obeying instructions, and had no weapon in his hand? How many white dudes are pulled over with guns in their vehicles and are able to walk away just fine? How many white dudes strap giant guns to their backs to intimidate the government, and walk away just fine?
And the part that makes me really sick? I bet Philando’s parents had trained him. I bet they had told him, “Son, if you are ever pulled over, you need to be calm and respectful. You need to tell the officer if there is a weapon. If you don’t, they may see it and shoot you.” He did everything right. And it didn’t help. Have you ever talked to your white kids about how to stay alive in a traffic stop?
Oh, did I mention why he was pulled over? For those of you wondering what he had done to make the police officer suspicious:”Was he driving drunk? Had he just come from the scene of a crime?” NO. HIS TAIL LIGHTS WERE OUT. HE WAS MURDERED BECAUSE HIS TAIL LIGHTS WERE OUT AND HE RESPECTFULLY TOLD AN OFFICER THAT HE HAD A WEAPON IN THE CAR.
I couldn’t take it any more. I doubled my researching efforts. I needed to know more about what was going on. I went to a beloved coworker and friend (a black man) to ask him what I should read, what I should watch, what questions I should ask. Forgive me, Mike, for putting that burden on you when this work is already exhausting enough. And thank you for being patient and willing to help me. He pointed me to the documentary 13th and several books. He also told me to talk to people of color about their stories and their feelings. Mike’s mentorship since then has been life-changing for me. (See bottom of post for resources if you are ready to change your mind. I hope you are!)
I followed his advice, and I felt like my eyes were opened to a brand new reality. And it hurt. I felt lied to. I discovered I was wrong and that I have been part of the problem. Racism and inequality are everywhere, in our laws and culture and movies and textbooks and policies. As I learned new things, I would rush into Mike’s office: ”Mike, I just learned such and such about Indiana’s history! We were taught something TOTALLY different when I was a kid.” And he would smile and nod and encourage me to keep learning.
I started to timidly speak out and involve myself in community conversations. I never felt qualified or educated enough, but I did my best. Mike started sending white students (we work at a small, mostly white Christian university) to me when they were experiencing this “changing of the mind” and needed someone to talk to.
And I started to believe another lie: “I am doing my part. I am doing enough.” (Forgive me, Lord)
I don’t tell you any of this to pat myself on the back. My story is not over. It will probably take my whole life and the perfection of the next to dismantle the lies I have believed and the culture that influences my thinking. There have been many times I have turned a blind eye when I should have done something. But I am doing my best to learn, to listen, and to leverage my privilege with action.
Here is my action plan, and below it are resources I have collected from the posts and cries of People of Color in recent days.
Share my story in case it changes the mind of even one person.
I will share it again when these protests have become less trendy and people are starting to forget.
I will research the recommendations of the Black Caucus and vote for leaders who support change.
I will give financially to black-led policy changing movements, and I will read all of their materials and suggestions to educate myself.
I will sign petitions.
I will write to my government leaders (For goodness sake… I wrote to my senators in elementary school when the IHSAA implemented class basketball… I think oppression of black communities is a bit more important.)
I will not sit back when I hear and see racist comments.
I will continue to learn from black and brown voices, art, literature, and faith.
Please share if you have come across helpful resources (I’m looking at you, white people. It’s on us to be researching the voices of people of color)
List of resources (Maybe from BLM, but can’t find original source): https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co
From Lanesha Tabb: A White Families’ Guide to Talking About Racism
From Raelle Roberson (in the comments she encouraged sharing):