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A simple declaration of solidarity unraveled everything.
“To my friends of color, I know I cannot fully understand your experience of the world, but I stand with you against bigotry and hatred,” a white, male friend posted on Facebook.
Within minutes, his “friends” rushed to add to his statement as if he hadn’t chosen the right words. One of his followers wanted to include “women, Jews, Muslims, and anyone else who has ever been discriminated against because they are different.”
Another person added “fat people” to my friend’s post and a third wanted to include “Jews…because my mom and aunt are Jewish.”
My reaction was swift and fierce: “Can people of color have a damn minute in the national conversation without someone rushing in to perform the well-meaning white person’s version of ‘all lives matter?’”
Apparently, the answer is no.
Judging by the reactions to my friend’s post and the current, national conversation about race, we can’t have a damn minute. We cannot have a Facebook post. We cannot breathe.
Once the first, male, white face framed in a collared shirt illuminated against the firelight of a tiki torch in the warm, southern night, the national conversation turned exactly where he wanted it to — on white people.
Anemic outrage congealed with disgust and chest-thumping promises to “fight and beat the Nazis and white supremacy.” White people are yelling at other white people on social media about how white they are.
The national conversation ducked toward President Donald Trump’s support of white supremacists as “very fine people,” and whether we should allow Confederate statutes to remain. Now it’s about the symbolism of Tina Fey and sheet-cake. It is all so very white.
Where are the narratives about black excellence? Where are the posts supporting African American businesses? Where are the pledges from white parents to make the schools and playgrounds safe for black children? Without prompting or fear of “not being welcomed,” how many white people reached out to their black friends and colleagues and said, “ I am here in whatever way you need me”?
(Yes, yes, #notallwhite people. I get it. Your whiteness is special.)
White supremacy forbids empathy.
To acknowledge the historic, continued, and irreparable damage to generations of African Americans dating back at least 400 years and continuing at this very moment would mean that white people are not at the center of the story.
White supremacy demands white people, white experiences, white guilt, white privilege, and white rage remain the highest priority at every facet of societal institutions and interactions.
Equality begins to look like oppression when you’ve been told your experiences and beliefs are and should remain at the center of everything. This statement is true even for the well-meaning white people who “cannot imagine what it’s like to be a black person.”
But that’s what it will take to resolve (maybe not end) the racial morass in the United States.
When black people said, “it’s up to white people to ‘fix’ racism in the United States”, we didn’t mean make it about you. We meant do the work.
White people who are serious about social justice must be willing to step outside their own experiences, beliefs, and views not to “imagine what it’s like,” but to look at the world as it is, not as they wish it to be, and make it a daily practice much like yoga, prayer, meditation to remedy it.
Racism isn’t hiding behind a corner, waiting to jump out and scream “peek-a-boo.” It’s in the air. It’s in your family. It’s in your church. It’s at your child’s playground. It’s in the television you consume. It’s in the mirror. It’s in the blood in your veins. It’s there and it’s waiting for you to discover and deal with it.
It isn’t hate that needs to be fought; it’s you.
I’m not asking white people to do anything I haven’t done. White supremacy is psychological torture. Fighting it is an inside and outside job. It is exhausting and draining. Hate sometimes threatens to consume me. Grace compels me to pause and remember the white people who consistently show up for me, no matter how much I claw and scratch at them.
That’s why I appreciate my friend’s simple statement of solidarity more than he’ll ever know. To some, it may read as milquetoast. But I know what it took him to get there — a painful and honest conversation with me, soul searching, and a willingness to be vulnerable to me and others. He’s willing to sacrifice himself as the center of the story, acknowledge and heal, and stand in ready service to others. And that is a very good start.
Female lifestyle empowerment and “you go girl” feminism keeps women asleep and drooling in our own sense of powerlessness. Women cried during the fight scenes in the Wonder Woman movie because they were mourning the loss of their own inner warrior. Women have traded their battle rattle for the promise of safety, comfort, and protection – mostly offered by men. Some women would rather be cherished than courageous. They would rather be princesses adored on their wedding day than queens of their daily lives.
This isn’t about blaming or abandoning men. It is about telling the truth about why we choose to remain asleep and in doing so bury our authentic, female activist expression under the tulle and cotton of our good intentions.
By Kerra Bolton and A.J. Hartley
The United States is a nation in conversation.
We are talking about politics. We are talking about the things that unite and divide us. We are talking about talking.
Last summer, we (a white man and a black woman) began talking about race after the series of deaths of unarmed men at the hands of white police officers. For six months, we sustained a commitment to talking about race, the concepts of whiteness and blackness, and how these constructs shaped our lives and our choices.
The result is a project called “In Good Faith: Messy Conversations About Race in Black and White.” The project includes a website, e-book and limited-edition podcast.
We aren’t experts. Kerra Bolton is a political communications consultant, writer and artist. A.J. Hartley is the Russell Robinson Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte and best-selling novelist. Nothing in those descriptions says “qualified to talk about race.”
But real race conversations, the ones that happen outside the media, happen between ordinary people who are trying to make sense of themselves and each other. That’s one of the many reasons why these conversations are messy.
In the messiness is also a story about an unlikely friendship that grows as people grapple with race — one of the most divisive, difficult and personal subjects. Through our idiosyncratic process of listening, hearing and recognizing productive difference, we were cracked open by new and sometimes difficult insights about ourselves and who we choose to call “other.”
To help others who want to engage in these conversations, we’ve compiled a “top 10 list” of things we learned from each other through these conversations.
Five Things I Learned from Kerra
1. We are not the same. Yes, we’re all people with a lot of shared feelings and ideas, but my experience of the world is deeply different from a black person’s because of the way they might be treated at any moment because of what they look like. I can go months without ever worrying about that. So long as we are shaped by how other people treat us — or might treat us — we can’t separate race from identity.
2. All dealings between white people and black people take place in the shadow of the past. You can’t just pretend history doesn’t exist or wish it away because it’s what made the present. The playing field isn’t level and I have to be able to see that terms like “white privilege” which make me defensive are statements of historically constructed fact, not moral accusations directed at me as an individual.
3. You can share similar political views and still not understand where someone comes from. Getting there takes time, and it takes listening and responding with respect, with honesty and with kindness.
4. Racism is a moving target. It evolves with culture. What used to be acceptable ceases to be so, and the only way to deal with that is to accept it and move on.
5. In discussing race, the process is the product and vice versa. There were times when I found myself asking, like a kid on a road trip, “Are We There Yet?” But the answer is always no, and I came to realize that the journey really is the point of the trip. It’s not about a destination or about reaching Nirvana and sure as hell not about “winning.” It’s about the willingness to keep talking because keeping those lines of communication open which makes the thing worth doing.
Five Things I Learned from A.J.
1. Friendship comes first, last and always. We put our friendship at the center of this project from the beginning. I remember that when tempted to say something disagreeable or when I am hurt or angry.
2. Separate the “one” from the “many.” African Americans are judged by mainstream society as a collective. We are not allowed to have individual identities unless we are celebrities known by our first name. Whites are afforded the luxury of individualism. This is why we tend to talk about “white people” and whites are quick to say “not all white people.” Through these conversations, I evaluate A.J. by his individual actions. His willingness to keep trying, even when it gets hard, has helped me to redirect my anger from “white people” to institutionalized racism.
3. Pause before I speak. I had no filter at the beginning of these conversations, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential elections. I made accusations — some of by which I still stand. Now, I pause and ask the three questions: “is it true, is it necessary and is it kind?”
4. We enter these conversations at different points. I entered these conversations from a very visceral place. I want police to stop killing black people. A.J., as a scholar and a writer, seeks, through these conversations, to understand an experience that is not his own and wants to become a better citizen, novelist, husband and father because of them. I have learned to trust that even though we come at these conversations from different points, eventually we will meet at a place that looks and feels like common ground.
5. It is work. “Work” isn’t the only four-letter we use during these conversations. These conversations are difficult and challenging. Just when we think we’ve resolved an issue, it reappears in another form or several months later. I wish I could say we were “done” after this one set of race conversations. But the work is continuous. We are constantly talking and learning and growing. And that brings up another four-letter word that has become essential in these race conversations — love. Without love for all people, despite our differences, we don’t evolve as a species. Our hearts were meant to evolve and expand. Mine has because of these conversations and our friendship.
Kerra Bolton is the founder of UnMuted an online academy and consultancy that helps women build and sustain their political activism. A.J. Hartley is the Russell Robinson professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.