If Not Now Than When?
When I was in sixth grade my literature teacher assigned a slew of books about World War II. “The Nazis wanted to create a perfect race of people with white skin and blue eyes.” Mrs. Winston told the class ominously as she pointed to herself, “I wouldn’t have survived. I would have been one of the people they would have rounded up and sent to the gas chamber. Who here would have survived? Who in this room would make it if they were killing people with dark hair and brown eyes?”
Everyone looked at me and shouted my name as I sunk lower in my desk. As one of the only white kids at an American Indian reservation school I did not at all appreciate Mrs. Winston’s pointing out the obvious to everyone. I was white. I was one of the whitest people around. Out there, in the rest of the world, my whiteness protected me. Here my whiteness worked against me and subjected me to both the hate of being different and the hate that comes from being part of the enemy who has subjected your people to years of genocide and oppression.
That moment in the classroom stuck with me throughout the rest of my life. My white skin was a constant reminder that I was a part of a painful history that I had not caused but that I was implicitly a part of. It took me a very long time to learn to accept myself. To come to terms with the fact that what I looked at in the mirror was not a reflection to feel ashamed of, but one that I could look at and love.
Despite, or maybe because of, the pain of this, I determined that I would not be someone who would be a part of hatred or violence. I had read many books about the Jewish holocaust, and always wondered how so many Germans had stood by and let these atrocities happen to the people around them. I decided that if it came down to it, I would put my own life at risk to stand against Nazis.
But I always hoped that I would never be put to the test when it came down to it.
Last Wednesday I watched in horror as a mob of angry white people with confederate flags, swastikas and other white supremacist signs and clothing violently breached our nation’s capitol building as the president egged them on and refused to call the national guard for assistance.
The whole experience left me shaken, the world forever changed, my country unrecognizable to me.
I felt that I must do something, to stand up against this violation.
Someone recommended checking out a group called refuse fascism that was organizing a national response. I searched for an event in Santa Barbara, but there wasn’t one. I decided to host one myself.
That Saturday I showed up to the event late and a little nervous. A small handful of people were there, and we held signs and made art and made friends. For the first time in a long time I felt a little bit hopeful.
We decided that we wanted to do it again, and maybe invite more people and make a little more noise. “We’ll have music and art and make it fun and peaceful and loving!” we said. We would contact other organizations and see if anyone else wanted to show up with us. For the first time in a long time I didn’t feel sad and alone as the country spiraled downward. I felt connected and excited that other people were out there who felt the same way.
But then I got a message from an old friend asking some difficult questions about how we plan to include black voices, and how we plan to protect people of color who may be targeted by the nature of our event.
I gave her a call and my heart sank as we talked. She tells me that as a black woman and an educator she is afraid that my event will attract young people of color who will then potentially be exposed to both covid and white supremacists, both of which they are more at risk from being hurt by.
I am torn between the need to stand up against the coup, and the desire to protect young people of color who might also want to stand with me. I am not sure where my responsibility lies. Is it my responsibility to stand up to Nazis when I see them, and to do anything and everything I can to impact legislators and the people around me to take action? Or is it my responsibility to model safety to those around me who are more vulnerable than I am? What takes more courage? What will have a greater impact on the world?
While trying to explore these questions we meet with an experienced local activist. She says that we should have “consulted black and brown elders” about the right way to demonstrate. Because we have not done so, the protests we’ve organized are done with the mindset of white supremacy. I’m instructed to speak with a group called SURJ who are white activists who provide support roles to social justice organizations led by people of color.
Reluctantly I agree to talk to a couple of activists from SURJ. I’m feeling increasingly uncomfortable, and I find myself unable to articulate to them how wrong it feels to me to be told that I have to ask permission from a “black or brown elder” if I want to organize a protest against a coup on our government. “I’m not trying to be a white ally.” I say. I want them to understand that it is not that I’m not a white ally either, just that in this instance I’m not trying to stand up in support of someone else’s movement, I'm standing up not just for every American impacted by this, but for myself, my children and my country.
The conversation continues awkwardly until I am told that I can “NEVER FORGET” my whiteness. The pain of this runs so deep I can’t respond. I’m right back in that classroom again. I had hoped that activists from SURJ would want to work with us, and I’ve just royally screwed that up. I feel sad and hurt and defensive and I don't know how to fix it.
I bring all of these questions and concerns back to my amazing little organizing team to see how they want to move forward. We make some changes to emphasize safety including illuminating our car caravan option as a safer way to participate, reiterating our covid safety rules and reminding people of the potential dangers of those who agree with the ideology behind the coup showing up to harass us. We discuss cancelling the event altogether for safety, but ultimately come to the conclusion that “having a vigorous public presence against the coup is itself a public safety benefit.”
This has been an emotional process for me personally, bringing up some very deep feelings. As we head into MLK day weekend, I take heart, and inspiration from him. This morning I watched a speech by Martin Luther King Jr called “The Other America”. In it he talks about the disparities between those who grow up privileged and those who do not. His speech is full of the reality of our country; it's history of slavery, genocide and racism, and the struggle to overcome our past to achieve true liberty and justice for all.
“I realize and understand the discontent and the agony and the disappointment and even the bitterness of those who feel that whites in America cannot be trusted.” he says. “And I would be the first to say that there are all too many who are still guided by the racist ethos. And I am still convinced that there are still many white persons of good will. And I'm happy to say that I see them every day in the student generation who cherish democratic principles and justice above principle, and who will stick with the cause of justice and the cause of Civil Rights and the cause of peace throughout the days ahead. And so I refuse to despair. I think we're gonna achieve our freedom because however much America strays away from the ideals of justice, the goal of America is freedom.”
Hearing that, I do not think MLK would have called me a white supremacist for organizing against this coup as quickly as I knew how. I think he knew, like I know, that you cannot fight racism with racism. The only way to heal from racism is with love, acceptance and understanding.
Tomorrow I will show up in front of my courthouse here in Santa Barbara, and I will help anyone who wishes to show up to do so. Covid is scary right now so I will be doing my best to protect myself and others by wearing an n95 mask, standing 15 feet apart from others while I help to decorate cars and banners so that a car caravan can circle the courthouse, and support those who do not have cars to stand 15 feet apart around the Santa Barbara courthouse in masks holding signs. Together we will ask our legislators to stand strong, and send a powerful message to our community that those who support fascism are not welcome here.
I encourage those who are not in Santa Barbara or unable to attend in person to check out these suggestions for actions of transformation and peace for MLK day.
I hope that wherever you are and however that you are able to that you will show up in some way to join me. Love and peace and acceptance will win in the end, as long as we are willing to fight for it.
1/17/2021 08:07:29 am
This is beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing! As a woman engineer, I spent my working career being constantly aware of my sex, which was exhausting. I see my white son bristling in instances where he is made aware of his color and sex, and I am tempted to say, "Poor baby," but then I marvel at his ability to just go through the world without thinking about either. I am so proud of your honesty in this essay and for you pointing out the very important need to keep our non-white, non-male colleagues safe. White people don't always know what that means. I wish I had the courage to protest this week, but I am honestly afraid of my gun toting fellow Coloradans. So sad!
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Since becoming a mom to a little boy with Trisomy 21 I have written a lot about Down syndrome and disabilities. I am a storyteller, wife and mom to a teen and a toddler. Life is busy!