What can I say? What can I do?

I as a white woman have seen a different world than some of my brothers and sisters.

I am a mother. I have a son with white skin. I don’t have to fear for him in the same way black mothers or white mothers to black children fear for their own. Because of his skin color, my son is safer than others.

When I’m distressed, when I’m scared or angry or hurt, I don’t often speak out. I retreat into myself, lick my wounds. I read books and am comforted by the pain of others. We all feel pain. We have all been hurt and have all felt loss. Reading heals me. The best books for me are the ones with hardness in them. Toni Morrison is one of my favorite authors. She writes quick and raw and true to the bone. Her novels have given me an added perspective. Her novels of black women, young black girls, and black men have given me a glimpse into an experience that was not my own. Books offer something that TV doesn’t: diverse casts.

When I learned about racism I was pretty young. I felt ashamed. I felt guilty. I felt angry and confused. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that I was treated differently because of my skin. I was confused by racism and sexism and my label as white female, and I kept reading voices of people other than me. And voices that represent some or all of my label. But I could forget these injustices here and there because they weren’t affecting me.

For the past week I have cried in the shower before bed, confused and angry and deeply saddened. And I kept thinking, what can I do? What can I say?

lisa congdon art
art by Lisa Congdon

The recent events have been horrific, just as I was horrified and angry years ago when Trayvon Martin died, and again when his killer was not punished. I kept my anger and sadness and disappointment in the system to myself. I am not a black woman, and my husband is not black. I didn’t think I had a place to speak out. But I was wrong.

And then most recently, more killings that should not have happened. Lives that should not have been taken. People with families that love them.

I kept my eyes open to the news, my heart open to the pain. I kept silent on social media. What do I say? What can I do? The problem is nebulous and deep and layered. How can I possibly change anything? How does sharing my own pain, my own heartbreak help? Can it actually hurt somehow, for me to share? Are my feelings important, or are they just jumbling up the conversation, distracting from the injustices happening around me?

To try to find the words for this is weird, but what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t think my voice – as what we’ve labeled with our sharp lines as a “white woman” – was relevant.

A few weeks ago my dad hounded me to listen to a podcast, an episode of This American Life called The Birds and The Bees. (The podcast was on talking to your children about tough issues, namely Sex, Race, and Death. You can find it here.)

In the podcast Kadijah Means, a young black female activist, said what we need is not to be “color blind” but to be “color competent.” That hit me, it stayed with me for days. Color competent. See the colors of the skin and celebrate them. See them as a living rainbow, as a spectrum of humanity, of a diverse beauty.

Kadijah Means also says her father taught her at a young age that race is a social construct. I was chopping an onion when she said that and my eyes were already stinging from the sharp white juice. I had never heard anyone describe race in that way. A social construct. Hmm. I stopped preparing dinner and gave the woman my full attention. I listened to this podcast a few weeks before the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Diversity is a great thing. Color blindness is not real, and it’s not what we should strive for.

I live in a diverse community. My family is one of two white families on our street. Here, I am a minority. I didn’t notice until I moved out of a mostly white community that I was in fact IN a mostly white community. Now the faces around me are of varying shades. I see brown faces, tan faces, dark black faces that are almost purple. I see white faces, light brown faces, faces brown as the fertile earth. Each is beautiful in its own way. When you look in the faces, each has eyes and ears. Each is someone’s child, a son or daughter. Some, many, are someone’s parents. Mothers and fathers. Aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. Each has struggles and joys that are unknown to us. We are strangers.

Yet, when you live in a community that is more diverse, or when you go to restaurants or shops of people whose faces are a different color than yours, you start talking to them. You see that they are more like you than different.

Is it hurting us that we aren’t talking about it? It’s painful and uncomfortable to talk about.

A former classmate of mine, a white man, very tall and very good at the piano, now lives abroad. He wrote on Facebook about Black Lives Matter. He was outraged that people couldn’t see what the movement really was: “a cry for help.” And it is. That’s what I feel when I hear it — please! Let us live!

To respond to “black lives matter” with “all lives matter” might feel right to you. That’s because IT IS RIGHT. We want all lives to matter. That’s all we want. All lives should indeed matter, and we all want them to. But they don’t yet.

I look at my son sleeping and I am mad that my sister, who may have a black son, could be looking down at her son too. And while I am thinking I hope my son grows into a strong man that’s also kind, she may be wishing her future hypothetical son into a quiet man who doesn’t rustle feathers. And even then, many of my black sisters and brothers are afraid for their sons’ lives. Their sons and their daughters. They are afraid he’ll be seen as a threat just holding Skittles or wearing a hoodie. Just for playing with a toy gun. Just for being black. They’re afraid and they should be. I am afraid for them, too. I am for the kids I see walking around my neighborhood. I’m hoping they’ll be treated fairly.

But to my original question, the question of what can I say? The more real question of What can I do? The answer is: say something. Say it’s not right. And now I see: my silence was consent. By not talking about it, I was saying it’s OK. And it most certainly IS NOT OK.

Our race is human, and the beauty industry tells us the color of “flesh” is closer to the white side of the spectrum. Flesh color instead is an immense and captivating spectrum. Our human race has skin deep black that is almost purple, our skin is medium brown and tan and white. Some skin is the whitest white that is almost purple. Don’t you see how it wraps back around? How it’s all connected?

To my black sisters and brothers, I am deeply sorry it took me this long to say: Enough. Black Lives Matter. I am with you.

I will do what I can. I will keep my eyes open for opportunities to end this. I will talk to my son openly and honestly about his privilege. I will work hard to give him a heart of love and inclusiveness, a heart that embraces everyone equally. I truly believe we have the power to change this, to right this wrong.

In love and peace and togetherness,

excerpt from Letter from a Birmingham Jail

16 April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

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