Activism is defined in the Webster dictionary as “the practice based on direct action to effect changes in social conditions, government, etc”. I can only use the term loosely describing myself considering that I struggle finding my place in this cause. However, I strongly believe that unless I am actively fighting against racism, I am contributing to its survival.
In February of 2013, a life-altering shift in my perception of this country began. Each February, schools “celebrate” Black history month and my biracial daughter was seven years old at the time. I realized how vitally important it was to expound on the Black history taught in schools in view of the rudimentary curriculum. My quest to research everything I could about Black history and racial injustice began.
I was raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. To say that Sioux Falls lacks diversity would be an understatement. I only remember having one Black classmate throughout my entire school-age years so my exposure to any other race was limited. Racism, as a social issue, was rarely discussed in my home. Any classroom lessons on racism were told from the white narrative of conveying a feel good message about how far we have progressed in the area of equality. We reveled in the fact that we were not like “those people” who executed such horrific acts so long ago.
My first exposure to any overt racism related to a Black person occurred when visiting my grandfather. My mother was raised in Missouri and we traveled to Missouri to visit our grandparents a couple times a year. As we were all watching a football game on TV, a Black football player was running from halfway down the field toward the end zone. My grandfather became very animated and blurted out, “look at that ni**er run”. My brother and I were appalled, as we had never heard anyone use a racial slur before. However, despite this incident and our lack of proper education about racism, my brother and I grew up strongly believing it was wrong.
I understood that racism still existed and I looked at white supremacists with disdain for being the source of such hatred. By limiting racism to individual acts of bigotry and prejudice, I was incapable of examining the root of the problem. However, as I began critical self-reflection, I realized I had my own implicit racial prejudices. Like many white people, my naïveté put me in a position of believing that when Black or Brown people railed against injustice, they exaggerated or revealed their hypersensitivity. I have made that assumption myself frequently.
I was taught that it is not polite to notice racial differences. While I believe most people have good intentions, I have learned the notion of colorblind thinking ignores cultural backgrounds, history and experiences and it also discourages any discussion about race. To ignore race is to deny that racial inequality exists. We, as white people, like to say we don’t see race concluding this actually benefits people of color. Furthermore, this makes us feel superior to those who spew racial hatred. If we ignore race, we also ignore their culture, language, contributions to this country and their personal life experiences. I have come to understand racism as a system that privileges whites for the color of our skin while it disadvantages people of color. White privilege means I do not have to think about being white. White privilege, however, does put me in a unique position to contribute to the fight against racism.
Today I ask myself frequently, What can I do? I can continue to educate myself and others that share my racial identity. I can challenge racial stereotypes, both my own, as well as, others. I can speak up about the insensitivity of racist jokes and comments. I can observe and I can stand against injustice when I see it. I can use my white privilege to do my part in bettering a broken system.
Additionally, I felt it was essential to step out of my established social circles and actively seek out a more diverse group of friends. This has not only been beneficial for my daughters to be exposed to different cultures, but it has also helped me to dispel more stereotypes that have been buried in my subconscious for much of my life. However, I find it extremely challenging in South Dakota to expose my daughter to a community that is reflective of her racial identity.
This process has been disheartening at times as my mind is in constant turmoil of having this insight but not knowing exactly what to do with it. This process has been painful as I understand on a much deeper level what we, as white people, have done to Black people in particular. I know I can never come close to comprehending the depth of pain Black people have suffered from the effects of racism, however as a result of this journey a different kind of pain, outrage and empathy has emerged. Racism has certainly not been eradicated. It is only disguised more effectively today.
Every so often, just gaining an intellectual understanding of white privilege drives a person toward taking action. Other times, it requires understanding how racism will affect a loved one to grasp the necessity of fighting against racial injustice. For me it was both. I initially started this journey of education for my daughter. Once I saw the truth, I knew, for me personally, silence was no longer an option. My aim is not to help or save the Black community as they certainly do not need to be rescued. It is about joining in solidarity with them, listening to them, and contributing to dismantling the system of white supremacy and oppression that hurts all of us.
“Those of us who know the truth and do nothing are worse than the murderers hired in our name.” – James Baldwin