Today I had to explain to a young African American woman why I was helping remake signs for the Black Lives Matter memorial on campus.
"Why were the first ones taken down?" she inquired innocently.
I tried to focus on making even brush strokes, pinching the too thick paintbrush in an attempt to make a thin line for the letter B.
"They were stolen in the night," I replied.
Her face sunk.
"That's terrible," she breathed, gathering her books to leave the common room.
"I know," I echoed, my voice uncharacteristically quiet and small.
Or at least I'm trying to know.
I can't know, I can't understand, not fully. I am not a person of color, and as much as I attempt to educate myself, to read books and research and listen to the stories of those whose skin does not look like mine, I will never fully comprehend what it is to be a racial minority in America.
That doesn't mean I shouldn't do everything in my power to better understand the realities of racism, and offer my time, voice, and resources to help dismantle systems of injustice.
What it means is that my first responsibility is to listen, and to amplify the voices of those for whom these are lived experiences, above my own. It means that I don't get to be the final word on what does or doesn't exist, or what should or shouldn't happen to bring about justice.
I wiped tears from under my glasses as I walked back to my desk, trying to fathom how any person of color not only deals with systemic racial inequality on a regular basis, but in addition, the voices of the white community constantly telling them their experiences aren't valid. That they are making it up. That they are playing the "race card". That they have a chip on their shoulder. That racism and all of it's effects were dealt with decades ago, and anyone who claims anything different just has a "victim mentality".
I don't understand how that doesn't completely break a person, how it doesn't break a whole community.
I don't understand how the assertion that "Black Lives Matter" could anger someone to the extent that they would tear down signs saying so in the middle of the night.
I don't understand how so many shrug their shoulders at the death of young black men, saying it is a tragedy, but a more or less justifiable one, but become incensed at the suggestion that race may have been a factor, or at the mention of white privilege.
White brothers and sisters---we must begin to talk less, and listen more when it comes to issues of racial inequality. We must rid ourselves of the notion that just because an event didn't include a racial slur or a member of the KKK, that it couldn't have been "about race". We must commit to understand the nature of implicit bias, and it's devastating effects.
Brothers and sisters of color---I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry. This is my pledge to talk less, and to listen more. Your courage and perseverance are nothing short of heroic, and I have much to learn from your example.
“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)