Etched in Stone

I’ve spent a lot of time angry over the past few days. Just generally angry. I contemplate what I’m angry about, who I am angry at, and I don’t have a lot of insight for myself. I know what sparked my anger — and maybe it’s at this moment that you’re moving to click the red circle on your screen and closing your laptop. Because I’m about to bring up the thing that everyone is talking about: Charlottesville.

I found myself in an especially confusing situation on Saturday. We went to the National Museum for African American History and Culture and then came home and watched Selma, and I was deeply moved. The museum was nothing short of a work of art, invoking sadness and sympathy and rage in my heart to a degree I haven’t felt in a while. How could they let this happen? I fumed. The people like me — the white people who sat in the front of the bus and drank from the sanitary drinking fountains. Why didn’t they do more?

A few weeks ago at the Holocaust museum I grazed my fingers over the stone wall etched with names of people who hid Jews in their attics, their basements, and under their floorboards. I hoped that by touching their names I could absorb some of their courage, some of their tenacity. I ached for them to help me answer the horrifying question running circles in my mind, would my name be etched in stone?

Then on Saturday night I read headline after headline, on Sunday and then Monday I longed for my president to feel the same disgust I did. I got angrier and angrier. I started asking, how are we letting this happen? Why aren’t we doing more? Something is crippling us, something is holding us back. I think, as history repeats itself, these same hesitations cycle throughout centuries as well.

We’re held back by laziness. If you, like me, are white, straight, and financially secure (even if you’re a poor-ish college student or new grad with a lot of student loans you do not count as financially insecure in this scenario), your failure to act does not affect you. If I do not stand up to racism, hatred, or persecution, my privilege is unchanged. In fact, the white supremacists that marched in Charlottesville were seeking to advance the likes of people just like me. It is so much easier to glance at the news or swipe through social media and respond, “I just don’t want to deal with this. It makes me sad, it makes me confused. I don’t know how I can really help. I’m just not going to think about it.”  Kristen Tea of MotherWise recently addressed white people like me. She said, “I want my friends to understand that ‘staying out of politics’ or being ‘sick of politics’ is privilege in action. Your privilege allows you to live a non-political existence. Your wealth, your race, your abilities or your gender allows you to live a life in which you likely will not be a target of bigotry, attacks, deportation, or genocide. You don’t want to get political, you don’t want to fight because your life and safety are not at stake.” My privilege might allow me to be indifferent, but it demands me to act.

We’re also held back by politics — the dirty word, that, for me, is a necessary evil. I admire my friends who work in politics and maintain their sanity. They are warriors and superheroes and probably could walk through a rainstorm with all of their makeup still intact. For me, politics are like a tornado. I think I can just clear my throat and raise my hand a bit, piping up with one small thought, but before I know it I’m being spun around, I’m nauseated and whiplashed. Stopping isn’t even a consideration when everything is moving so fast I can hardly see. I get so angry and worked up and opinionated without even trying, like there is lava in my toes and someone has flipped me upside down. When the cyclone finally calms and lets me down I’m dizzy and confused and wondering how I moved 100 miles in just a few minutes. Somehow politics incites a strong reaction in all of us. We lump issues into package deals and labeled them “Democrat” and “Republican.” We choose to make a simple decision between one party or politician and another instead of looking critically at the issues. Let me be clear: I am not talking about how you vote. I am talking about letting politicians do the hard things for us. We glorify a movement or a political party, we think they’ll save America and the world, but swiftly and silently we become further and further distanced from the cry of our own hearts. We become so loyal to a leader or an ideology that we feel compelled to defend every piece of it, giving it some kind of authority over our lives and our ethics. We become protective and prideful because we need to justify our vote or our party and we begin to compromise. Please, please bring your convictions to the ballot box. Please vote and take responsibility for our government, but do not let a political party become your god. Our political system is broken and fallen because we, selfish and sinful people, created it all by ourselves.

Too often we hesitate, we bite our tongues, because we’re worried that saying or doing something will make us seem too political, or we fantasize a political giant and align ourselves with all of their perspectives. Our politicians will fail us just like our friends, our spouses, our siblings, our co-workers. They are imperfect like the rest of us — do not let your voice be silenced because you’re worried about standing in contrast with a person or party that is fallen just like everything else in this world.

Maybe, more than anything else, we’re held back by fear. Our conscience flits frantically like a bird in a cage but we’re terrified what might happen if we let it sing. We’re worried about the backlash, the sacrifice, or people disagreeing with us. We don’t want to confront the darkness in our own hearts or give up our comfortable existence. Every time, though, that I let myself be overtaken by fear I end up in the fetal position in a corner — ashamed, crippled, confused. My selfishness does damage to my friends and my family. Every time I let fear get the best of me I pay the price later.

I don’t know what holds you back, but these are my vices: laziness, politics, and fear. I write this to myself like a pep talk. These are the words I declare to myself in the mirror when I wake up only to find myself in the same place at the end of the day firmly whispering, “why can’t you just listen to yourself?” But lately I have been trying to ask myself something different — “How am I letting this happen? How can I do more?”

I do not want to be namelessly, shamefully lumped into the crowd of bystanders who were too lazy, too neutral, too cowardly. There is no room for that in my convictions or in my morality. I want my name to be etched in stone.

I write this as a confession, a challenge, and an inquiry. “Doing more” looks clean on paper but messy in action — what does that look like for you? What should it look like for me? I feebly try but I admit that most often it is to satisfy my guilt and my conscience. I try to do something, anything, without knowing how impactful it will truly be. If I have learned one thing so far in my (infant) career it is that people outside of problems often have the worst solutions. As a white, middle-class citizen I am not an expert on how to bring justice and respect to minorities, poor people, immigrants, and other marginalized communities. If you have insight, I am hungry for it. Where I am going to begin — and some advice if you’re looking for any — I’ve come across these book recommendations about racial reconciliation: The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander), Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates), Citizen (Claudia Rankine), and Waking Up White (Debby Irving). They are at the top of my reading list.

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