We were driving to the beach yesterday, my husband and I listening to the new Avett Brothers album in the front while Jonah and Silas rode in the back. Silas had nodded off for an early nap, and Jonah was probably anticipating time in the water and building sand castles. My mind wandered as we broke past the borders of our hometown and set off up highway 57 toward Door County.
That morning, while we were running around picking up the house before setting off on our adventure, my husband had texted me a picture.
My boys are two and four now, and the warm, fuzzy sibling moments we imagined when I was pregnant with Silas are now a regular occurrence. Don’t get me wrong, we get our fair share of sibling squabbling too. But it’s hard not to feel like it’s all worth it when you get to witness heart melting moments like this. My phone is full of similar images – the two of them spooning as they sleep together or hugging each other as they watch PBS kids – and they never fail to make me stop and check myself. Seeing your children love each other so purely and unguardedly is the most beautiful thing a parent can see.
To test my theory, I asked Ned while we drove: “What is the most beautiful, wonderful, heart melting thing in the entire world for you right now?”
Ned thought about it for a moment and then responded, “Seeing our boys love each other.”
I’ll admit it, I really like being right, so part of me appreciated that I’d predicted his answer correctly. But another part of me broke a bit, and I could feel my eyes well up with tears. I didn’t want to say what I was going to say next, but it felt like it had to be said.
“If there is a god, and that god is a mother and father to all of us, how must it feel right now to see us murdering each other on a daily basis?”
And that image is haunting me, sisters. I don’t ascribe to any particular dogma, but I am extremely spiritual. I believe there is something or someone out there who, out of a sense of love, gave us life and free will, so that we could journey through this life together. And, like regular old human parents, I’m sure that he or she didn’t anticipate that things would always be easy. I’m sure there was an understanding that growing often happens through the tough experiences. But nobody anticipates that their children will murder each other over their skin color. Or, as in Dallas, for cold-blooded revenge. All I can believe is that God is watching us with heartbroken horror right now.
I believe that the vast majority of Americans don’t believe racism is right. This is not to say that the majority of Americans are completely free of racism. That’s not true. I think it’s pretty much impossible for a white person in America, growing up in a system that is so weighted in their favor, to fully understand or appreciate what it’s like to live as a person of color in our country. Nobody can completely understand an experience that they haven’t personally lived through. I can have sympathy for black mothers who have fears and worries that I’ve never had to think about, but I can’t completely understand what it’s like. When my family set off for a road trip to the beach yesterday, my biggest concern was that I remembered the sunscreen and swim diapers, not getting pulled over for a traffic violation and having it escalate to violence.
However, while we all have our prejudices to acknowledge and challenge and hopefully overcome, I also believe that the great majority of Americans feel that people being discriminated against – and even killed – for the color of their skin is horribly wrong. I can’t speak for people of color, although I can imagine that it’s terrifying and frustrating to witness this violence over and over and over again. I obviously can’t speak for all white people either. But for a lot of us, when we see racist violence on the news, it induces a tremendous amount of sadness and shame. We don’t believe that people of any color should be treated like that, but we don’t know how to make it stop. We know that we are sheltered from it by our own white skin, and we feel embarrassed by our own part in a system that would treat other people so unfairly because of their skin color.
But the truth is that we don’t know what to do about it. We can recognize that the system is inherently corrupt, but just like other issues where the realities don’t reflect the will of the people – for example, getting laws passed to close loopholes on background checks for gun purchases, which the majority of Americans support – we don’t know what to do. So we might speak up – although given our limited personal experience with race relations, there’s a good chance we’ll screw up and say something offensive without intending to. Some of us have gotten the message that it’s more important to listen, so we’ll try to do that – although that seems far too passive to alleviate our part in a broken system. So some of us vote in a way that we think will best address the challenges facing people of color in our country. But really, is addressing racism something that you can only do in the voting booth?
I don’t know what that answer is. I don’t even know if what I wrote here is totally offensive for some reason I can’t recognize from the perspective of my own sheltered existence.
But right now, I think that the voices of hate and violence have far too much power in our country. A handful of hateful, violent people are writing the narrative of how we relate to each other.
It reminds me of a scene from The Usual Suspects with Kevin Spacey. One of the characters is telling a story about the criminal mastermind Keyser Soze. A rival gang showed up at his house and threatened to kill his family, and Keyser Soze turned and killed his own family before they could do it. Why? Because the person who is willing to do what the other person won’t do holds all of the power. If Keyser Soze was willing to kill his own family, this rival gang could hold no power over him.
Essentially, isn’t that what’s happening right now? There are people who are willing to use hate and violence to gain power, so the rest of us are left feeling powerless with our fear and frustration and shame. So what can we do – those of us who aren’t willing to embrace hatred and violence – to take the power back? What can we do that these other people are unwilling to?
All I can think of is love. Not just love, but love that is downright radical in our highly individualistic culture. The kind of love that sees the whole – all of us, white or black – as more important than our own individual lives. And honestly, I’m not even sure what that looks like specifically. I probably need to turn back to that image of my children and tap into the best parts of being a parent: forgiveness, sacrifice, empathy, understanding, patience. And then I need to start more mindfully applying those traits to my interactions with everyone.
I’m going to keep thinking about what I can do – what I need to do – in my own life to address racial discrimination in America. I’ve been making an effort to listen more – actively listen – when people of color choose to share their experiences. I’ve been learning to sit with the discomfort when my privileges are pointed out to me. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but if the payoff is increased understanding, it’s a fair price. And the discomfort hasn’t actually hurt me yet.
And I’m going to think about what radical love would look like. Radical, culture-changing love that refuses to see people as an “other” due to the color of their skin but recognizes them as the children of god – our brothers and sisters – that they truly are.