Shortly before publishing a post I had written several days ago, I decided to put it to the side and write something different. Last week, a man gunned down Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Ethel Lance. They were at church, in their Bible study, communing with the man who would soon violently end their lives.
I saw the news late Wednesday night, shortly before going to bed. The headline popped up on my computer and my heart immediately sank. No. Not again. Please, God, no. I just . . . can’t. I can’t read another example of a real life circumstance so blatantly highlighting the systemic racism still very much alive in our country. I can’t handle the grief or the rage right now. Why are people still losing their lives to senseless violence; and, more specifically, why are black lives ended and white hands so often pulling the trigger?
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read the breaking news story about the Charleston shooting that night. I admit it: I avoided it. I went to sleep. The next day, I woke up and, you guessed it, the story was still there—on the internet, in the papers, in conversation—for me to engage. Even still, I simply began my day just like any other. It was when I was in the bathroom of the sweet little apartment I share with my best friend that my avoidance shattered. I went into the bathroom and, when fumbling around in the cabinet, I dropped the toothpaste on the floor. As I leaned down to pick it up, I noticed our [admittedly dirty] floor, and all that it had collected in our recent negligence to clean. What I saw were strands of our hair—hers and mine (We shed a little sometimes, okay?!). Intermingled there on the bathroom floor, alongside and within the dust, were pieces of black and blonde hair. Hers and mine.
It wasn’t a sight unseen before, but it was one that hit me differently than it ever had. I sat on the floor with the dust and the hair and the toothpaste, and I wept unreservedly. I know, it’s “just hair.” It all fell out of our heads and landed on this floor that we haven’t gotten around to cleaning yet.
However, that “just hair” represents a wealth of differences between our two lives. My dear friend is black. I am white.
The lives of those 9 people who were shot at church in Charleston had hair (and skin) the color of hers; the shooter had hair (and skin) the color of mine. These things happening in our country cannot be avoided, because differences as futile as black and white are ending lives. I don’t say this to try and induce some sort of “white guilt” in myself or other white people; I say it because people who say racism is still alive in this country aren’t making things up. Thank you, God, my friend has not been in a setting where she has been face to face with a gun, but we do notice when the nail technician seats and treats me first, before her; or when the waitress only makes contact with me, not her; and/or when the waitress asks only me if I’m ready for the bill, as if my friend cannot or will not contribute any form of payment.
They are slight, sometimes hardly noticeable happenings, but they happen. I don’t need to see a white supremicist kill nine people at their Bible study to know that racism is thriving. Do you?
Several years ago, an old friend and I got ourselves into a dangerous and stupid situation (as I was so good at doing in my early-twenties). I won’t go into details, but will say that I ended up with 13 stitches in my upper back. It was a terribly painful injury, physically speaking, but I was also incredibly ashamed and embarrassed about it. I told nearly no one, not wanting others to see me as immature, irresponsible, or unwise (though all of those things were true, to some degree!).
Nearly 24 hours after the injury, I caved. I had to share the truth with at least a few people who could help me. Due to the placement of the cut, I was unable to reach the wound myself, making it impossible for me to change the dressings on my own. In fact, it was nearly impossible for me to even see this gaping laceration on my body. Slowly, I began telling some family members and close friends what had happened to me, receiving their assistance and advice as I healed.
This is not a new concept. We know that, oftentimes, when we bring things out “into the light,” it serves us well. I was able to say, “Hey, this happened. I’m ashamed and embarrassed by my actions. And will you help me?”
Racism has been with this country for as long as it has been a country. It isn’t an isolated thing from the 1960’s; it’s been a thing and continues to be. Many of us may not yet be aware of our own racism; the nail technician may not even realize she consistently invited me to sit and be pampered first; the waitress may not recognize that she is asking me all of the questions or making direct eye contact only with me. Just because we don’t use derogatory language or commit a hate crime doesn’t mean we are free from our own racism. We’ve all been raised in a society where racism is, at the very least, an undercurrent. Today, still, the hair and skin of my friend often warrants people to treat her differently than they treat me.
I see the “they’re just a thug” blame game when a black man gets gunned down by a white person for carrying a water gun or whatever. It’s violent language and it’s just not always true. It’s a way for us to escape the horrifying truth that racism is real and it is happening now.
The blame game was quiet after the shooting in Charleston. These, after all, were simply people in their church, reading their Bible together. So how do we escape the horrifying truth of racism now?
Well, many of us might ignore it. Maybe we just focus on other news articles. Or we stay off of the internet for a while, to wait for this to pass.
Dear people, it’s not passing. This is real. It is happening. And we need to start talking about it. We all have a “wound,” so to speak, that we need help with. Many of us have educations/learning experiences that have failed us in the realm of cultural studies. Some of us were raised in neighborhoods without much diversity. Many of us are scared to offend, so we just keep quiet. But we can’t do it anymore. We just can’t. We’re bleeding out, people. Some, LITERALLY, are bleeding out and losing their lives to this social issue. Others of us are harmed and doing harm while having to pretend like this isn’t a thing and we’re not a part of it.
It’s like a wound on our back that we can’t see and/or reach all alone. We need one another. We need to say, “This is where I’m at and I’m embarrassed or ashamed at my actions/ignorance/etc., but I need and want to be a part of this conversation.” Because our lives depend on it. Until we can say, “My hair is blonde, yours is black—that makes you different from me, but what is that difference? Who are you? Tell me your story….”, our wounds will remain open, perpetuating harm. Our kids will see we ignore our bleeding back, so maybe they do it, too. It’s a cycle set in place for us, and we are the ones that can push back on it to bring about some actual healing here. Our hair color, skin color, eye color, or nail polish color does not tell our whole story. Your black hair doesn’t make you a thug, as my blonde hair doesn’t make me material for “dumb blonde” jokes. The colors that make up our body can help to tell the story of who we are and where we come from, but they do not define us completely.
[As a sidenote: I don’t believe this warrants white people to approach people of color and ask them to be their teacher in this realm, so to speak. We, as white people, in particular, need to take some initiative. Need books/articles/movies? I’ve got some suggestions from kind and wise people who have passed them to me!]
We have to talk—to one another and to the stereotypes that have built their homes within us. Why every church in America did not or has not thrown out the sermon for the week to talk about what is happening in and to our country in response to the Charleston shooting (or the countless shootings prior), I don’t know. We’re going to stumble and bumble our way through many of these conversations (I know I very much am both stumbling and bumbling, as I enter this societal conversation.). It’s going to be messy and awkward and hard. And yet, the alternative isn’t working out very well for us, as coffins continued to be lowered into the ground.
Let’s stumble and bumble and be humbled together now, shall we? Let’s stop brushing away the conversation with insulting remarks or claims of being “colorblind.” We’re not all the same! We’re gloriously different! Our differences do not call for violence; they deserve celebration, curiosity, and respect. For the love of each other, let us stumble and bumble.