Revealing book club
A few months ago, our nation watched in horror as George Floyd died with a police officer’s knee on his neck. Floyd uttered the now famous sentence, heard at protests throughout the country: “I can’t breathe.”
Reading about Floyd’s story — and the story of many black men like him — I couldn’t breathe either. I felt like I had to do something. I couldn’t stay in my comfortable space knowing the black community continues to inhabit a decidedly uncomfortable space. So I reached out to a friend in the Eureka Springs community.
“How do you think white people can encourage other white people to support black lives?” I wrote to her. “I want to do all I can to help.”
“Yes, yes!” she responded. “I care immensely and I want to be actively anti-racist.”
She sent me an email inviting me to an anti-racist book club, which I immediately accepted. Our first book was White Fragility, written by a woman with experience in diversity training. Written for and by a white person, the book allowed us all to let down our defenses and start to confront our own implicit bias.
I’ll be honest — it was tough to face some hard truths in the book. I grew up in a small town in southwest Arkansas where my school took us on field trips to pick cotton and, especially disturbingly, to the “hanging tree.” It is exactly as it sounds. In 2009, my school made state news for refusing to take a day off in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We welcomed our first black student in 2008. I’ve heard the n-word more than I’d ever like to admit — at school, at home and even at public places like the grocery store.
I vividly remember having dinner one night and asking my stepfather to “please avoid using the n-word” around me. He told me it was his house and he could say whatever he wanted. I knew it wasn’t right, but I had no agency back then. I felt that I had to accept the racism that surrounded me, because standing against it would mean ridicule from my peers and some family members. It didn’t occur to me that any bullying I’d experience for standing against racism would pale in comparison to what black people experience on a daily basis.
That brings me to the biggest lesson I took away from White Fragility: There’s so much fear and guilt involved with confronting racial bias within yourself, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid taking that journey. Here are a few other things I have learned from the books we’ve read and the conversations we’ve had:
1. It’s OK to admit you have benefited from racial privilege, and it’s OK to change your perspective when you do.
2. Black people have been oppressed in our country from day one. That’s a fact, but I’ve heard many white people deny it.
3. To truly support the black community, white people must hold other white people accountable for the racist things they say and do.
4. The key to all of this is humility. When we truly humble ourselves, we are capable of boundless empathy for others.
This week, I have a challenge for you. I’m not asking you to read White Fragility or to confront any privilege you may have. All I ask is that you humble yourself and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Imagine seeing your brothers and sisters murdered by those who have sworn to protect us every three or four months, almost like clockwork. How would you feel? Would you want to see change?
I ask this with humility as a person who has shamefully failed to stand against racism in the past. Do you believe that black lives matter? I do, and I hope you do, too.