On Sunday, Dahleen Glanton of the Chicago Tribune challenged all of white America to take responsibility for the systemic racism that has existed in this nation since it’s inception. As a captive of my own white privilege, it was a difficult op-ed to read, but there is no shrinking from the truth of her sentiment. It is time for all of us (especially those with white skin) to “look in the mirror”, as she commands, and make a choice about which side of history we want to be on.
If you missed her op-ed, it was published as the cover story in the Viewpoints section in Sunday’s Buffalo News. But her words are such a direct and unflinching call to action for people who look like me, that I wanted to include them here.
White people don’t like watching hardcore racism. Even some law-and-order conservatives are uncomfortable seeing a white cop hold his knee on a black man’s neck and squeeze the life out of him. But somehow, white people always find a way to get over it. You post your angst on social media to show which side you are on. And while the stories make their way through the news cycle, you and your friends lament how awful racism is. Then, before you know it, your drive-by rage is over. You conclude that the terrible incident doesn’t affect you directly. So you drift back into oblivion, convinced there’s nothing you can do about racist cops or racist people or the racist society that breeds them.
But you are wrong. White people, you are the problem.
On May 18, 2012, I was honored to be the student speaker for my commencement ceremony, graduating from the Master’s in Organizational Leadership Program at Medaille College. A large part of my inspiration for this short speech was the verse “I Am The Decisive Element” by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, which reminds each of us that we have tremendous power to be instruments of change through the actions we take – both large and small.
In my speech I noted that
“Next year, every eighth grader in the city of Buffalo who is not selected into a criteria school like City Honors will be going to a school designated as a “failing school” by our government.” I went on to suggest that … “Achieving real change in our education system may be our generation’s civil rights issue and it is problem so complex that it will take the collective action of all of us, wherever we are in the system, to see that everyone has the right and the ability to meaningfully participate in our economy.”
It appears that I was quite wrong. This generation’s civil rights issue demands first that we stop killing black parents before we turn our attention to educating their children.
Four years later, on Dec 16, 2016, I posted an article on LinkedIn also inspired by the poem “I Am The Decisive Element”. This article was in response to the divisive presidential election campaign and the hateful rhetoric it spawned that split the country in two. Recognizing then that everyone is either part of the problem or part of the solution, I pledged to be an agent for change and The Decisive Element that Von Goethe was challenging me to be. My pledge at the time was to be …
[A] co-creator of a community in which everyone is safe, valued and able to meaningfully contribute. In all my interactions, I will strive to withhold judgment, and listen deeply to the needs behind the words that others use, even when those words are unkind or painful to hear. I expect to fail on occasion, maybe even often, but I may also sometimes succeed, and this possibility seems worthy of my best efforts in 2017.
When I reflect on how well I lived up to my pledge, I believe that I made some small but meaningful steps in the direction of my intention. However, after reading Dahleen Glanton’s “Look in the Mirror, White America” op-ed, I must honestly admit that I did not make anywhere near enough effort, nor did I use the platforms that come with my white privilege to meaningfully move the needle on matters that matter. With objective distance, my 2012 speech and the 2016 article feel awfully like “posting my angst” and “declaring which side I am on”, but not materially investing in actions that drive meaningful change.
Dahleen Glanton called me out. Ouch.
Paraphrasing her op-ed once more … I am well aware of the racial injustices that occur every day, but if someone were to ask me why I did nothing for Breonna Taylor, Laquan McDonald, Eric Gardner, Rekia Boyd, Botham Jean, Walter Scott or Atatiana Jefferson, I did say that I did not know what to do.
So I pledge once again to be “The” Decisive Element from Von Goethe’s verse, because Ms. Glanton, you are right. It is no longer acceptable to stand, paralyzed on the sidelines. It is time to figure out what to do and do it.
I am the problem, but I can also be the solution.
With respect, I don’t believe that I need to assess my attitude towards racism, although I agree that there are many people who allow themselves to remain trapped in their unexamined narratives about the problem of racial inequity in America. I have no doubt that black and white experiences in America are largely determined by systemic forces and institutionalized racism that hold both black and white people hostage and prevent us from seeing each other as unique members of one community, equally deserving of justice and the pursuit of happiness. In many ways it is harder to admit that despite my understanding, I have done little to effect change. Ignorance is one thing, indifference (or to be a little kinder to myself, inaction) is quite another. But, following the advice in your op-ed,
1. I will more honestly accept that attitudes and understanding alone will not manifest the kind of world in which black lives – black education – black experiences matter. I will own that the stories I have told myself and the excuses I have made for my inaction will no longer suffice.
2. I pledge to listen more to black people and take deliberate steps to expand my circle of black friends and acquaintances, making dialogue with black people and understanding of black perspectives a priority.
3. I will be guided by these conversations to take small but significant actions that will drive change so that in four years’ time, when I am again called to account for the ways in which I have been The Decisive Element, I can recognize the courage I found and the personal investment I made in facilitating a change that is long overdue.
No Time now for No Action
Please be assured that the racists who are counting on me doing nothing will be disappointed.
As a first (small) step in manifesting this commitment, I would like to invite others to join me in exploring the question that is the title of this post – From where I stand, how can I serve?
On the Third Thursday of every month, I host a free (Zoom) conversation exploring how to manifest the visions we hold for the future. At the end of our conversion, everyone is offered the chance to commit to a “tiny habit” that helps us put into practice any insights we have realized during the conversation – in effect moving us us from insight to action. These conversations normally avoid political topics, but given the events of the past two weeks, and the pledge I have just made in this article, the focusing question for this month’s conversation is “From Where I Stand, How Can I Serve?” My hope is that this conversation will offer people the kind of space I pledged to create in 2016 – one which allows us to share our own viewpoints and hear the perspectives of others in an environment which is free from judgement.
The June “Third Thursday” conversation will take place via zoom on Thursday June 18th, 2020 at 6:15 pm. Please email me if you would like to join us, so I can add your name to the Zoom invitation.