I don’t often find myself at a loss for words, but I have been lately. I wish I were an artist, and could capture what I’m feeling in a moving, poignant rendering that could be quickly viewed and digested by others. But words are all I have. So here it goes.
I have never enjoyed history. History class was always my least favorite—the class where names and dates (which I could never remember or keep straight) blurred hopelessly together, and where I’d fall asleep regularly, despite my most valiant efforts not to (because I am also a rule follower and falling asleep in class was against the rules, right?).
But history is important. Understanding it brings power. And I’m only just beginning to learn that.
I hate the idea of performative allyship, where you publicly pledge solidarity to a cause but don’t actually change anything. So recently when the #BlackLivesMatter movement became personal for me due to my connections in the literary world (yes, in case you're wondering, I have left Red Sofa Literary), I realized I needed to do more to educate myself. I have had the luxury of avoiding this issue for far too long and I’m only just now seeing that THAT IS THE PROBLEM!
Until this point, I thought: I’m a nice person. I’ve never hurt or mistreated anybody. So I can’t be part of the problem, and can therefore ignore it, right?
Wrong. On both counts.
So I started educating myself by reading post after post, article after article, written by my friends of color, friends of friends, and other people of color in America, across multiple social media platforms. And let me tell you, my eyes are being opened. And I am deeply sorry I stayed asleep for so long.
After reading so many personal experiences of people who face racism, both overtly and subtly, every day of their lives, I picked up the books ME AND WHITE SUPREMACY, and STAMPED: RACISM, ANTIRACISM, AND YOU (and, okay, quite a lot of fiction books by and about POC, since fiction is my first true love). And then I started reading.
And there is one thing I read so far that has stuck out to me more than the rest. It’s been sitting in the forefront of my mind for days, causing me to see the history I’ve been taught my whole life in a completely different way.
This is a passage from the book STAMPED (which should be required reading for EVERYONE thirteen and up, by the way) by Jason Reynolds (adapted from the original book by Ibram Kendi). The passage quoted below is about the events surrounding Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia in 1676 (a full hundred years BEFORE the Declaration of Independence).
Reynolds says, “Bacon declared liberty for all servants and Blacks, because, as far as he was concerned, though they were different races, they were the same class and should be united against the true enemy—rich Whites. But the governor knew if Blacks and Whites joined forces, he’d be done. Everything would be done. It would’ve been an apocalypse. So, he had to devise a way to turn poor Whites and poor Blacks against each other, so that they’d be forever separated and unwilling to join hands and raise fists against the elite. And the way he did this was by creating (wait for it… ) white privileges.” (pg 26)
My jaw practically dropped to the floor when I read this. According to Reynolds, white privilege was a thing created, on purpose, with the intent of dividing the people. And it was done in order to protect the interests of wealthy landowners. It also appears that before this time, the term White was not used to describe people. Early colonists were simply described by the term “people of European descent.”
The only conclusion I can come to is that dividing the races by giving them the terms White and Black, and establishing certain privileges for White people meant to give them an overinflated sense of self-importance, was all very deliberate. And that divide was then cooked into the system, so that by the time the United States of America was even established, the idea of white privilege was so ingrained as to be often unnoticeable as a force actively at work. (More on division in a moment).
In stating all of this, please forgive my simplistic view of history—I did some digging, and it appears that Bacon’s rebellion was complex and involved a lot of parties with varying agendas, and historians today still debate the causes of the rebellion. So please forgive any nuances I am overlooking. As I said in the beginning, I am not a history buff, by any means.
But the point I am trying to make—what I feel I’ve learned—is that it seems clear to me that when people say racism is systemic, this is what they mean: it was DELIBERATELY baked into the system of our lives hundreds of years ago.
So in order to dismantle it, we are also going to have to be DELIBERATE.
It’s going to take every single white person working to change the way they see the world and the way they see race going forward. It’s not enough to say this doesn’t affect me and so I’m not part of the problem. Nothing will ever change that way. We have to educate ourselves, and we have to do it on purpose.
Here is how I am working to change myself:
Read, and HEAR the experiences of others. Don’t look away when the truths get hard.
Recognize and understand that I am part of the problem.
Be humble in admitting my own need to change.
Open my heart so I am teachable.
Donate to organizations that are actively working to dismantle racism in our country
Talk about what I am learning in my in-person circles, with family and friends whose experiences are similar to mine
Amplify POC voices by buying books for and about POC from bookstores owned by POC
Read these books, then talk about them with people within my sphere of influence
Read books that are hard to read, too, about truths I have been ignorant of almost my entire life. Work through them with the goal of achieving real change in myself.
Follow POC voices on social media, listen to their words and allow them to change me.
Another thought I had shortly after reading the passage in STAMPED is this: When the governor of Virginia created these white privileges in the late 1600s, he did so in order to divide the lower classes so they wouldn’t band together and become too powerful. It’s chilling to think that these divisive tactics are probably still being used today—wealthy powerhouses trying to stay on top by doing whatever they can to divide, and essentially disarm, the rest of America.
Division is a very powerful weapon. And its use often goes unnoticed as a weapon. One thing is clear right now—we are divided. And so we are weak. It’s time to stop fighting and come together, however we can. We are stronger together.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. If you’re white, I hope you’ll join me in trying to do better. If you’re not white, thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your stories with me. I see you. I stand with you.
Together we are strong.