If It’s Not What We Say About Race, It Must Be What We Do

22 Jul

I haven’t written here in a few months. It’s not that there isn’t anything to write about. Believe me, thoughts about race, racism, whiteness, and what is going on in this country, and what I can do about it, are spinning around in my head, and in my heart, 24/7. No excuses, but I was recovering from a botched cataract surgery, and the old eye is just about 100%. This week, though, I was asked by an acquaintance, if I was going to “blog about our President and his comments, and saying he’s not racist. So crazy,” he said. Crazy racist, I would say.

But, we know that. We shout out “racist!” “racism!” over and over again. We shout it out about our “Occupant in the White House,” as Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley calls him. Yes, the Congresswoman, who was one of four Congresswomen of color, who were told to go back to their own countries.

Oh, you want to hear more about the racism? About the Occupant’s rally, who a friend likened to a KKK rally? Where the crowd chanted “Send her back!” when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s name was mentioned? And how a day later, he doubled down on his damaging comments about Omar being linked to terrorism, by perpetuating the rumor that she got her brother a green card and United States citizenship by fraudently marrying him?

Or, do I keep writing about the viral videos that seem to pop up every other day of a white person telling someone just trying to buy their groceries, or work their job, to “speak English here in America”, or “go back to Mexico” or “I’ll have you deported?” And do I share how I agreed with social media friend, Michael Eaglin’s comments about how he’s lowered his expectations about people’s humanity, how he wondered aloud about our “basic respect and integrity,” and the fact that this “behavior isn’t admonished, isn’t found reprehensible by their communities and institutions, like family, church, schools, civic clubs, etc.’

Or, do I continue to write about the viral videos of white people still calling the police on black people, most recently, it was two black men, a real estate agent and a potential home buyer, who were thought to be breaking-and-entering a home the agent wished to show? Or, insert any normal life activity that black people are trying to do, just like white people, but are deemed criminal by white eyes that can’t comprehend the optics of black people living ordinary lives just like theirs.

Or, do I write about how some people keep saying these immigrants have to come in legally like their families did however many decades ago? The people who are able to separate themselves from any feelings of compassion or empathy toward children being taken away from their families, adults and children being kept in detention centers that mirror concentration camps, being treated with intentional cruelty, and not given their due process, as refugees fleeing unsafe countries are supposed to receive when seeking political asylum here?

And I wasn’t going to write about this, especially after my teenage daughters surprised me with their reaction to my action, thinking it privileged and performative. I questioned the purpose of sharing about the night of July 2nd, when I got arrested protesting at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island. But now I am sharing it, perhaps as a way to process that night’s events. I’m sharing how as a Jewish woman, I felt I needed to use my voice, and my body, to say #NeverAgainIsNow, and joined the Jewish activist group taking national action to block the entrances of I.C.E. contracted detention centers around the country, thereby disrupting their ability to do their harmful business-as-usual. I’m sharing about the pleading sound of men, women–and, were there children?–pounding on frosted windows to let us know they saw us, as we waved to who we could not see, to in effect, say, we see you.

I’m sharing that when myself and five women of the eighteen men and women who were arrested were put into a windowless van, with a metal wall separating us from the other side of the van, and we all sat there with our handcuffed or ziptied hands behind our back, and nervously chuckled on our ride to the precinct, how I looked down the narrow metal bench to the faces beside mine, and said to myself, I know these women, these are my people, even though, except for one, I didn’t know them personally. And at risk at sounding over-dramatic, and right after one of the young woman shared that she had just returned two weeks ago from visiting the Anne Frank house, I could not help but imagine us as the Jewish women who might have ridden together on cramped trains to concentration camps, and how maybe they nervously laughed, too, knowing their fate was not a good one, but worked to comfort one another, in the face of the grave inhumanity that would befall them. And in that moment, I knew, too, we were not them, but were here honoring them, and saying, Never Again, because it is now, we must not sit idly by. And, I thought, too, as we entered the van, of Freddy Gray, and how hard, and cold, the white, metal seat and walls and floor of the van were, and how his body was broken into pieces by police officers that night in Baltimore. But we were not Jews on our way to a concentration camp. We were not Freddie Gray. We were not Black Lives Matter protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore.

Us eighteen, that night, were white-skinned, and treated with calm, and kindness. We did not have to use milk to wash tear gas out of our eyes. We were not hit with batons. We were treated as human beings, and within three hours at the police station, we were all released with a summons. A week later in court, with an agreement to either make a donation to a non-profit organization serving the immigrant community in Central Falls, or do ten hours of community service, we had our cases dismissed. Amazing what whiteness and privilege, an accessory automatically included, can do.

Yesterday, I paused my own writing, in anticipation of attending the annual reading by the 2019 writers-in-residence at the Rhode Island Writers Colony in Warren, Rhode Island. The organization was founded by writer, and literary mentor, Brook Stephenson and his brother, John Stephenson. Brook, unfortunately passed away in 2015, at the young age of forty-one, and John has carried on his brother’s legacy with the continuation of the summer Writers’ Colony. The two-week residency creates a space for writers of color, not only to write, but to commune with one another, share ideas, work, and nurture one another’s creativity, which is rare in a literary and publishing world, that as they noted, does not make great space for them.

I was moved and inspired by all of the voices, and the work of the 2019 writers-in-residence: Alisha Acquaye, Sasha Banks, Jill Louise Busby, Fajr Muhammad, and Jive Poetic. Writers of short stories, novels, essays, and poetry– we listened to a coming of age short story, stories recording the history of, and the undoing of the America that brutalized black people for over four centuries, a novel about the disappearance and murder of black women in Philadelphia with a narrator who wondered if anyone noticed or cared, an essay from an author learning to love her body as a black woman, and poems about connection to one’s heritage, one about the futuristic genetic engineering of our souls that brilliantly begins with the whispered warning about seedless green grapes, and a poem about a white woman placing her hand on the poet’s chest, because she sees his “I’m Out – signed Harriet Tubman” tee-shirt, and feels she needs to share that in her past life she was a slave, too!

I got to consider my own white fragility too, when writer, Jill Louise Busby, read her piece, Oreo, a powerful, honest writing, and, trust me, those two adjectives don’t even begin to do justice to her words, or the soul-searching investigation of self, how whiteness always others, how not to use whiteness as a measurement of self, and much more, written with such directness and complexity, that I can never fully know or understand because at the end of the day, when I write about race, racism, and cross-racial connection, I’ll still be a white woman writing about it.

And, when the reading’s host, author, and the Colony’s Artistic Director, Jason Reynolds, said right after her reading, “it’s good to be unapologetic..and to feel the discomfort..well…for some of us,” the audience laughed, the white folks, probably more nervously so. And I nodded, the white person nod, to say, yes, we do, I do, need to feel the discomfort, to feel the sting, and yet, don’t make it about me, make it about us, about whiteness, and yet, at the same time, don’t push it away, and know, and take responsibility, and continue to do my own self-investigation, knowing how whiteness informs my perspective, my way of moving in the world, my relationships with everyone I come into contact with, and to know what whiteness has done, and what it continues to do, if I am ever to liberate myself from it, and try to effect any real change around me.

And on those days when I wonder what purpose my writing serves, if I am saying anything new, anything that matters, or when I promise I will reformat my blog, and work with other people to include new voices here, I also wonder: Does not everyone get it yet about racism? Or do we, myself, guiltily included, have to keep social media posting and sharing every race-related article–whether an example of a personal attack, or recognition of an institutional system–when we know racism exists? Do we call it out to prove it, or to show we are still outraged, or to escape looking into the mirror, so we feign disbelief that this is our country, that this is what we did, what we have always done, and this is what we are doing right now?

White people, I don’t mean in any of this, that we need to stop talking about racism, stop calling out racism, and white supremacist structures, institutions, and systems that created and perpetuate racism and inequity. Call it out. Call it out every day, every moment. Do not sit silent with what you see, what you know. Don’t ever be tired of talking about it, and calling it out, of people telling you you make everything about race. Because until there is equality and freedom for all, none of us are free. And, if you are tired of hearing about it, think of how tired black people, and people of color are of living it.

What I do mean, is I want us to ask ourselves, but what can we do? We feel overwhelmed, ineffectual. We don’t know how we can ever change the big, overarching systems that control what is playing out in our country when it comes to racism and white supremacist structures..

It is during those times of feeling overwhelmed, and ineffective, and yes, sometimes, helpless, I remember the words of friend, artist, curator, poet, humanist, Zaiche Johnson, who recently shared, “debating and dissecting political theory, can be compartmentalized gaslighting, when there is so much work to do in real time within our own community. The destitute and oppressed can’t eat CNN transcripts, meme wars, or cyclic policy dissertations. Altruism is the only cool.”

When I let Zaiche know his words here, and our past conversations about the same, help re-center and ground me to the work that I can do–about how we all need to focus on what we can do on a micro-level in our immediate communities where ever and every where we live–he reminds me how “we can only do our best commensurate with what we have accessible, which varies for each person.” I thank him for this detail which speaks to the very core of the necessary shift of sharing resources and access when, as white people, we are part of the privileged group that has made sure it got and keeps the majority of both.

On days like this when I wonder if I should be writing about race, and asked by friends if I’m going to write about all that is going on in the country right now, like “the President’s comments,” I know that the true answer is I cannot stop myself from writing about it. And, perhaps, I finally wrote about the detention center protest, because that was something I could do. That is what matters a lot more to me. That I never stop doing something about it.


4 Responses to “If It’s Not What We Say About Race, It Must Be What We Do”

  1. Karen Kidd July 22, 2019 at 10:17 pm #

    Wow! Thank you. Any words that I may offer would pale in comparison to your eloquent writings, (here) Wendy.
    Thank you,for standing and then being restrained for your beliefs. Thank you for thinking of all of us who are suffering under this administration. Thank you,for being so brave to share your story of protest and arrest. Thank you for being that Jewish White girl who never gives up on equality for all women and men, alike. You’re my hero…and you inspire me.

    • Wendy Jane July 22, 2019 at 10:28 pm #

      Karen,

      Thank you so much for your words here. Everything you say means so much to me. It really does. I’m just trying to do what I feel I’m supposed to be doing. As a caring mother and mother figure, wife, teacher, and glamour queen, you inspire me with how unselfishly you give so much to everyone around you.

      Love you,
      Wendy

  2. Deborah Johnson July 22, 2019 at 10:42 pm #

    Wendy I have nothing to add here. As usual I stand in awe of you. Love you without boundaries.

    • Wendy Jane July 22, 2019 at 10:45 pm #

      Hi Deb,

      Thank you so much for always supporting.

      I love you back.

      xo
      Wendy

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