“I am tired of comfortable lies,” writes Roxane Gay for the New York Times after the person who should represent the United States of America to the world referred to certain countries–countries inhabited by mostly black and brown people–”shithole nations.”
And reading Roxane Gay’s article, that phrase jumped out at me. Fellow white folks, let me talk to you all for a second. It’s time we all become tired of comfortable lies. It’s time we stopped whitewashing Martin Luther King Jr., stopped holding him up as a darling of the white moderate when the same complaints you hear (and perhaps have made) about the NFL protests and the Black Lives Matter marches were leveled against Dr. King and his followers just one generation ago.
We have made progress, but to say we are living in a post-racial nation is a comfortable lie. The progress we have made is small compared to what it could have been if at key moments in our history we had turned toward the right thing, toward honoring the promises we made as a nation, toward honoring the amendments we passed for our constitution. But time and time again, with red-lining, with gerrymandering, with “law and order” candidates, we have broken our promises and turned toward injustice time and time again. The coded language allows active systemic racism to be hidden from “nice” white people who don’t have to look deeper because it doesn’t immediately affect us.
But make no mistake, it does affect us. King wrote in his iconic and powerful “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
We cannot be the United States of America, we cannot claim the moral high-ground, we cannot in good conscience interfere with another nation until we have faced the reality that so many within our shores do not breathe the free air equally.
The idea that the problem of systemic racism is too big a problem for any one person to tackle is a comfortable lie, one I told myself for many years until the death of Trayvon Martin and the miscarriage of justice that allowed his murderer to walk free shook me to my core and sent me on a journey to figure out why in a country that makes so many claims of morality and justice and superiority could allow a child to be shot to death walking home and not do something to bring justice. And in the years that have followed, there were so many more. Tamir Rice. Jordan Davis. Michael Brown. Jordan Edwards. And then there are those who were adults but still snuffed out. Like Eric Garner and Sandra Bland. And there are so many–so, so many–more, and there has been no justice.
With each of these incidents, I was driven deeper, to learn more, to understand why this happens in our country. And it’s not that it started happening, it has been this way all along, the only thing that has changed are the video cameras and social media.
So what can we do?
We start by educating ourselves. There is much out there available just by googling, reading, and listening. Let questions lead to action. One of the biggest things we as while folks can do on a daily basis is to talk to other white people about racism. We can learn together, we can change us, because we are the system. We change ourselves, we help each other change, and then we send better candidates to office on all levels from our school boards to the White House.
And if we truly want to honor Dr. King and his legacy today, we can commit to being the allies that all too often white people haven’t been in the struggle for true equality. The idea that it’s enough to just be kind, to just be not personally racist is a comfortable lie. We as white people need to be actively anti-racist, or we are complicit in and contributing to the problem.
As King put it:
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
References and resources:
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
No One is Coming to Save Us from Trump’s Racism, Roxane Gay
Artist Creates “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Memes to Stop People from Whitewashing MLK
I was invited to give a TED Talk and then asked to cut “Black Lives Matter” from it