“Let us speak for ourselves.”
The words stung, but they needed to be said. In response to an all-white panel discussion a few years ago around the topic “how can white authors write about and for people of color”, this one statement gave us the answer we needed.
Step aside. Hand us the microphone. Let us speak.
Fueled by the events of the past several weeks, I think we’re finally listening. Fully half of the top 20 bestselling books on Amazon last week were either written by a person of color or were about anti-racism. I know I’ve been running after words from the black community that will help me make sense of what is happening in our nation. (Unless you’ve been on Mars, you know what I’m talking about.) I’ve read a couple titles that I’ll share at the end of this post. But, I wanted to do more than read; I wanted first-hand conversation.
Courtney, a black business owner from Detroit, rents space in her downtown salon to my white daughter-in-law. The two are good friends and have discussed racism in the past. This weekend, Courtney tolerated my naive questions and I came away with insight I didn’t anticipate. After sitting with our conversation for a few days, I knew I had to share it here.
How can a white woman in a rural white community combat racism?
“What’s been said for so long is ‘learn about black culture and then you’ll get it.’ But where it really needs to start is looking at white culture and understanding how all this happened. We know all about slavery and Europeans coming to black communities. We talk about slavery, segregation, injustice. What we don’t talk about is how this all started. Get the history of the white culture. Why did those white ancestors have such a big problem with black culture? Dissect that then go through what generations of white culture did to Native Americans, and black Americans. That’s where there needs to be a turn.”
Courtney has two young boys and she shared how she’s talking to them about the protests. “I educate my sons to know that this is what is at hand. As a black woman, it was instilled in me, taught to me what is the right thing to do (to get along in the white culture). I tell my 7 and 9 year old boys, ‘This is what you do. When a white policeman comes up to you, you lift your head.’ I had to learn. I took it upon myself to read and understand and learn.”
Courtney admits educating her white friends makes her ‘tired.’
“I want to say ‘How about just educate yourself.’ We have red blood, our hearts beat like yours, we have lungs. It’s not like we’re an exotic animal. You have a moral compass. You know right from wrong. There are things within humanity that are innate. We’re human and for so long we’ve been looked at as animals and as a threat.”
Courtney says she and her husband talk about “the fear aspect that is part of our culture, part of being black, things we’ve been raised on that derives from a slave mentality. We say ‘back in the day’ — if a black man was caught outside past a certain time, police officers would pull you over.”
How do you feel about white families (like my son’s) moving into black neighborhoods?
“A lot of times, I’m saying I love the freedom that white people have. They don’t have a lot of fear. I love that freedom. We don’t have that. Black people love when white people move into their area because then we can get things we’ve been fighting for for years. I hate that it’s like that. I love a mixed community. Black, white, Latino. But it’s like we don’t have any value so we appreciate the privilege and opportunity that will come because of the diversity.”
Courtney was born in Detroit, but her family moved to suburbs for safety and a better life. She and her husband moved back into the city because “we want to give back to a community that has given to us.” (I wrote about our white grandson growing up in a black Detroit neighborhood. You can read it here.)
Why are people looting and destroying property?
“The protesting and looting is from hurt. They did this in 60s, 70s, 80s but nothing was changed. Laws must be changed. The prison system needs to change. Redlining needs to be taken away.”
Redlining is an unethical practice that puts services out of reach for residents of certain areas based on race or ethnicity, a policy felt most by residents of minority neighborhoods. Courtney also spoke of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” However, the incarceration rate based on race says otherwise. Statistically, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.
Are you hopeful things will change?
“I don’t think that there will be a full change. This is a heart thing. I’m a believer and I follow the Word of God, and it says things won’t get better. They will get worse. I’m always trying to preach the gospel, live the word of God. But we can see the injustices happening. It does move us to see a person being murdered. I hope that it changes and that people will begin to look at all life as valuable.”
Does it help to say I’m sorry for the injustices of the past?
“If any white person apologizes to me personally for things their ancestors have done, I accept it. I can’t judge your heart. But then, move on to what do we do next. We must raise a generation that knows their history — black, native American, Asian American. Don’t hate being white. I don’t want you to feel sorry about who God created you to be. Being able to empathize with each other and really care, I think that’s where the change comes. Talking to me, listening, and now doing something about it, that’s what you do. Watch Just Mercy (the movie — I did.) As for me, it’s talking to people I know and love, just addressing the elephant in the room and moving forward in freedom.”
(Photo : Clay Banks on Unsplash)
Resources I recommend
Two books I’ve read recently that are helping me understand racism: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown and Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation by Latasha Morrison. They are very different books by black women with unique perspectives on racism in America. And, in response to Courtney’s counsel to educate myself about white America’s racist past, I’m continuing to read The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.
The quantity of information on the Internet about racism is overwhelming, and at times unreliable or radical. For the past year, I have followed the Instagram account of Carlos Whitaker, a black/Hispanic author and speaker who covers all topics with authority tempered by humor and grace. His IG stories (@loswhit) have been a primer in racism, anti-racism and cultural bias (his 73,000 followers testify to this). Jonathan Merritt, a white author and speaker, brings a helpful perspective through conversations with people of color. His recent meet-ups on a weekly IG feature (@jonathan_merritt) he calls The Eavesdrop have been both compassionate and informative. Podcasts on the topics abound, but the one I’m listening to right now (because I want some direction) is Be the Bridge with Latasha Morrison. Her website is the best place to begin.
Finally, watch the Bryan Stevenson movie Just Mercy (this is the trailer). You can watch it for free on Netflix through the end of June. Stay with it through the credits for the rest of the story. I was in tears and it stayed with me for days. And, watch the documentary The 13th Amendment on Netflix. I’ve linked to a review on YouTube.
Join Me and Brenda On the Front Porch
I continue to meet up with my friend Brenda Yoder for our conversations On the Front Porch as part of her summer series for Life Beyond the Picket Fence Podcast. This time we’re talking about the importance of engaging in our local communities. You can catch up with us here: