Bearing the burden: ending racism rests on my shoulders, too

I am a white non-American woman and yes, racism is my business too.

I have never stepped foot on African soil and neither have my parents, or grandparents or those who came before them. We have been to the United States as visitors, enjoyed the best it had to offer from the safe distance of ignorance and then returned home.

We were never kidnapped from our land and sold to another, with the sole purpose of being exploited as merchandise, and in that process, dehumanized, beaten, starved, stepped on, lynched into diligence. We have not been marketed for the profits of our pain- neither then nor now.

No-our bodies have carried us safely and unassumingly through this world, yet took up space and will continue to do so for a long time to come. Some would argue that it’s only ‘naturally’ so- as our bodies are those for which the law has been written and for whose protection the law is applied, unquestionably, equally and fairly, because our bodies are white, and thus, free. There is, in fact, nothing natural about that.

I have always lived in the comfort of my own white skin, which never had me followed by security in shops and it never had me screened at airports; the person residing in it never had her intelligence or motives questioned, the sight of her never repelled, her face was never pressed in the dirt, her neck never stepped on, her friends and family were never shot in their own homes, and she never had to get down and beg for her life to be spared by the very people who were there to protect her.

My skin is a shroud of oblivion, my skin knows nothing. I live in privilege.

To create that privilege, my skin has been used for generations to compare and differentiate, to generate shame and inadequacy in others, to manipulate, to segregate. My skin has been a weapon of mass destruction. It is an order of things that is neither natural nor justifiable by any fantasy that those who’ve led us, for centuries, wanted us to believe. It is my duty, then, to stand against their legacy in my own time. The burden of ending racism sits on my shoulders, too.

I stand against the despair of racial injustice not because I know how it feels and I am thus compelled to teach the world a lesson. This is not the voice of experience speaking- I understand that I will never understand, and that is a realization that has humbled me into silence on many occasions.  Still, I have one voice to raise and not using it feels more like betrayal than respect- so my attempts to speak up and take action, then, are done in the hope that one day soon, the evils of racism will matter at least half as much to people who look like me and share my circumstances, as it does to people who don’t.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what they’ve done. Over 9,000 kilometers away and I am ashamed, willing to take the blame and to point fingers, first at myself and then at those who’ve so far watched from the sidelines and did nothing. Nothing. We silently sided with the oppressor and now we’ve begun to see it, perhaps regret it, and don’t know where and who to turn to for guidance, don’t know how to help.

Still, it feels like it just doesn’t matter much, does it? Whatever we do, how much or how hard or how ingeniously we try, it doesn’t affect any actual, real change, does it? The system works in the exact same way it was built to and it will continue to do so, shapeshifting when needing to delude. As world citizens, we take meaningful action with every death we hear of, see in the news, watch on TV, but once it blows over, once the media stops covering it, once another seemingly hot topic takes its place, we go back to pretending that we believe in what our respective democracies stand for and we trust that their tenets mean the same thing for all.  

We turn a blind eye to what has never gone away nor will, on its own, because the reality is that we might need to tear the whole system down and start all over again. And that’s frightening, because we are yet to come up with a structure that is manned by people for people, that works beyond the inherent flaws in human nature and not in their service, and that’s not some revamped version of past trials and errors.  

But who would do it? The experienced or the experts, who rarely admit defeat or accept forms of change that would threaten to invalidate the very notions that they created and used to put and keep them in power? The naïve and easily excitable, who are yet to learn the hard ways of a world they expected differently of and who become disillusioned at every roadblock? The same majority that is unable to comprehend the evils that their lot have helped create and perpetuate? Those whose hearts break and arms ache to help, but have no idea how it truly feels to live on the other side of oppression? The silenced minorities? The answer is, I believe, all of us. However impossible that might seem now, we must all find a way.

Certainly, leadership cannot be reserved for the ones who reject diversity in their community, which lays at the core of our species’ survival. It should not be placed in the hands of the ones who reject fairness and collective action, because without these mere concepts, we would not have made it here and we will never make it anywhere; and definitely, power should not rest with those who treat this entire planet as a disposable consumer good.

However, such leaders and their followers are many. They all pride themselves with having reduced other human beings to smallness so that they could have an easier time stepping on them, squashing them without remorse, making pedestals out of mounds of flesh. These people reduce those whom they perceive as “the other” to close shot images of brutality that leave room for nothing else in the frame.

Without any form of regulation and in the name of freedom of speech, they use the media to perpetuate an easily comprehensible yet toxic narrative, which is enough for many of those watching to soon cease to feel any sort of sympathy for what might happen to those who they now come to perceive as the enemy.

This type of dichotomous thinking is not merely an error in logic, but a defining trait of a society built on competition- as it both leads to it and is a result of it. You either win or you lose, the two only possible outcomes of your actions. The black-and-white fallacy, then, is closely tied in with how we deal with people beyond the personal and at a social and structural level.

Our interactions with others become shaped by this type of either/or thinking and they begin to impact our assumptions of what alternatives are available for us to explore. We neatly sort out what is desirable for us, what is progressive or conservative, rational or irrational, to be feared or to be embraced, and thus reduce the complexity of life to manageable units. It helps create a comfortable world to live in- and in this world, we are not asked to deal with difficult moral questions. That is an effort only made by the few.

As such, many succumb to a distorted, minimized reality lived in a flatland, where the better part of their time is devoted to obsessing over what and who is best. The choice, then, becomes as easy as it is alarming: they either remain number one or become unworthy. Invariably, as we create a narrative of the good triumphing over the bad, we always place ourselves on the good side of things. A sink hole opens up between us and those whom we perceive as them, a division that unquestionably summons aggression. Getting there is easy, living there is disastrous- as people go from either/or to good/bad, before you know it, it’s we/they and us against them.

As Annie Strick put it, in regards to the American adversarial legal system,

“we claim righteousness for ourselves and require an ‘other’, an opposite (religious, political, racial, national, sexual, name-it), a nonself who embodies evil. To that degree, does blame become a basic behavior and revenge a solution. Such polarity not only implies superior-inferior; as it denies complementarity, it also invites battle. For superior tends to become pitted against inferior”

Racism and discrimination, then, become part of a worldview and a moral code that is deemed right and defendable beyond question- as those who uphold it have renounced any other context that would allow them to accept any alternative to it.

Are these the people in whose hands we still insist on placing power? Do we renounce it to those who pride themselves in belonging to a certain race, who call themselves superior and fundamentally distinct from others and whose mindset is reflected in all the ways they’ve taken to decimate the rest, through action or inaction, in the name of their supremacy? More importantly, are these the people we want to risk becoming ourselves?

Regardless of how high they raise their voices, how passionately they advocate for what they believe in and how subtle, yet diabolical their means of oppression become, regardless of how much we hurt and how much we could lose, we should stand guard and not give in. We still have voting, narratives to amplify, experiences to learn about, movements to support and causes to devote our time, energy and money to.

Otherwise, we are running out of time here.