I shifted my feet as we stood in the slow, snaking security line at the Denver airport. Reaching down to remove my sandals and place them on the conveyor belt, I had the thought I’ve often had in my years of traveling, I would make an outstanding criminal. The exact opposite of those who are usually profiled, my blond hair, white skin and female gender provide the invisibility cloak every terrorist longs to hide behind. I would make an excellent spy.
Confessing this private thought implicates me–not as a covert criminal, but as someone who enjoys certain privileges because of my appearance. I never drive around at night wondering if the police are going to pull me over. I’m not afraid that I’ll be picked up for shoplifting. Being unjustly accused is not something that I worry about and I’m convinced I would be let off easily even if I did commit a crime. I trust the system.
I write this not to brag, but to confess. Because I’m ashamed. I clutch my whiteness to myself as a safety net and squeeze my eyes shut to the injustices of those who do not have this privilege. And it’s time to change.
And so I’ve been reading, watching, listening, following people of color on social media and forcing my eyes open. The more I see the heart-rending, harrowing injustices in the U.S., the more I’m aware of the errors not only in society, but in myself. I am a part of the problem.
As white people, we brag that we are “colorblind” and congratulate ourselves for being inclusive and tolerant. Because we don’t actively hate, abuse or reject those of another color personally, we would never call ourselves “racists.” We say we see everyone as the same and silently assume that everyone, deep down, is like us.
But as we boast that we are colorblind, what we are blind to is that color really does matter. People are treated certain ways simply because of the color of their skin.
My journey toward sight began as all breakdowns of prejudice inevitably must: through a relationship. My friend and I sat sipping tea as our three-year-old sons boisterously played together in the living room. We discussed common mom woes such as which preschool to send our sons to, potty training and how to encourage longer sleep. But then my friend, a white woman like myself, tiptoed onto unfamiliar ground as she shared some fears that were unique to her experience, because her adopted son is African American.
She has already considered coaching her son on how to interact with police and other authority figures. Right now, he is an adorable little boy with gorgeous hair and a winning smile, but she already dreads the day when a white woman will look at him and clutch her purse or intentionally cross the street to avoid him. She knows she will have to teach him to treat authority with respect and to always show his hands. And he will never be allowed to play with a toy gun in public.
Talking to her made me realize how naïve I’ve been. I’ve never once thought of training my son in these ways. I rubbed my eyes and wondered if this disparity has been here all along and if so, how have I not noticed it before?
There’s a story in the Bible where a blind man begs for Jesus to heal him. Jesus leans down, scoops up a handful of mud and smears it over his eyes before telling him to wash in a nearby pool of water. This is the stage of recovery I am at–stumbling and begging for Jesus to finish restoring my sight and point me toward the clear pool. But I must allow Him to continue rubbing mud in my eyes. It’s this stinging mud of discovery that’s making me whole.
The activist, Austin Channing Brown, tells about when she first toured Civil Rights sites and she and her classmates’ eyes were opened to the injustice embedded in America’s history. A classmate stood up and gave a speech to the others on the bus. “Now that we know all of this, doing nothing is no longer an option,” she announced to the group.
Now that I see more clearly, walking around in blindness is no longer an option. But what can I—a white, minivan-driving mom in the suburbs–do?
So far, fiery rage has been my first response. I’m angry at the history, enraged at “the system,” livid about the judges, politicians and law enforcement that seem to perpetuate this injustice. I hate myself for my ignorance and inability to change anything. The flames of injustice are searing into my soul like an uncontrolled wildfire.
At the commencement speech for The University of Denver law department I attended last week, four graduating students shared the hopelessness they felt in being confronted with glaring injustice and the inability of the law to overcome those injustices. But one optimistic student declared, “Anger is fire and fire is energy.” So I write this to blow on the flame and fan it into fire in my heart and yours. Because as others like me begin to feel the heat, perhaps we’ll beg for sight and be healed of our blindness. And a person with sight is much more capable of fighting battles than a blind one.
And so I tune my heart to hear, learn, watch, confess and acknowledge my role. I seek out relationships with those who are different from me, haul my kids to diverse parks on the opposite side of the city, and keep rubbing this stinging mud of horrendous injustice into my eyes until I see clearly and can walk forward. I write, talk (okay, rant), pray, read, share stories, educate my children and vote. I feed the fire so it becomes a constructive energy instead of a destructive devastation.
Gregory Boyle states in Tattoos on the Heart, “We have a chance, sometimes, to create a new jurisdiction, a place of astonishing mutuality, whenever we close both eyes of judgement and open the other eye to pay attention.”
It’s time to start paying attention.
John 9: 1-12
Especially after reading the book, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
Boyle, Gregory. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. New York: Free Press, 2010, p. 136.