“The hardest part about becoming someone else is deciding. The rest is just logistics.”
Brit Bennet as Stella in The Vanishing Half
I grew up in a politically liberal household in a staunchly conservative community. My parents were committed to social equity and were outspoken supporters of candidates committed to equality during the social upheavals of the mid to late 90s. In my twenties, I was smug in my sense that I was a “good person” and when I became a parent, I made sure that our family’s identity as community servants was clear to my sons. I grew up around racists- in my mind, I knew what racism was and my thoughts, behaviors and actions could not be further from racist. “They” did not understand, but I did! I was an ally! I was informed about who I voted for and I treated others with respect and care. I was not racist, but I was not yet anti-racist.
I read books like The Hate U Give and they broke my heart. I was righteously indignant every time a new story surfaced of unconscionable police brutality. For a minute. My privilege allowed me to avoid the actual video footage and move on with my life until the next story. My privilege gave me an “off” switch, not afforded to people of color. I could decide when, where and how to be upset. I did not experience these stories as trauma and I questioned the nuance of each individual case. I declared the system broken and then continued benefiting from it, whenever I encountered a law enforcement officer or received the benefit of the doubt from a stranger or a neighbor. In my worldview, this kind of courtesy and trust was normalized, and I did not wonder or question if that was true for others.
The stories that caused me discomfort were easily pushed into a corner of my mind where I could forget about them and get back to my life. I could feel content about being a “good person” because I cared, but I also did not have to take any action, because I was not part of the problem. Other people who used disrespectful language or genuinely believed people of color were “less then”, they were the problem. What I could not see was that every time I benefited and participated in a system that was designed to benefit me, when I did not notice and when I did not speak up, I was part of the problem. When I voted for candidates whose platforms included causes important to me but did not question how they were addressing systemic racism, I was part of the problem. When my sons’ behavior in school was dismissed as “boys being boys” and I did not consider if this same courtesy was extended to non-white boys in their classes, I was part of the problem.
Then, in late May of this year, I did not look away. I watched the video of George Floyd’s murder and it changed me. I instantly became a new person. Hearing George cry out for his mother hit me heard. I saw my sons in his face. I refused to see my sons in the officers’ faces. I could not look away anymore.
I’m ashamed to admit that it was not until recent months that I have come to realize the role systemic racism has played in my own life, in the form of continuous, unconditional privilege. I am beginning to (finally) understand how I have consistently benefited from my whiteness, at the expense of people of color. I see my own life story, the story of my husband and my sons, my parents and extended family, the neighborhood we live in and where I grew up completely differently. When people asked where my family was from, what my heritage was, I always called my family “mutts”, saying we were from “all over” and could not be traced to one location… in western Europe. In hindsight, I had a clear identity. My identity was white and it defined every facet of my life, from where I lived to where I went to school, from how I was treated by strangers and customer service representatives, to the “opportunities” that came my way in school and in my workplace.
My whiteness was invisible to me. The definition of white privilege.
“In order for something or someone to be visible, it must be able to be seen, perceptible to the eye, constantly and frequently in view.”
For me, visible equity means a constant audit of my own world. It means a vigilant commitment to anti-racism, which includes de-centering myself and committing to listening, understanding and supporting the Black and brown people in my own community. It means studying topics I am passionate about, like representative history, authentic learning and environmentalism, through a lens that is not my own. It also means bearing witness, deliberately putting myself in a position of discomfort in order to learn from that discomfort.
There is a temptation, for all of us, to look for our own stories in the stories of others. That is how we relate to one another and how we often reach understanding. What I am learning is that my story is decidedly not reflected back to me in the experiences of my Black and brown friends. That does not make their stories untrue, rather, it elevates the urgency with which America needs to confront the role white privilege plays in our institutions and communities.
I’ve become a new person, a person committed to visible equity in all facets of my life. The rest is just logistics. Here are the commitments I’ve made to that end:
1. Resist the temptation to “solve” the problem- I have a role, but I am not the leader here. I am a listener, an ally, and a co-conspirator. I am not in charge.
2. In all conversations, but especially in empathetic conversations with friends and colleagues of color, I need to ask myself WAIT- Why Am I Talking? I tend to talk in order to think, but that means shutting out voices who need me to hear.
3. Stop voting aspirationally- focus on local candidates with clear platforms committed to anti-racism. It’s easy to get swept up in national politics, but the real action comes from sending an email asking a candidate for city council or school board about what specific anti-racist actions they intend to take.
4. Stop using the words “equity” and “diversity” as euphemisms to make white people more comfortable- say “anti-racist” and mean it, both in my professional and personal life.
Finally, as an educator committed to innovation at a time of complete systemic upheaval, I can persistently use my voice to remind my colleagues that although we are operating in an emergency and making decisions day to day to simply survive, we must commit to anti-racism as we rebuild, on a short and long term basis. We must understand that while all children and families have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, some have experienced exponentially more trauma as a result of the raw, exposed systemic racism they have faced for generations. We cannot afford to dismiss our colleagues, students and community members of color simply because we have all experienced upheaval and loss. We must commit to disproportionately support and lift up those who need it most.
Meghan Raftery (@meg5han) is a freelance educator from Virginia Beach, Virginia. She develops authentic learning experiences and supports innovation for schools, nonprofits and families. She specializes in deep conversation about the things that matter most in education and supporting teachers as they learn to lead on their own terms. https://www.meghanraftery.com/