August 11 was a typical summer night in our home. After finally getting all four kids to bed, my husband went to take a shower and I curled up on the couch to check my Twitter feed. The house was quiet and still; but after just one glimpse at my phone, a familiar sense of dread, anger, and fear rose within me. My pulse quickened, and I couldn’t catch my breath.
White supremacists had gathered on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia, I read in countless headlines. They were apparently there to protest the removal of a Confederate General’s statue and to hold a “pro-white” rally that had been in the works for several weeks.
That news alone was enough to cause a lump to form in my throat; but as I followed along with the rest of America in the next 12 or so hours, I was shocked by the tragedy that unfolded.
I watched the news footage as hundreds marched angrily, while chanting “white lives matter” and other racist epithets. I saw white men wielding their Confederate flags. Donning “Make America Great Again” baseball hats. Holding flaming tiki torches while spouting Nazi slogans.
And then, I watched as news came in Saturday that James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Ohio man later described by his high school teachers as having “a fondness for Adolf Hitler,” violently rammed his car into counter-protestors. That’s when my heart nearly stopped.
Thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer had died. Nineteen others were injured. Nearby, two police officers had died in a helicopter crash that was reportedly related to the rally. And for what?
I was sick to my stomach. And I’ll be honest; I still am.
Even as someone who writes for a living, I’ve been struggling for days to put into words just how exactly I’m feeling. But there’s one moment in my own life I keep flashing back to, every time I think about this. Every time I hear someone try and dismiss this as an isolated incident, or downplay the fact that racism in America is alive and well.
It happened in our driveway three years ago, when my oldest two daughters were just 4 and 6 years old. And while it lasted no more than a mere five or six seconds at most, the moment has sat with me ever since, weighing heavy on my heart.
My girls were riding their bikes when a young, white man in his twenties drove past our yard in a pickup truck. As I stood watching from the lawn, he leaned out his window, and screamed the N-word at my daughters loud enough for us all to hear — twice.
This came just a few months after our neighboring town of Ferguson was rocked by the death of Michael Brown, and Black Lives Matters and Blue Lives Matter signs started popping up in yards all over Missouri. There was a silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) battle raging. And despite the three years that have since followed, it’s a battle that still appears to be going strong.
In the following days, I shared my story with a few of those close to me, and the difference in their responses was subtle, yet noticeable. Black friends were sad, but ultimately not surprised. “This won’t be the first or last time this happens,” one friend told me firmly. White friends, on the other hand, were receptive, but a little dismissive, with one even shrugging the man off as “probably just a dumb teenager.”
The thing is, I know she was just trying to make me feel better. I know she wanted me to believe that most white people aren’t racists. I know that her statement stemmed from a place of not knowing exactly what to say, while also coming from a place of white guilt.
But here’s what that comment really was: Whitesplaining.
The truth is, when someone dismisses or minimizes something as violating as a child being called the N-word, it hurts. It hurts because as a family, we need the people around us to get it. We need them to say, “That is absolutely terrible, inexcusable, and I’m so sorry that happened.” And then we need them to take it a step further. We need to know that they are committed to calling racism out in every form, every time, without excuse, apology, or hesitation.
To all my white friends, it is not enough to have just one black friend.
It is not enough to post an MLK quote once a year, usually one boasting of harmony and peace.
It is not enough to simply say, “I’m not a racist,” because you don’t tell certain jokes. These are superficial and self-serving.
If you are serious about eradicating racism, I need you to readily admit that white privilege is real — just as systemic racism and micro-aggressions are real. I need you to examine your own biases (we all have them) and talk to your children openly about race. I need you to know that colorblindness is a lie. I need you to know that racism isn’t just housed in a white supremacy rally, but it is present everywhere: in school dress code policies, in casual, off-handed remarks among friends about “those people,” in racist memes that make their way around the Internet and are laughed off as “jokes.”
Racism didn’t get this big and dangerous because of one group of white supremacists who gathered one time in Charlottesville. This problem is ours to fix, because we created it. We gave it permission, for hundreds of years, to flourish. Racism, to any degree, doesn’t deserve as slap on the wrist or even the slightest bit of grace.
Please do not utter a single excuse for any act of racism, no matter how big or small you deem it. Instead, take the initiative to change the course of history. And above all, please do not be silent. Your silence is deafening, yet it also speaks volumes. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Truer words have never been spoken.