Create a (r)evolution. Start with your own life.
“A riot is the language of the unheard.” – MLK
There is a great deal of adrenalized action in the world today. It was inevitable. We will never have peace in our societies until all our voices can be heard, no matter how uncomfortable those voices make us. There is going to be anger. There is going to be error. There is going to be misunderstanding… because we have not been listening.
There is growing evidence that the only way we will heal from an intolerable shared history is to sit down at the table and tell our stories and have them heard. Perpetrators, collaborators and victims alike.
As a white woman in America, I can no longer sit on the sidelines. And I thank a few of my angrier black friends for helping me see this. So I will do what I can – imperfect, inadequate, insensitive though it may be at times – to ensure that little black boys and girls can grow up with the same security, opportunity and hope that I did.
To create a Revolution of Compassion, as The Dalai Lama invites us to, we have to start with our own lives. So here goes.
This is my journey of racism… how I learned it and how I’m breaking free.
I was born in 1956 in Houston Texas. When I was three, my mother (a pediatrician with a private practice) employed a black woman to come take care of me and our house while she and my father both went to work.
Mrs. Thelma Johnson was my caregiver, my protector, my guardian. I knew her skin was darker than mine, but it took time for me to learn that my world would only welcome her in certain ways. At the end of each day, I saw her and other black women in white uniforms walk to the end of our street and wait for the bus. I had no idea what happened to her after that. I never asked.
As time passed, I went to school. Thelma was there when I got home. She made me my after-school snack. And sometimes we would talk. I asked her once why she had holes in her uniform, and she told me they were “air holes.” I believed her. But I could feel in my bones that something was wrong with this picture. I wasn’t sure what it was. And I never asked.
When I went away to college in Chicago, I lost touch with Thelma for a while. For a few years, I would see her when I came home for breaks. I felt so happy to see her, and she seemed happy to see me, but she also kept that “respectful” distance expected in that world. When I was 20, she stopped working for my family. I never knew why. I never asked.
The years went by. While I was working in Chicago, I tried to stay connected to Thelma with birthday cards, phone calls and occasional visits to see her when I was in Houston. We would usually meet in some café, and Thelma would always be dressed in her Sunday best. Once she came in a wheelchair. I knew she had Lupus, and she told me some days she could barely do her job for the pain. But she had never let me see it at the time. And I never asked.
Through these meetings I began to get to know Thelma’s daughter Faye, a strong, competent, creative woman with a deep faith and the courage to live her truth. Faye and I didn’t develop a friendship until years later, when I visited Thelma in her home. Every surface in Thelma’s home was covered with mementos of her lifetime of experiences (and Faye told me she had kept all the cards I had ever sent). It was a world away from the home I grew up in, where she had come five days a week for so many years. Though the inequality was inescapable, I didn’t want to question why. I never asked.
I always told Thelma she would have a seat on the front row at my wedding. She was my “other mother” and I loved her completely (as completely as I could know her). But I married late in life, and the year before the wedding Thelma’s health deteriorated. Faye called to let me know, and my fiancé Ian and I went to the county hospital where Thelma was in Intensive Care. We waited in the waiting room with Faye and other family members. And Faye made it possible for me to see Thelma one last time by telling the staff I was family. I talked with Thelma’s grandson, who shared his journey of personal development and the motivational speakers he was studying in his search to maintain a positive attitude. He also gave me a glimpse into his experiences growing up in Harris County Texas. I asked. I felt. But I couldn’t understand.
I had seen a different way of life for blacks in Chicago. My trips home to Houston gave me the contrast, between black men and women in the North – who knew they had rights and engage in conflict with whites to claim them – and black men and women in the South – who were still forced to live their lives “knowing their place.” I could feel in my bones that, while I was uncomfortable with the conflict, I was far more uncomfortable with the oppression. I began asking people I wasn’t so afraid to hurt.
As an independent writer and producer in Chicago, I lived and worked among people of color, whereas in Houston neighborhoods were still clearly segregated. I had the opportunity to work on several projects that transformed my view of race. I helped a class of 12-year-old children on Chicago’s South Side write and perform a play we called Cool to be Alive; almost all of them had lost a close relative to gun violence. While making two documentary TV programs (on guns and violence and the American penal system), I got to sit down with young men of color inside Cook County Jail who were confronting the choices that got them there and learning to take responsibility for themselves. I listened. They trusted me. And I made some mistakes.
A decade passed. In 2001, even as the Twin Towers were under attack, I was beginning a new life in Europe. In the years that followed, my American vision expanded as I became aware of very different ways people can living together. I met people of color from around the world. I saw differences in the way they think about themselves, and the many different ways people cross races and languages and cultures to build their lives. These people have become dear friends, and I love them.
Two more decades have now passed, and we are here. I am asking. I am listening. I am acknowledging all the years I lived my comfortable life, content with what I thought I knew. I’m educating myself about the history I sidestepped.
I’ve spent way too many years feeling bad and asking myself, “But what can I do?” I’ve known there was injustice, though I have not known that I and my black friends lived in two such different worlds.
These past two weeks I’ve had the kinds of conversations I wish could have happened all those years ago… with black friends and white. We are talking more deeply, more honestly, more boldly than ever before. Those conversations have been deep, difficult, confusing, horrific, angry, loving, desperate and hopeful.
I’ve had to confront the reality that no matter what I do, it will never be enough to fix this problem. The question then becomes, “Am I willing to do it anyway?”
It’s no longer enough to ask. It’s no longer okay to keep my distance. To not know what I don’t know. To not take action. People are dying. I am Thelma’s “other daughter.” I am my brother’s keeper.
If not me, then who? If not now, then when?
According to attorney, author and activist Bryan Stevenson:
“Until we reckon with this history, as Germany has done, as Rwanda has done, as South African has done, we will live in a state, we will live in a nation where black people are marginalized, menaced, excluded, and threatened….”
The countries that have managed to heal from systemic, criminalized racism are the ones who have formalized and committed to this reckoning.
Stevenson’s words echoed something in me I had first realized when I was in South Africa on December 5, 2013, the day Nelson Mandela died: the power of the truth, when it is acknowledged by adversaries in a container designed to protect it. The Truth and Reconciliation project, imperfect as it was, was a foundation without which change could not have come. It takes courage on both sides to stand against a deeply dysfunctional and destructive status quo.
We need such containers today in the US and around the world… where personal stories can be shared, individual voices heard, unique experiences respected, past trauma released and personal responsibility shared for a past we’ve all grown up in.
To that end, I am organizing a virtual conversation, Black Men Speak, which I will facilitate and record on Juneteenth (commemorating the day in 1865 when all previously enslaved people in Texas were set free). Four friends of mine (two Americans, a South African and an Englishman) with very different experiences of racism will meet each other and participate in a panel conversation. They will share their stories with each other and with me, and we will share them with you.
You may ask, who am I as a white woman to start this conversation? And I will answer, who am I not to? I am Thelma’s “other daughter,” and this is something I can do.
Black Men Speak will be recorded on June 19th and posted on YouTube. I invite you to watch it, share it and let us know your thoughts. The public will be invited to join a virtual Q&A session in the coming weeks. I hope you’ll be there.