Sometime in the early summer of 2015, I found myself on the back porch of my apartment, on a Saturday night, at 3:00a.m. It was the fourth time I’d come outside in a tank top and underwear since 10pm.
I’d spent most of the night, and now early morning, negotiating with my neighbor about the volume of the music blaring from his patio, at what appeared to be, a pretty fun celebration. I’m a deep sleeper and noise doesn’t much bother me but for some reason the orientation of his speakers and my bedroom window made it sound like the beats were playing, at full volume, from my bedposts.
First, I tried to do the kind-but-assertive lady neighbor thing. Then used my “don’t fuck with me” domestic violence attorney voice, and finally got sassy, and fed up, and pretty pissed off.
So there, in the dark-but-light-enough that I probably should’ve put some pants on, leaning over a rickety wooden railing, I told my young, black, male neighbor that “If you don’t shut this down immediately, I’m going to call the cops.” And, in one of my darkest moments in recent memory, I continued, frankly, “I think we both know whose side they’ll be on.”
I’d been on crutches for five weeks and it was six hours past my bedtime. My knee hurt and my heart hurt and things all over my life were more painful and miserable than usual. I like to think in better physical and emotional form I would have acted better.
But I didn’t.
What I said that night was an act of white supremacy. I took my white privilege- in this case, my ability to live in a world where law enforcement is unquestionably my ally- and applied it to subordinate a person of color. My neighbor, for god’s sake. I didn’t intend it to be, but in acts such as these, it is the impact, not the intention, that matters.
Over the past few days, I’ve had a lot of thoughts but not a lot of words I felt fit to outwardly express them. There’s a piece of me that feels like I gave up my place at the discussion table of racial politics, years ago, when my life first started to resemble that of all the other affluent white people I know. I live in a gated community in a predominantly white neighborhood a mile from where I went to a high school lacking so much in diversity, when I was a teenager I thought we referred to people of color as “minorities” because they were rare.
I work with white people, practice yoga with white people and date white people. I grocery shop with white people, drink coffee with white people and recently, spent a week on vacation with nary a non-white person in sight.
I don’t aim to compare myself, or any of the white people described above, to white supremacists and neo-nazis, but I do think it’s important to examine the shared root causes of the type of hateful violence we witnessed last weekend and the fact that I can dwell in a diverse city, in a diverse state, and still only know, and interact with, white people. To ignore the institutional realities that create the conditions for each to occur is to oversimplify a complex set of historical and cultural issues that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the contours of race in this country.
I have mostly progressive friends on social media and I’ve appreciated a variety of articles, insights, charts and memes used to describe how we got here and how we might move forward. But for all of my consumption of them, I still feel empty, and a little lost.
On the plane ride to Hawaii I finished “between the world and me” practically in tears, moved so deeply I was at once stirred to action and totally paralyzed. Then, as our plane, mostly filled with white people, made its final descent, I promptly shut down my iPad and went right back to the same life I’ve been living for the last four years.
I don’t know what meaning I can bring to the conversation about race but I do know I want to be in it. I don’t know how to reconcile the life I choose with the politics I believe in. I still don’t know how to speak eloquently, and inclusively about race at my job, but I know I want to learn how to.
I don’t know what to tell my nephews about their whiteness but I do know it’s important for them to understand their place in racial politics, and history. It’s not enough to describe racism as overt acts and language of hate and superiority, they must understand the small and big ways their actions and choices and inactions work to affirm and reproduce, a system that has never created all men equal.
I don’t know what comes after this but I’m trying to stay open. Listening for what’s needed and trying to play a role in the solution, while observing how I remain, at least passively, a part of the problem.