Could I Be Part of the Problem?
Back when I lived in Michigan, I walked into a business and overheard the owner making some rather insensitive remarks about Detroit's African American community. The owner, I overheard, lived in Detroit during the 1960s and experienced the 1967 and 1968 race riots firsthand. 50 years later, he still used the riots as an excuse for his prejudicial attitudes towards African Americans in leadership positions. I walked out of the business perturbed by his disturbing comments, which I will not repeat here. But I also left with a smug sense of self-exculpation. "That man," I thought decisively, "is part of America's racism problem."
That same year, I was attending graduate school, and my institution experienced what the administration referred to as a "racial incident." I joined fellow students in writing an open letter and signing a petition condemning the overtly racist act, and in blaming school administrators for creating a climate in which such an event might take place. "That administration," I thought "is part of America's racism problem."
Throughout my adult life, I've been quick to identify those who are part of America's racism problem. I've been even quicker to identify myself as part of the "solution."
After all, I live in liberal, progressive Dane County. The church I belong to is part of a denomination that holds Martin Luther King, Jr. Day observations. I have spent my career working for socially-conscious technology companies that facilitate inclusivity dialogues and align behind diversity initiatives. When I'm not working, I sometimes read books by authors of color like Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Cone, Jesmyn Ward, and Colson Whitehead. Just for good measure, I'll point out that like the father in "Get Out," I voted for Obama twice. I would have voted for him again!
I have repeatedly assured myself that I "am in no way part of America's racism problem."
When a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd while three other officers idly watched, my first thought was true to form. "How horrible," I thought. "These cops are part of America's racism problem."
And then the protests started. Looters and arsonists soon captured the media's attention as stores, banks, and police stations erupted in flames. Before I could process the injustice done to George Floyd or reflect on his needless death, my anger had turned to the riots and the damage they caused.
Yet after letting myself turn outwardly angry at the looters and arsonists, I noticed something. In less than a day, I turned from concern over racial justice towards righteous indignation over the format of a protest. In a span of a few hours, the new empathy I had towards the Black Lives Matter movement evaporated, replaced by simmering resentment directed towards those taking to the streets.
In a moment of clarity and self-awareness, I recognized a problem brewing within me. How could I let myself become overheated by protesters in major American cities to the point where I lost sight of what even caused the protests to begin with? How could I move so quickly from wanting to empathize and even advocate, to wanting to critique and condemn?
Perhaps I am not so much a part of the solution as I had once imagined. By insisting I was always part of the solution, maybe I was actually as complicit as any in American racism.
So I won't set forth any ideas or solutions in this post. Truthfully, I'm skeptical of whether any political program can create meaningful progress. I'm unaware of any liberal agenda, or any conservative sentiment for that matter that will mend the wounds opened by hundreds of years of racial injustice. I'm all out of ideas for open letters, petitions, or book discussions.
But maybe this situation doesn't call for more "ideas," programs, or prescriptions from white people. Maybe this situation calls instead for widespread recognition of the realities of racial injustice, a recognition that we can no longer ignore racism, a recognition that we who are white must learn to become anti-racist.
As I write this, storefronts shatter on State Street and the wail of sirens floats above my city. I have nothing meaningful to offer, nothing new that can ease the pain. Nothing but the humility to pause, to listen to people of color, and to try to learn.
@ryanpanzer lives in Madison, WI. This post was written on Saturday, May 30th, 2020.