The Day I Discovered I Was A Racist

And why it took until now to admit it

Close-up photo of Matthew McConaughey at the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony red carpet, by David Torcivia via Wikimedia Commons.

I remember sitting in the theater while Matthew McConaughey gave his closing argument in the movie, A Time to Kill. He was describing in detail a horrific attack on a small black girl, asking us to imagine it happening at each step of the way, and I was weeping.

And then he choked out a line I still remember, 24 years later:

“Now imagine she was white.”

And it made a difference.

Not in a way I could understand, not in a way I had ever been conscious of before, and certainly not in a way I could articulate. But I was able to recognize that it made a difference.

It was one of the most shameful moments of my life.

I grew up in Southern Idaho at a time when black people were so rare that I remember when the first one showed up at our high school. She was something of a celebrity and everyone, including me, wanted to be her friend.

Same thing happened a few years later at my college in Oregon, a black man came my second year and was instantly popular. I remember standing in a circle of students in the parking lot one afternoon when he said, “I can’t remember your name, you all look alike to me!”

I remember what he said because I was so shocked. He made a race joke! I thought we weren’t supposed to do that!

No one ever explicitly taught me racism. I’d been educated that we were in a post-racial society consisting of a broad and beautiful mono-cultural melting pot. That it was not skin color that mattered, but character. That you had to treat everyone alike because every life had the same value. And I thought that was what I believed.

Until Matthew McConaughey’s speech.

I’ve lived in Idaho, Oregon, and Southern California, and for the past ten years I’ve been outside the United States in Spain, Cyprus and Turkey. I’ve lived and worked up close and personal with people of many ethnicities and nations, but I’ve never had much contact with black people other than those from North Africa with whom I interacted for a time because of work.

I say that in part to explain why I didn’t think any of this was my problem, per se. Racism was not a reality I lived with and didn’t seem to impact my day-to-day life. I’ve tried to treat everyone I come across with respect, to love my neighbor and my enemy. What more could I do?

And then came George Floyd.

For some reason, this time I wasn’t satisfied with the usual deflections my brain offered as I tried to turn the page and move on.

I’m trying to explain — I hope you’ll bear with me — what I mean is, I live in a country filled with four million desperate Syrian refugees, and children’s bodies are still washing up on our beaches even though the world has forgotten for the moment. My husband is friends with a man who has had family members shot in the past year. I’m no longer working in international aid, but I’m still connected in some ways to that world and the horror stories are endless.

Yes, racism and these police brutality cases are awful, awful, awful — but there is a lot of awful in the world and I can’t care about all of it, so I try to turn the page in my mind when it relates to an issue I can’t do anything about.

If there’s nothing I can do, if there’s no hurting friend I can comfort, then it’s best to put it out of my mind and focus on the inequities in which I can make a difference. To focus on the people around me I can help.

It was on Friday, I think, that I read an article about George Floyd and I noted its’ awfulness, and then I tried to turn the page.

But I couldn’t do it.

I kept thinking about it, running it over and over in my mind like a sore tooth, until finally I came upon the question that really bothered me.

Why didn’t anyone do anything?

How could a crowd of people stand by and watch as someone was slowly murdered right in front of them?

Shootings happen in an instant, but this took time — eight minutes from what I read — eight minutes to watch, to listen, and to do nothing.

That’s when everything shifted and I finally understood.

The people standing around watching were afraid for their lives. There can be no arguing with that, no citing of statistics to explain it away. They had been traumatized to the point that they thought if they intervened in a police action they would likely be killed as well.

They literally could not come to the aid of their fellow man, no matter how much they wanted to, so they were doing the only thing they could do — film his death.

Someone finally spoke to me in a language I could understand, because I understand abuse. I understand trauma. I understand being helpless before an authority figure from whom you have every right to expect protection, and in the aftermath of betrayal being so filled with fury you harm yourself and those you love while lashing out.

I understand opening your eyes to such despair that you just want to go back to bed and stay there forever.

I finally get it, and I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.

There is no way that this level of trauma could spread across an entire community unless the abuse is systemic. And if it’s systemic, my personal efforts to treat those who come into my orbit with respect are not enough.

They are not enough.

This weekend I listened to a conversation between Dr. Anita Phillips and Christine Caine, the first of what I plan to be a long season of educating myself. Dr. Phillips suggested four actions steps that I’m working through:

  1. Trust and empower the voice of the wounded.
  2. Acknowledge the power inequity in our system.
  3. Create safe spaces and relationships.
  4. Practice cultural humility.

I’ve never written about race and I don’t plan to again, but I’ve seen over and over the past few days that white people are being asked to speak up and take ownership. So I do.

I take ownership of my own racism and the fact that it has been very convenient to ignore the problem since I thought it didn’t affect me. I take ownership of the part I play in this system — this broken system that I didn’t even realize I belonged to, that I both inherited and perpetuated.

I am sorry. I repent and I’m asking for forgiveness.

I don’t yet know what this will mean practically speaking, but I will no longer stay silent and pretend this is not an issue that affects me — anyone in any part of a cycle of dehumanization is effected.

I do know there is hope. If we can be healed and restored from individual trauma, as I have experienced personally, then we can be healed and restored from collective trauma as well.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of listening to do.

Telling Stories in Istanbul | jodicowles.com

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