Ahmaud Arbery was hunted and killed, lynched in my community. This event does not make me an expert in race relations although, as a rabbi and as a rabbi here, I suddenly need to be. I am, however, a keen observer of people and of systems. Because I am sitting on this particular front line of history, I have a unique perspective. And because my observations could make someone’s life better or even save someone’s life entirely, I feel obligated to every life lost, especially Mr. Arbery, to share them.
In the last few weeks, I have heard from many people, white people, who are outraged, angry, wanting change and also completely stymied on how to move forward. We white people need to overcome our stuckness for real change to happen. Because sitting still is a privilege afforded to us by the color of our skin. And at this moment, stillness and silence are perhaps more dangerous than the police brutality against which so many are outspoken.
I share with you here four modes of white paralysis and some thoughts on how to smash the inertia so that this momentum against racism and towards equity keeps going allowing for everlasting change.
1. I am one of the good white people, so I am not part of the problem. People have shared with me their history of being non-racists. And it is good to not be a racist. It is as if they are looking for me to absolve them. They see themselves as outside of what so many are awakening to now. However, racism is built into the fabric of our nation, our communities, and our organizations. As white people, we experience advantages and access that people of color do not. Regardless of how you feel about race, if you are white, you are benefiting from the racist systems in place. It is our job as white people to dismantle the extant systems of racism and privilege. And none of us get a pass.
2. I am ashamed, I am overwhelmed, and I am powerless to make change. So many white people I know have expressed soul-sickening heartbreak as they are realizing what is and has been happening to black people in this country for centuries. This renders them crushed by the enormity of it rendering them unable to move. It feels like so much. Because it is. But being uncomfortable is not a reason to sit back. As a white person, it is easy to hide in our whiteness to avoid the discomfort of facing the world outside. Please always remember this: People are dying for and because of this privilege. Black people have been oppressed, abused, mistreated and murdered for us to have this moment of awareness. Full stop. We must choose the lives of others over comfort for ourselves. So please, keep going.
3. Let us talk and make friends. The desire and demand for dialogue in my community has been huge. Yes, this is incredible. And it cannot be the end point. Learning is a valiant tool if it leads to action. Building relationships is good. Essential even. And it is insufficient. So not stop at the bridge building stage. At the end of any encounter, ask yourself, what will I do now to build more justice?
4. I am so angry that I just can’t. There is anger at the systems, anger at the self, anger at those who do not see it, anger at perpetrators, accomplices and bystanders of despicable acts, and anger at those who are just realizing now what has been going on all along. Anger is useful because it alerts us that our values are transgressed. And right now, they are transgressed. It is no less than our humanity that is shattered. And we must reconcile that those of us who with pale skin have benefited from the suffering of others. There is much to be angry about. And any anger beyond that which moves us to action just feeds the broken system. Racism, xenophobia, and all brands of hate are built on anger, fear, and distrust of others or “the other.” But redemption and change are built on trust, connection, belonging and love. If the anger is lasting beyond a useful place, it only further feeds the monster of all things broken.
Once we shake ourselves out of the various stupors of privilege which hold us still, there are tools for making change which can be employed anywhere by anyone. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what will create real equity in our land. But know that even when you do not know what to do, there is plenty out there to get you started.
Ask black people in your community what needs to be done to create racial equity. Advocate for more equitable policies. And if you do not know what needs attention, call your local NAACP which I encourage you to join. Spend your money in establishments owned by members of marginalized communities. Make sure that access to education is equitable for all. And if it is not, in addition to advocacy work, volunteer in an underfunded, under-performing school. Support the Equal Justice Initiative. Register people to vote. Donate time, money and goods to your local food bank. Support initiatives which increase opportunities for healthcare in impoverished communities. Invest in public transportation so everyone has more access to everything from goods and services to each other.
The world is on fire and waking up to a painful reality. Will this be the moment in time that at last we create equity? Yes. Only if we refuse to stand still.
Rachael Bregman is the Berman Family Rabbinate Rabbi at Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick Georgia