When my grandmother found out I was pregnant, she urged me to spend the summer in Georgia with family. She believed it would be good for me and the baby. It wasn’t a big ask, because for most of my life I had traveled to Georgia in the summer. My grandmother was insistent that I stay with my Uncle Short, her baby brother. Unlike my grandmother, Uncle Short had never left Georgia. Although my grandmother lived most of her adult life in New Jersey, she still found practicality in superstition and folklore. She believed that going to Georgia during my pregnancy was an ancestral blessing for my unborn baby.
During my time with Uncle Short, he shared family stories and a treasure trove of wisdom. Although he had never left Georgia, he understood people and the malice that exists inside of some people. His lessons still help me today. Uncle Short lived through a time where he witnessed the unspeakable.
In his wisdom, Uncle Short understood that the same person who offers you friendship, could also turn around and hurt you. When George Floyd was murdered, I was initially touched by the number of White people on social media and other news outlets who stood shoulder to shoulder with Black folk. Saying the names of hundreds of murdered Black people, and chanting “Black Lives Matter.” In the weeks since the murder, I have revisited my uncle’s most enduring words to me, “Be particular.”
In This Place Before
In 1969 when my family traveled to Georgia for our annual summer trip, my mother dressed us in our finest clothes. She was excited about stopping at one of the rest areas which had been forced to desegregate because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The passage of the act had not changed the hearts of most people, and many businesses still made Black people feel uncomfortable. My father did not share my mother’s eagerness to dine at one of the newly desegregated restaurants. “If my money was not good enough a few years ago, why should I spend it with them now,” he said. My feelings upon returning to work are similar to my father’s feelings in 1969. What has really changed in the hearts and minds of those who have never been friends to Black Americans?
I have learned over time how to stay out of the way in the workplace and find joy in small victories. It did not come naturally to me. George Floyd’s murder has caused White folks, good and bad, to reflect and in some cases take action. Like my father, I would like to know what happened between 2019 and 2020 that has caused White America to want to dig so deep? Although Mr. Floyd’s death was tragic, it should not come as a surprise to White people that this is not new, or at least not to Black Americans. Had they not heard of Emmett Till?
My greatest anxiety is returning to a smorgasbord of anti-racist training sessions, a surplus of reading material about allyship and anti-bias behaviors. Most of all the awkward smiles and phony greetings.
I have been in this place before. I have witnessed White people suiting up for battle when Trayvon Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman; when Dylann Roof massacred nine people during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; and after Ava DuVernay gave real voice to the Central Park Five whose exoneration from rape charges did little to redeem their lives.
The work of dismantling the constructs of a natural default that usually leans toward whiteness will not happen in a school year. It won’t happen through book clubs with wine from Trader Joe’s. Nor will it happen because a committee is formed. It will happen when White people are willing to suffer with their Black brothers and sisters. It will happen when White people reach out and risk being shut out by their White brethren because they stood up for Black people. In the more than 400 years since the first Africans were shackled and brought to this country, we have become scholars in the areas of broken promises, hurt, and disappointment. Black people have never had the choice to opt out of their race or to opt into a life that gives them a head start.
Opening Up Over Tea
As a realist, I am particular, but I am also hopeful. I know that the power of a small group is sometimes mightier than the crushing hands of one hate-filled police officer. I was reminded of this hope when I received four emails from White co-worker after George Floyd’s murder. One in particular invited me over for tea or something. It gave me a good place to start. It was no easier for her to reach out than it was for me to say yes.
She wanted to know if I wanted to include other co-workers, and I thanked her for considering how I might feel meeting with her alone. In total there were three of us socially distanced on her front porch. Chatting about everything from advice our grandmothers gave us, to sharing our personal anxieties about the looming election. Her husband joined us and was an active listener and even found ways to contribute in a meaningful way.
A New Closeup
As I drove home, I realized that we all need more moments like this. While I applaud their effort, I encourage more White people to take a break from their anti-racist reading list, forget about all of their saved TED Talks on race and privilege and to hold off on buying a start-up kit of “Black Lives Matter” porch signs, buttons, and banners. What I would love is for the real warrior White folks to step to the front and lead their brethren into organic and authentic conversations. Try asking a Black co-worker that you casually know to join you for lunch. Maybe invite a Black neighbor over for a socially distanced outdoor meal. Or maybe consider joining a virtual Black book club.
This is not a moment of truth for Black folks. We have been down this road before. If things stay the same, we will continue to be Black people and we will continue to throw elbows, and an occasional brick for what is right. We have no other choice. This moment of truth is for White people. This moment in history can be compared to the ending of Cecil B. DeMille’s Sunset Boulevard, when Gloria Swanson’s character is taken into police custody, and the only words she has to offer are, “I’m ready for my closeup.” Only time will tell if righteousness among White people actually exists, because a closeup is inevitable. How it will look to viewers is totally up to those who are front and center in the picture.