Thanksgiving was pretty good this year. It was relaxing, full of excellent food, and conversation with family was pleasantly uneventful. Leftover pie was eaten, early Christmas gifts were ordered online, and lazy afternoon hours were whiled away with good books and naps. This is interesting, because not more than seventy-two hours ago, my family and I were shocked and outraged at the news that Darren Wilson, the St. Louis police officer who shot and killed a black 18-year old, would not be facing a trial.
It’s been a tough couple of years for those of us who thought that racism was a remnant of the distant 1960s, who liked to think of ourselves as modern, open-minded, and “colorblind.” A black man shot and killed by police while shopping. A 12-year old black boy shot and killed by police while playing with a BB gun. An black father of six choked to death for selling untaxed cigarettes. An unarmed black motorist beaten and framed by police. Eight black women sexually assaulted by a police officer. The horrifying reality is that it’s easy to lose count of these stories.
These are not fantastic holiday conversations, but they are reality. Blacks in the United States are far more likely to be killed by police. When their deaths are noticed by the media, the search for “proof of sin” kicks off immediately. These are not new developments in our country; our history of racism stretches from its early history to the present day. Beyond the obvious, embarassing stuff from the history books, our past and present are filled with subtle biases, abuse by those in power, and carefully-constructed systems of discrimination.
It’s those systems that are the most insidious: no matter what challenges I face and difficulties I must overcome in my life, I am a white man. I will never be subject to the same suspicions and assumptions and demands for justification that are so common—and sometimes deadly—for blacks in our nation. I can rest easy, knowing that the color of my skin will not associate me with the New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival Riot. If my white neighbors and I were to destroy our neighborhood, we’d most likely be called “revelers” and the destruction characterized as “mischief.”
I can object to the evils of racism, but I must also face the truth: I benefit from systems designed to give me a buffer of trust and protection that black men and women in the United States do not enjoy. I live in a world where racism is often treated with less seriousness than my discomfort at being reminded of it. As Jon Stewart (a fellow white guy, naturally) said, “If you’re tired of hearing about racism, imagine how tired people are of experiencing it.”
And so, here I am. Eating thanksgiving pie, contemplating the future, and reflecting on the profound luxury of ignoring terrible things when they feel overwhelming. It’s easy for me to take comfort in the quick hits of outrage that spring up when a new injustice, a new horror, reaches social media or the nightly news. “I don’t support that! It’s terrible!” But days pass and as outrage gives way to exhaustion, the temptation to “move on” is strong. After all, I spoke out! I Tweeted.
As we approach 2015 and plan for a fresh new year of study and achievement and creativity and connection, that’s the challenge for those of us who have the luxury of looking away. Every day cannot be a protest, but every day has opportunities to change ourselves and the world around us. It is up to us to educate ourselves, to listen to people whose experiences we are allowed and encouraged to ignore, and to respond with humilty and grace when we get it wrong. It is up to us to learn what we can do in the time between the headlines.