I, Cal Cates, am a recovering white person. It’s not easy and some days I fall flat off the wagon. Mostly, it’s moments when I fall now, less than whole days, but still, if I want to continue my journey of recovery, I have to remain diligent. I have to stay with and move through the discomfort, the habits, the ignorance that have made me a part of the problem these past 45 years.
I hear my white friends. My good, white friends who are sure they are not racist or at least who don’t mean to be, as they hammer their Black Lives Matter signs into their lawns. They’ve read and watched and listened to the point that they simply can’t handle any more, they say.
“I tried to read that, but I just had to take a break. It was too heavy.”
“I can’t watch that documentary. I think it’s just going to be too hard.”
“I’ve just done so much work on this stuff. I feel like I’m just full for now. I’ll go back to it.”
We must keep going.
That feeling we’re feeling, those of us who are doing the work and unearthing the lies and discomfort and legacy of violence, this is the place where we have to notice that we are not full. Not even close. We are, instead, aware on some deep, wise level, that we are reaching a point in our awakening that will make it impossible to go back to sleep. We are afraid to reach that point of no return. That point that will make us unable to allow the side comment, the exclusion at work, the racial joke to just go by without our intervention. We know that the simple, mindless comfort we’ve enjoyed as white people in a world engineered for us will be much harder to enjoy if we keep learning and integrating the truth of oppression and hate and harm. We will see our role in it and we will be unable to deny that there are opportunities every single day to do better. Opportunities that we’ve been missing. Even if we “live in a town where there aren’t any Black people.”
The truth is hard. The truth is, quite clearly and indisputably, that white people have been wielding and embedding advantage in our social, political and legal structures since long before America was even an idea. It’s not unique to our country, but we’ve certainly perfected it. The Nazis looked to us our one-drop rule and our Jim Crow and our systems of segregation when they were trying to solve the “problem” of non-Aryans.1
Don’t be immobilized by your guilt and sadness, by your unknowing complicity. There’s no shade of lipstick that will win the beauty contest for this pig. It’s ugly. We can’t go back, but we can imagine and demand and create a better future; if we own our responsibility.
Keep reading. Keep watching. Keep listening. Let yourself tip into the place where it’s impossible to deny that deep, systemic, cataclysmic change is imperative for our survival. The time for well-meaning and anemic allyship is past. There can only be solidarity. The time of turning up our palms in an exaggerated white shrug about our powerlessness to stop or even to see privilege is over. There is no such thing as privilege. Let’s take a cue from Dr. Muna Abdi and call it what it is. Structurally enabled, embedded advantage.1
There are still more white people who want to pretend it’s “not that bad” than there are those of us who want to take responsibility for our crimes and then for creating something unimaginably better. We will have to be strong. Let each bit of truth enter you. Let it lay down roots so that it cannot be plucked out by anyone who would rather stay asleep, anyone who prefers their own comfort over the lives and value of other humans.
Let it all in.
Let the truths you are learning and the betrayal that has made up your previous education rattle you to your foundation. Feel your own rage and sadness at all you’ve been unable to see and even been prevented from seeing until now. It is real and you can see why it’s been hidden. Let it sicken you and make you distrust everything you’ve known and everything you’ve believed about the world and the humans with whom you share it.
Allow that maelstrom of feeling to explode and roll and dissipate and mount again inside you. Over and over and over. Keep going back. Keep engaging. Keep replacing the old stories with the true stories. They say that culture eats policy for lunch. If that’s true, then this work is yours and mine to do. You and me and the climate inside each of our minds and hearts. That’s what makes the culture.
Open, wounded, wide awake hearts and clear, sharp, imaginative minds will make a culture like we’ve never seen before. That is the only culture that will be sustainable and it will not be delivered to us. We will have to work for it. Tuck in, friends.
1. https://www.history.com/news/how-the-nazis-were-inspired-by-jim-crow (and there are plenty more sources; this is just one)