It is not unusual for me to spend these long road trips in total silence. If the kids are with me, we usually listen to books on tape for part of the time but, if it is just me, then I prefer silence. I enjoy my thoughts and occasionally try to do "driving zazen". Somehow, the time passes swiftly by. Yesterday, however, I decided to see what was on the radio in Virginia. Finding the local public radio station, which I was shocked even existed in rural Virginia (biased Yankee that I am), I heard the horrible news about the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. And I listened to the story as it unfolded the rest of the day.
On one call-in show, I heard with my own ears this thing that I had only read about - white people (who would identify themselves as such) calling to say that this young man was a lone-wolf, mentally ill person who should not be held up as representing all white people. One guy even said, "I have a lot of black friends!" This response is part of the problem. I don't care if your best friend is black. You, me, we**, have to own this thing - 100%.
My relatives were living, dirt poor, in Ireland and in Newfoundland at the time of slavery in the United States, so there is part of me that wants to say, "But it's not me or my people!" Or "But I have black friends!" The question remains - is there blood on my hands? Sorry my fellow lily-white people, the answer is yes.
Having spent some time looking deep inside (and not just on long, silent road trips), I have felt -viscerally - the pain of being female in this patriarchal culture. Not just my personal story with the large and small, gross and subtle, ways that I have been silenced, put down, objectified and negated, but the experiences of every, single woman on the face of this Earth throughout history. Believe me or don't believe me, but I know that I have touched this pain. And when I remember that feeling, which is not so hard to do because it is not so far beneath the surface, I think about how there must be a very similar pain experienced by every black and brown person on the face of this Earth. I don't know this particular pain but I am guessing that the accompanying feeling of sadness at the foolish waste of human potential, the senseless waste of beautiful human life, and the anger that we do this to each other, is similar.
When men say things like, "not all men…" in response to sexism, it is very similar to a white person saying, "but I have black friends!". Men - yes ALL men - have to own their privilege and their responsibility for the history of oppression of women. Nothing will change until every single man admits his role. Likewise, every single white person - myself included - has to own this terrible history of racism that the United States was built upon, even if their relatives were dirt poor and living in Ireland at the time of slavery. And if men who do take responsibly often fall into the trap of then mansplaining how to make things better, I think, likewise, white people need to take responsibility and then shut up and listen. The way to make things better is not to whitesplain what to do. It is time to listen with humility and a desire to atone for this violent, grotesque history that we continue to benefit from everyday of our lives.
What can well-intentioned white people with black friends do in the aftermath of this horrible hate crime? Step #1: Take responsibility. Then, be quiet and just listen, even when it is hard to hear what is being said, even if it feels unfair (it's not), even when it hurts. This is part of atonement - taking responsibility and really hearing the pain of those who you have injured (yes, YOU). My suggestion for how to do that is to begin by just saying it to yourself - say some words out loud to yourself that make sense to you but are real, honest and do not sugarcoat things. And maybe apologize while you are at it. Say these words one time each day. Very simple, very do-able and, I suspect, very powerful. No need to shout it from the rooftops. Saying it to yourself is enough - for now. I have faith that what to do next will make itself clear if we can just get to Step #1.
And I suggest we get right on it.
** By "we" I mean you, Whitey