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The burden for progress

She sat across from me, her big brown eyes tired from a hopelessness I’ve never known. We were in a large room filled with people from our community to explore and understand white privilege. In our small groups, we were supposed to discuss the benefits and costs. The list was long and exhaustive: I am given the benefit of the doubt when pulled over and not immediately seen as a threat in any situation. I don’t have to worry that the sound of my name will prevent an employer from calling me back for an interview. I have never walked into a space and not seen other people who look like me or felt like I didn’t belong somewhere because of my race.

She sat and listened to the group before she spoke up. Almost without any emotion in her voice, she shared that as a black woman living in this area for most of her life, she had never experienced the kind of division and racism she encountered today. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “I just don’t understand. We come into this world and go out the same way. We are all human beings. Why does this division between us even exist?”

The only thing I could think to utter in response was “fear, power, brokenness.” But even in the truth of those words, my answer felt insufficient and unhelpful. How would we ever move past this when so many still deny the lived experiences of people of color; when we dismiss our history and its compounding implications; when people protest these types of events because they are “anti-white” and threaten the system that keeps them on top? How can we heal our brokenness when we are still so segregated and divided; when we avoid looking inward at the structure we have inherited to understand the ways we have been conditioned to make it thrive?

At that moment I was struck with the realization that my passion and outrage were also a privilege. Looking around at the packed room of people, I felt hopeful and energized by the level of engagement on such a difficult topic. Her history and experience made her skeptical and weary.

I spent much of the next hour and a half listening to experiences so different from my own. One woman shared that she was stopped for jogging in a white, affluent community. The officer did not believe that she was a law student at the neighboring campus and hassled her for identification to prove it. In another suburb, a resident called the police on an eleven year old black boy who was delivering papers.

After a little while, an older woman in our group finally spoke up. She had sweet, twinkly eyes and spoke at almost a whisper. But, her words were serious and deliberate, and we had to lean in close to hear her story. She had lived in a nearby suburb for more than 30 years. Back then, they were one of only a few families of color in the area, but people were accepting and mostly peaceful. As more black families have started to move in recently, she and her family have experienced more and more overt racism. As her eyes filled with tears, she shared that even in their own community they somehow feel like outsiders now. Her grandchildren no longer feel safe.

I thought about all the ways that I am simply removed from this reality. And, because of that, how easy it is for me to put my blinders on and go to sleep. I can avoid uncomfortable situations by rationalizing things away. I can check the box of good intentions and honest effort and carry on with my life. But, that luxury is the very privilege that has dulled the hope for many of the people in the room that night.

Throughout each story, there was a presumption of unbelonging, danger and criminality, based solely on the color of their skin. Over and over again, I heard a longing to be seen and heard and validated, all with a stunning lack of anger and such bravery and grace. It was clear how white privilege and racism inflict trauma on individuals, how it is passed through families and communities, and permeates our society until it becomes normalized and accepted. Ultimately, it dulls our humanity and limits our true potential.

That night I was gripped by the exhaustion and despair I witnessed. It reminded me that the burden for progress is ours to carry. We white people must stay awake and pay closer attention. We must educate ourselves and make our spaces less white to shift our perspectives and proximity to these issues. Yet, even as I write these words I struggle with how best to do the work and wield my privilege for good. There is such a fine line to avoid overstepping that I rarely see it until I’m on the other side. How do we elevate these voices without speaking for them? How do we center the work of equity and inclusion without getting in the way?

I don’t have the answers, and I know I don’t always get it right, but I do know we have to keep trying. The power of that evening wasn’t that we solved any problems. It was the simple act of coming together, of sitting across the table from one another to listen. If we just keep showing up to have these conversations, however hard and uncomfortable, we can reconnect our humanity and rebuild our communities in a way that centers the needs of the people who are most impacted. Little by little we will be transformed by connection until we no longer see where our needs end and others begin.

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