Idealism Redux

I make no apologies for being an Idealist.

Of course, I have been criticized for it, as have many with shared values. We’ve been called naïve. We’ve been told that our Idealism is “unrealistic”. We’ve been told we need to “grow up”.

But I, for one, have a hard time equating the process of “growing up” with abandoning our dearest principles and rejecting our inclination to serve our fellow man. To my mind, Idealism means believing in something better than what we have, that we are capable of more. Believing that there are noble pursuits and goals that we should strive for, rather than accepting the status quo, which is so often marginalizing, self-serving, and oppressive. When we cease fighting for Idealism, we abandon the very things that makes us human: Compassion, Hope, Love. Shortly before her husband became the first African American President of the United States, Michelle Obama spoke eloquently about our “moral obligation to strive for America as it should be.” This is not an abstract concept or empty platitude; it is a call to action. It is a call many of us have heard and answered.

In responding to this call, we join many “grown up” Idealists throughout history. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an Idealist. He dreamt of a future where people of all skin colors lived in harmony, where discriminatory treatment was a thing of the past. I dare suggest he even dreamt of a day when a Black man could become President. Dr. King’s teacher, a brown-skinned Palestinian carpenter, was also an Idealist. Long ago, this woodworker-turned-itinerant preacher called us to love our neighbors, not to bully, degrade, reject, or strangle them in the noose of our own stubborn prejudices. Five hundred years before him, yet another Idealist, a nobleman of the Indian Shakya clan, called us to relieve humanity’s suffering by offering unconditional grace to our fellow beings, and to recognize our union with others, rather than our differences. Our capacity to care for others, regardless of personal cost or sacrifice, is an Ideal that has been promoted by countless saints of the past, prophets of today, and, God-willing, by the generations of tomorrow.

But right now, in this moment in America, we are struggling to hear this call. We have abandoned our national Idealism, erasing the “Ideal” in favor of a toxic nationalism that is wholly self-serving and absent of grace. And as those of us who persevere continue to push back against this tide of hate and callousness, we grow weary.  We find ourselves constantly having to redirect our brothers and sisters to freely available facts that have been drowned out by recycled fiction. We fend off allegations of ignorance while attempting to refocus the conversation on the many who need our help, rather than the few who exploit an already tragic situation. Even non-Christians are having to cite the most basic tenets of the faith to self-professed believers, who seem to have conveniently forgotten every word Jesus said.

It’s exhausting.

We are called to be better than this. We are called to care for the widow and the immigrant, to help the poor and treat everyone as our neighbor. Why do so many seem to believe that we are instead called to judge the many for the actions of the few, to disregard the basic human dignity possessed by all people, and to refuse to care for anyone but ourselves? Why do so many succumb to fear when the Book in which they claim to believe repeatedly demands that they “fear not”? And how does a simple truth like “black lives matter” elude so many? This phrase is not the “symbol of hate” our President would have us believe. As even staunch Republican Mitt Romney recently said, “I state the obvious, which is black lives matter.” It’s not rocket science; it’s an intuitive Truth. One that our President and Vice President and so many of their followers flagrantly refuse to concede. I find their reluctance to do so appalling.

I’m exhausted of being continually criticized for stating the obvious. I’m tired of the willful hypocrisy and the lack of common decency. I’m disgusted by the greed, insensitivity and hate. I’ve had enough of the accusations, finger-pointing, and demagoguery. If you aren’t willing to stand with the marginalized, then, for the love of God, please stand aside. Or better yet, take a seat. History is not on your side. You will fail. And we’re tired.

We’re tired of you. We have enough work ahead to change the systems of oppression that got us to where we are, that created people like you, and that bound us in complacency for so long before reaching this moment. We don’t need the added burden of dealing with your ignorance.

So, for all those in the back: Generosity is not weakness; selfishness is not strength. Benevolence and compassion are not “unrealistic” or “naïve”. They are the bedrock of our humanity. We are better than the individualism and selfishness that pervades our society today, and we must all learn to be Idealists if we want to have any hope of a better tomorrow.  Dr. King was right about the arc of the moral Universe bending toward Justice, but we’re the ones who have to stand up and bend it.

So if you are having trouble empathizing with our brothers and sisters of color, if you can’t quite wrap your mind around why claiming “All lives matter” might be considered offensive in the face of ongoing, systemic mistreatment of “Black lives”, if you fail to realize that wearing a mask in the middle of a pandemic has nothing whatsoever to do with your liberty, then I urge you to take a lesson from another wise sage:

It’s not about you.

Maybe, just maybe, you should stop and listen for a change.

And if you’re very lucky, in that space of silence, you just might be surprised to hear a still, small voice chanting the same mantra.

Confession

It’s time to come clean. I am a Racist.

Maybe not the torch-wielding, Confederate flag-waving, “All Lives Matter” type of Racist, but a Racist nonetheless. Someone who was raised with Racist ideas, who was steeped in a Racist culture that bent and twisted my perception so severely that it’s taken four decades to even acknowledge my participation in it.

But I am also becoming an Antiracist.

As author and scholar Ibram Kendi points out in his book, “How to be an Antiracist”, people can indeed be both. I’ve only recently begun awakening to the privilege I’ve experienced being White in America. I believe that the current upheaval in our country is serving as a much-needed wakeup call to many Whites, who, like me, have not yet done the hard work of examining their own Racist ideas.

A disturbing trend among conservative White commentators is to flatly reject the notion of White privilege. This is most typical in the lower economic classes, who see “privilege” in strictly economic terms. But that’s not the (only) type of privilege we’re talking about. True, there are solid arguments to be made about land grants, generational wealth, inequitable distribution of G.I. Bill benefits, and discriminatory housing policies. But there are many Whites, particularly from poor, rural communities, who claim to have never experienced any of this economic “privilege” first-hand.

I, too, came from a poor, rural community, but I have slowly come to realize that “privilege” refers not only to immediate, tangible wealth, but also to many other social and emotional factors that, by and large, White people take for granted.

For instance: 

  • I’ve never worried about not getting called back by a potential employer because of the color of my skin.
  • I’ve never had to try harder than others at school or work, only to receive less benefits than those of a different race than me.
  • I’ve never been watched suspiciously by store employees while shopping.
  • I’ve never been pulled aside for additional questioning while going through Security at an airport.
  • I’ve never worried that a routine police stop would leave my children fatherless.
  • I’ve never had to sit my teenage son down and have a frank discussion about how he needs to act and respond to law enforcement, so he won’t get shot.
  • I’ve never had a shiver of dread run down my spine when I see someone flying the Confederate flag.
  • And I’ve never had to conscientiously avoid the White monoculture of the deep South.

Hell, I’m a product of the White monoculture of the deep South. Raised in the rural backwaters of Florida, I learned to be wary of Black bodies. Always lock the car doors when driving through “those” neighborhoods. Always watch your wallet and valuables if you see any of “them” around. Never walk too close to a group of Black teenagers; surely the “gang” will attack you if you enter their “’hood”. And don’t even get me started on the Mexicans!

White people of my generation, growing up in the 80s and 90s, were taught to avoid public discussion of race. Despite being instilled with all manner of Racist ideas, we were supposed to appear “color blind” in public. Likely a strategy concocted to avoid awakening the ire of the Angry Black Man. We were given only a surface-level introduction to the immense struggle of African Americans in the United States, so the justified antipathy toward White power, rightly felt by so many Blacks in this country, was portrayed as unjustified rage. Disproportionate. Uncontrollable. Something to be Feared.

What were “they” so angry about, anyway? Slavery happened a long time ago. MLK won. We don’t say the “N” word out loud anymore. What more did “they” expect from us?

I flush with embarrassment as I recall standing by while a group of boys mercilessly teased the one black kid in my grade school gym class. I’ve convinced myself that I’m a good person because I never joined in, but I don’t even know if that’s true. Memory is a fickle beast, and things you don’t want to remember or are deeply ashamed to remember can easily escape recall.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what Juneteenth was until a week ago. I’m embarrassed that I thought a depiction of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 was part of a fictionalized history of the United States. Surely that couldn’t have actually happened! Gunning down an entire Black neighborhood and fire-bombing their community? Using planes? In the sky? Preposterous! But it did happen. The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 happened, too. Ocoee and Rosewood, both in my own home state of Florida, happened. So much collective guilt. So much to seek justice for.

If I had known about these and so many other incidents of brutality, unjust policies and oppressive systems, I might have been more sensitive to what I saw around me. But probably not. Because I was a Racist. I held Racist ideas as facts and spared no time for empathy or understanding. I was constantly surrounded by racial injustice as a child, but I did nothing. I said nothing. I was silent then and remained so into adulthood.

Which leads me to my Apology.

For the last twenty-five years, it has been my wife that has borne the brunt of my Racist ideas. I am married to a gorgeous, intelligent, strong-willed and vocal Black/Latinx woman who I am lucky still puts up with me. She is kind-hearted, thoughtful, generous, and honest to a fault. And she’ll kick your ass if you deserve it, so watch out! She’s raised three beautiful children, one with special needs, and one that’s a teenage girl, which may be even more challenging.

But despite being married young to this beautiful Black woman, the Racist ideas that had already made their home in me did not disperse easily. Or quickly. Over the years, these ideas have manifested as unfair judgments, ignored concerns, and, perhaps most damning, my silence when I should have spoken up in my wife’s defense.

  • I have stood idly by and said nothing as people mistook her for our children’s nanny, instead of their mother.
  • I’ve kept quiet while people, upon first meeting her, wondered aloud if she even spoke English.
  • I’ve mistaken her quiet fortitude for callousness and failed to support her when she felt vulnerable.
  • I’ve mistaken her passion for anger and her defiance for cruelty, and thought ill of her for it.
  • I’ve embarrassed her by showing my own discomfort with the loud, joyful closeness she shares with her extended family.
  • And I’ve minimized her very real concerns about economic stability. Concerns born from generations of struggle just to receive opportunities I take for granted.

To my wife, I apologize. I am truly and deeply sorry for all the times I have misjudged and abused you. Rejected and shamed you, or made you feel less than.

And I lay my Racism out for all to see. Including myself. Because the only way to heal a nation so divided and broken, is for people like me to own up to what we’ve done. To what our parents and grandparents did, and our great-grandparents. It’s time to acknowledge the sins of our fathers and of ourselves.

White privilege, power and policy has committed Economic genocide against a people who have already been abused for centuries. A people whose bodies have already been enslaved, tortured and killed. Who have been hanged, drug behind vehicles, and shot in the back by police. Whose collective neck has been crushed until they can barely breathe. We did that. I did that.

So if you are White and reading this, make no mistake. You have privilege. I don’t care how little money you have or if you’ve never owned your own home, or if you didn’t get an inheritance from your dead aunt Sally. You. Have. Privilege. You have the privilege to jog through a neighborhood without being hunted down like an animal and murdered. You have the privilege to move up in a society where the color of your skin is not considered a threat. You have the privilege to seek justice from police and courts and expect to receive it. And you have the privilege to breathe without fear.

Lucky you.

Now go apologize to your wife. Or your friends, neighbors or coworkers of color. Tell them you’re sorry for your legacy of White oppression. Empathize with their struggle. Tell them that you were conditioned by Racist ideas and that you’re still learning, that you’re not perfect but you’ll change. And after you’ve done that, go use that privilege of yours to make a damn difference. It’s time.

June 19, 2020