When I was a child, I would lie in bed, terrified of what lurked behind the small crack left open in the closet door or what would grab me from under the bed if I dared to get up for a glass of water or use the bathroom before dawn. Every flicker of a shadow or eerie creak of our century old house would stop my heart, shorten my breath, and deepen the pit in my stomach.
Recently, I found out that my Lucy feels the same way. She’s afraid of the unknown monsters waiting in the dark. I close her closet doors every night and implore her to call me if she’s scared and needs me. Still, she won’t get out of bed to face the unknown.
As adults, we see these fears as irrational and the product of a child’s imagination. We’re supposed to grow out of them and only fear the monsters we can clearly see. After recent and not so recent events, it’s imperative that we again begin to look for those monsters that may be hiding in our closets and under our beds.
If you ask most white people if racism is wrong, you will get a resounding, “Yes!” However, the reality is that most white people, including myself, are complicit in racism every day. That statement may seem shocking and I’m guessing most people’s reaction would be indignation and anger.
I can hear it now:
I am not racist. I don’t even see color.
I don’t have a racist bone in my body.
I can’t be racist. I have a black child, husband, niece, nephew, grandchild, coworker, friend, etc.
All races have racist people. Black people are racist too.
The list of white denial phrases is long and one with which I am all too familiar. In fact, if I’m perfectly honest, I’ve probably used them myself. In fact, full disclosure, I recently found an essay I wrote in high school about “prejudice” that used so many of these rationalizations it made my skin crawl.
The problem is that all too often, we want to see racism as binary. We either are or aren’t racist. We want to cast racism in terms of good and evil, moral and immoral. It’s easier this way. If we do this, we can dismiss the pleas of people of color for justice and we can ignore all of the complexities of acknowledging the racist history of this country and dismantling the system that disproportionately hurts people of color and helps white people. Whether we want to admit it or not, white people benefit from racism at all levels. Dismantling racist systems means losing the privilege they have created for us.
In other words, we can very easily and self-righteously condemn the monsters we can see: The KKK, the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, the vigilantes hunting down Ahmaud Arbery while he jogged, the police officer kneeling on a George Floyd’s neck as he pleads for his life and calls out for his mother. This is right and important to do, but it’s not nearly enough.
The truth is that it’s easy to see obvious injustice and horror, but just as easy to deny the racist monsters hiding in plain sight: microaggressions, housing discrimination, education disparities, criminal justice bias , employment opportunity gaps, health care discrimination. Our system is built on racism and racist practices have lingered long after slavery and civil rights legislation, despite what most white people want to believe.
More personally, we need to do more to speak out against those pockets of racism in our daily lives. More of our white family and friends harbor racist views than we’d like to admit. Many of us have chosen to ignore racist comments or sentiments because it’s easier. We don’t want to make waves. We can just laugh it off as that “one” cousin, aunt, uncle, parent. We can explain it away as them being from another era or a different area of the country or just not knowing any better.
Now that we have a President for whom racism and division is a key component of his election and reelection strategy, we can now even dismiss racism as “politics” as a part of the old adage, “Never discuss religion and politics with family.” Ignoring racism from our families and friends is ultimately an acceptance of racism.
Even more personally, we need to acknowledge and combat our own racist views, sentiments, and implicit biases. This is the most difficult part of the journey because we may find a small monster inside of us. If we’ve convinced ourselves that racism is about good and evil, then admitting to our own unintentional racism is horrifying. However, if we educate ourselves about the complexities of race, institutional racism, and privilege, we can start to expose those monsters that have always been lurking and then dispose of them.
My journey through this process has been painful and complicated. It is also far from over. The two incidents that fully opened my eyes were the murders of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. As soon as I looked at those children’s sweet faces and listened to their mother’s grieving voices, I couldn’t turn away any longer.
Even more horrifying to me, though, were the reactions of so many white people in my life. Instead of seeing murdered children and grieving mothers, they were rationalizing these horrific acts by demonizing the victims and their families. They were dismissing these horrifying events as sad, but reasonable. What kind of monster condones the murder of a child? This revealed the root of sickness in our country and the power centuries of denial, rationalization, and minimizing of racism had on white Americans.
We can easily condemn the outright and explicit racism, but are resistant to acknowledge the less obvious, but just as damaging forms of racism. We’re quick to condemn Colin Kaepernick for kneeling and dismiss Black Lives Matters with an “All Lives Matters.” We are sure to confirm people of color’s right to protest, but adamant that they do it quietly and in a way that doesn’t dare make us uncomfortable.
Over the past few days, I’ve seen many mothers express outrage, horror, and genuine grief over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. However, my fear is that while we see the injustice of these incidents because they have been thrust in front of us, we are also dismissing and ignoring all of those other monsters hidden from our white eyes.
Thankfully, many strong, black mothers are speaking out in their grief. We are all connected in our motherhood and can use that empathy to open our eyes to the realities of these women. Motherhood for women of color is equally affected by racism as all other parts of our society. We need to listen, truly listen to their pain, their fears, their despair. It’s heart-wrenching and unnerving, but it’s our obligation to do so.
After we listen, we must not sit on our hands. We must not give in to the temptation to dismiss it as yet another senseless loss or another “act of evil.” This is the easy way out that too many of us have been taking. It’s wrong. It’s ugly. It’s selfish. It turns us into the monsters that so many people of color fear.
Instead, we can open those closets, clean out under the bed, and shine a light on all the ugly that has been lurking quietly, terrorizing people of color and ignored by those who are too scared to get out of bed. It’s only then that we can stand with our black and brown sisters and relieve some of the terror those hidden monsters of racism have incited.