This isn’t who we are! We are better than this!
We have all heard people utter these sentiments. Many of us have said them with deep sadness, disappointment, and not even a touch of irony. In the past, I certainly have.
But after Americans witnessed the murder of George Floyd, yet another killing of an unarmed black person at the hands of police officers, we are compelled to revisit those confident statements and ask them as questions.
Is this who we are? Are we better than this?
The answer to that first question is yes, this is who we are, and by “we” I am referring to white Americans. That is an uncomfortable answer. It is not the answer that most of us want to be true, but there is a mountain of evidence composed of black bodies that should be undeniable: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Eric Garner. The list goes on and on and on and it has not stopped growing. We, white Americans, must stop denying that, yes, this is who we are.
The murders of unarmed black Americans cannot be laid at the feet of a few “bad apples” among America’s police. We live in a culture that has created the environment, the training, the lack of repercussions, the silence of their colleagues, and the “Not Guilty” verdicts of juries that allow these murders to continue.
The full adage is “a few bad apples spoil the bunch.” Keeping with the apples analogy, our culture in regard to the value it places on black Americans is rotten to its core.
What is profoundly uncomfortable for white Americans, me included, is that each and every day we benefit from the system that subjugates black Americans; we contribute to the rot. Every day that we remain willfully ignorant of how we are an ongoing part of systemic racism, we contribute to the rot. Every time another black America’s life is unjustly taken and we pat ourselves on the back for saying how wrong it is, share articles, images, and thoughts on social media about the injustice — even march against it — and then return to our comfortable lives, we contribute to the rot.
Every time we utter “this isn’t who we are” or “we are better than this,” we deny the truth of our part in enabling a racist system to persist and we contribute to the rot.
How can a society that has just witnessed black Americans dying at a disproportionate rate due to COVID-19 say, “This is not who we are?”
How can a society that knows our public school system is failing black Americans say, “This is not who we are?”
How can a society that knows that, for white parents, “the talk” means discussing sex with our children and for black Americans “the talk” means explaining to their children how not to get wrongly arrested or killed by police say, “This is not who we are?”
Conversations about race are hard. They are uncomfortable. They are humbling, for sure. At times, they are embarrassing. We will get it wrong. We will be ignorant to the extent we are complicit in systemic racism continuing. We will use the wrong language, center our own sadness about the state of our country, look for praise or acknowledgement for working for change, and sometimes, we are going to get called out for some or all of that and we will feel humiliated.
If those are not efforts we are willing to make and risks to our fragile egos that we are willing to take, then we cannot continue to say “this is not who we are” or “we are better than this.”
The term “anti-racist” is being used more and more. It challenges us not to be satisfied with ourselves for not actively and intentionally discriminating against non-whites or not committing acts of verbal or physical violence against people of color.
Being anti-racist means taking the time to re-educate ourselves about racism in America and unlearn much of what we think we understand about racism. We have to spend time listening to, truly hearing, and working to understand what black Americans are saying today and have been saying for the duration of our country’s history.
It means speaking up when you see or hear your fellow white Americans acting in racist ways and saying racist things.
I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about sexual harassment and assault. One of the most powerful weapons for change is to stop being a silent bystander. The same is true of racism. When someone engaging in racist behavior is met by the silence of those around them, it is interpreted as approval. If you don’t approve, then speak up.
It’s difficult and it’s uncomfortable, but why do white Americans think we deserve to remain comfortable on issues of race?
We exist in a society where white Americans benefit from systemic racism. That is the answer today to the question: Is this who we are? Acknowledging that is the first step toward answering the critical question moving forward: Are we better than this?
Lisa Senecal is co-founder of The Maren Group, a writer, and chair of the Vermont Commission on Women. She lives in Stowe and is a Vermont native.