The days of COVID-19, with its related “Stay Healthy at Home” directives, have left me with time to reflect, read, and pray differently. Mostly, the time is bringing me to questions and few, if any, answers.
In the early days, God presented me with an image of a disco ball. My dialogue went something like: “really a disco ball! — a reminder of flashing lights, dance floors, social gatherings. We are in the midst of a pandemic when all of those fun things are not options.” I prayed that the image would just dissolve, but it hasn’t.
This past week, I visited Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest (in Clermont, KY) and spent time with Nis (one of the Bernheim Forest giants built using recycled wood from the region). Nis sits at the edge of a pond and is glancing in, seeing his image reflected for the first time. I finally got it! Nis sees himself and only himself and that image is the same one he sees every time he looks (barring changes in the water). My disco ball also presents a self-reflection; but rather than one, it provides many every changing ones.
So what does this have to do with anything? To me, it feels like the journey. I, like many other white-skinned people, have begun again in the last few months as issues of police brutality have light shown on them; as the deaths and significant illness related to COVID-19 reflect disparities based on skin color; as the education system as we have known it comes to an abrupt stop with its replacement form, impacting the poor and — most often — students of color significantly. For me, it means looking at all the facets of the disco ball and seeing all of me.
The first thing I needed to confront is my arrogance. I was in high school and college when the last “big” civil rights movement took place so I thought I understood race relations and equality of all persons. I have a biracial cousin so I thought I accepted blackness in my family circle. Professionally, I often chose to work in the black sections of town, meaning I drove down streets that often made the news because of the violence that occurred on them the night before. I go to lunch with my black co-workers not really thinking about them as different from me. I worship with a community that is the most culturally diverse in the city. I am arrogant — I think I understand what it is like to live in skin that is not white.
My one-dimensional view really has been unraveling for a couple of years, starting with an innocent comment I made to a woman of color: “I really don’t see color.” The response I received was: “Then you don’t see me.” This short interaction became the first of many facets in my disco ball reflection. Most importantly, it freed me to ask questions and seek insight.
I hear myself asking: How did I not know that the private school education I received was any different from that others were receiving in the public schools down the street? How did I not know that the all-white pool I spent my summers in was that way because others were not allowed in? How did I not know that my all white neighborhood was not that way only because people of the same ethnic background like to live close to each other? Have I ever wondered what my cousin experienced being black in an all white family?
My father is from Virginia, so I have spent endless hours touring plantations and battlefields, seeing the monuments to heroes of the confederate south. Names like Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee have been part of my vocabulary from a very young age — how did I not know that the Civil War was about more than a dispute between states?
I still struggle with my understanding of slavery. My family’s immigration history starts in the 1900s, so we don’t have direct experience with it. This, coupled with my seeing “black help” being much loved when I moved south, prevented me from seeing the pain still being inflicted in current times.
Why did I never wonder what it was like to live in black skin? What was it like when they went home? How do I understand my feelings, as I sat with a group of high school girls as they processed the death of a friend and I could not understand their vocabulary or speech patterns? How do I say to them: “Can you tell me more so I can understand?”
The world of education has been my professional focus — I wonder what the impact has been of my school system’s middle school for students of color with its Afrocentric curriculum? — when/how will the rest of the students get a different view of history?
And I ask myself would I rather be called racist or privileged? Can I acknowledge the fear I experience when I am in loud, seemingly disorganized gatherings of mostly folks who don’t look like me? When I am sharing my financial resources, am I willing to risk and trust that they will be used for good? Can I be vocal enough to say publicly that my white standards are not the only ones that are appropriate? Can I keep risking to ask questions like what is a Green Book or what does a reference to a watermelon imply? Can I risk knowing I don’t know? Can I live with the discomfort of shifting my beliefs?
In the midst of the unrest in the country, I often find myself saying: “Just tell me what you want me to do.” Slowly, I am understanding that would be the easy way out; it would not change my heart.
But I still have more questions: If George Floyd’s painful death had not been played and replayed so often, would Breonna Taylor’s name ever been a part of the conversation? I wonder: is the nation’s outrage about the brutality allowing us to forget the other areas where suffering occurs? Is access to health care, education, employment, just and equal wages being forgotten. How do I keep asking myself the hard questions and be willing to sit with the discomfort?
My disco ball keeps spinning. It keeps asking me to see me in every changing reflection. It keeps challenging me to seek to understand and to ask myself in the words of Resmaa Menakem : “Can I commit myself to the long road ahead?”