She’s been processing it for days at this point. My coworker, who is Latina, was in a Houston mall a week or so ago when a man stood on a table, yelled white supremacist slurs, and apparently set off fireworks before melting into the crowd and disappearing.
She and her small family went running for the parking lot as part of the mass exodus from the mall. They didn’t know it was fireworks. People trampled over one another, jumped highway barriers, or sped away in cars.
Behind the front desk of the vet clinic where I work, in our slow moments, she pulls out her phone and replays videos of the event, re-reads the news articles, and tells me again that she’s terrified to go into Walmart even, but they need basics.
“Get your people, Shannon,” she tells me. She laughs, because the other options aren’t great. I smile, because my options aren’t great either.
But mostly I think how I wish I could, how I wish I were more powerful than I am in this political moment, how I wish there were measurable actions that feel like action and solutions and forward movement.
Other days, she shows me videos of brown men in detainment camps who haven’t showered for days, and are subsisting off of two cheese sandwiches a day. She tells me of ICE raids at the Home Depot in her part of town, where day laborers wait for work, or the raid in Mississippi. She tells me stories of the lives she knows, and of her constant fear.
And I feel paralysis.
And then I feel shame for feeling paralyzed. And none of this is productive, but I don’t know what would be productive. But I’m not ready to give into “there’s nothing I can do.”
Some days, I say, “white people are shit. I’m sorry.” Other days, I contemplate saying something stupid and fragile like “not all white people,” but I don’t.
And it’s not all of us, not intentionally, but defense isn’t fruitful, and I can’t be trusted to parse out the ways I participate in oppression or don’t. I don’t want to participate; mostly I’m afraid I unwittingly do.
“I know you’re not one now, but were you raised to be racist?” she asks me one day, our hands in busy-work.
I pause. I think no. I think yes. I don’t know.
My mind flashes to the crack of dawn, Mexican children on our school bus who only spoke Spanish, their parents migrant-farmers in the pepper and turf farms around our home. I remember how silent they sat, how far away, staring out the window so alone.
I think of Black children in our town, the streets we didn’t drive down, the things that got whispered about fear or “mixed-race relationships.”
I fumble for the words.
“Not explicitly. Like, my parents tried really hard not to be racist and to teach us what’s right, just like all white people with a conscience try.”
She looks at me and waits.
“I mean… I didn’t know until I was an adult how complicit I was in the oppression of others, or that I have privilege as a white person. It’s a thing I worry about a lot – like, is it okay for me to live in my neighborhood as a white person, what do I do with my lingering fears of non-white bodies, or how do I make sense of my kid being in the best public high school in Houston. How do I tell the story about him being the only white kid in a mostly Black school the year before that? That sort of thing. Once I saw glimpses of my blindspots, I can’t unsee them, and I guess I spend a lot of time anxious about how I live and if I’m doing enough.”
“But you don’t think white people are better than brown or black people.”
“Of course not. Like, cognitively, I’m there. But rearranging my life to live out that justice is harder. Knowing how to make equitable decisions is hard. And it’s true, that there were racist ideas I picked up along the way from culture, and those take time to get back out of you.”
She’s quiet for a moment. “That makes sense,” she says.
And then, “Is that why you live in a Black neighborhood?”
“I think so,” I say. “Who knows if my motives were truly good? But I tried. I had a professor who talked a lot about ‘joining’. I knew I needed something radical to get the demons of white supremacy out of me. A friend invited me, and I said yes. It’s not a thing I was choosing per se, but it was grace. Living here, it’s normalized Black life for me, has given me a window into belovedness of others, a window I needed. I was terrified in the beginning for my safety. Now, my fears are about whether my life in this place hurts them somehow, like if I’m intruding.”
She listens. “You’re an interesting white person.” And then she pulls out her phone, and shows me a cat video, laughing as she says, “LOOK at it,” and I know she’s satisfied for now. I breathe.
I feel as if I have been paralyzed for a hundred years.
I used to believe in the power of words to change things, but words under this administration have been warped and placed under scrutiny. They are undermined by rhetoric, and truth is called into question.
I feel so small in the face of injustice which is so large, and my anger isn’t sustainable. It burns bright in flares as each news story breaks, deepening into embers, before collapsing into despair and exhaustion. I breathe out smoke.
Add in the self-doubt about my whiteness and wokeness that is always crouching at my door. Can I say this? Can I say it that way? Are there words for it? Have I nuanced it enough? Have I nuanced too much, and not been bold enough?
All around me, it’s like we’re all collectively saying, “Do something! Do something! We have to do something!” We all feel the urgency. But it’s not clear what to do, and our small lives are our small lives, and all we can do is be faithful moment by moment.
It’s hard not to foreclose on hope.
I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this.
I guess I wonder if I am the only one who has felt paralyzed for this long.
And they can question our arguments, our assertions, our truth-telling, whistle-blowing, activist gospel-preaching all day long, but what they can’t do is take away our stories, and the way even sharing despair connects us to one another against a backdrop of alienation and aloneness.
I don’t know how to do this.
That’s my confession. Our world is gripped by madness, and I wish without fail that I could do something, but mostly I don’t know what to do, or what to say, or how to make it stop. And on days, that feels hopeless.
And I know I can’t be the only one. So maybe these words, the admission of despair and what I don’t know, can be a weird backward gift of hope, a way of saying, “Don’t give up. Stay with me.”
Please don’t give up. Please stay with me. We’re not alone. I don’t know what we can do together, but we can do it together. We have to.