Why You’re Part of the Problem with Racism Even Though You’re Nice

-a letter from one white woman to another-


Dear Friend,

I know that my recent comments on your Facebook posts have been annoying, and I need room to explain what I mean when I say that, when it comes to racism in America, you are part of the problem.

Whenever there is another peak of racial tension in our country as a result of some event—like the recent killings of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Scott in Charlotte—you post things to Facebook about why the media is actually causing all the racial drama, escalating problems, making things seem way worse than they really are–and you’re tired of it. Stupid media. Or you share a post from a white store owner whose store was looted in the protests. This store owner says that he has always been nice to everyone who comes through the doors of his store, regardless of color, and he’s tired of all of this nonsense, too. You want everyone to live together and treat each other with kindness and just get along! Then I comment and tell you that you are part of the problem.

I can see where you might think I was being unkind and unfair. But I mean what I said with a vehemence that I have trouble articulating, and I’ve been trying to think of how to explain it to you. Here’s what I came up with. It’s an analogy, and analogies tend to be imperfect, but I actually think that this one gets perfectly to the heart of what I’m trying to tell you. It’s going to take a little time, but please bear with me.

First I need to back up a bit. Many years ago, I found out that the father of my two older daughters was sexually abusing one of them. The story of that discovery and all that ensued would fill a book, but for today’s purpose let’s suffice it to say that it was much more difficult than I ever would have guessed to get my daughters to a place where they could be safe and protected from their father. In the meantime, for a period of about nine months, I shared custody with my ex-husband—the child sexual molester–and I was forced to hand our daughters over to him for visitation every other week. The legal system had made it abundantly clear, in no uncertain terms, that if I withheld visitation from my ex-husband, I would lose custody of my daughters completely. So they would spend a week with me, and then I would hand them over to their father to spend a week with him. Knowing that he had sexually abused one of them.

This was the darkest time in my life. While I was doing everything I could on the legal front to fight the battle for my daughters’ safety, I also met weekly with a child psychologist—to get advice on how best to help my daughters in their current situation—and with an adult therapist, to help me cope with the situation. Both of these therapists told me, on several occasions, “At least your children know that you are fighting for them. Your daughter (the one who was abused) knows that you believe her, and that you are doing everything you can to fight for her. That will make a difference.” At the time I found their statements comforting, but rather odd. OF COURSE I was fighting for my children. Was there really any other option?

Now fast forward to a number of years ago when I took a position as women’s chaplain at a county jail. The vast majority of women I meet in jail are there on drug-related charges. The vast majority are addicts. And the vast majority of these women who have shared their life stories with me have been abused as children—physically, sexually, and/or emotionally. Perhaps that didn’t surprise me so much. What DID surprise me—and continues to gnaw at my soul every single time—is the number of women who tell me they were sexually abused as children, often raped from an early age—starting as early as 3, or 6, or 9 years old—by a father, or grandfather, or uncle, or mother’s boyfriend—and whose mothers, when they found out about the abuse, did nothing. Over and over again, that is a story I hear. Often I’m told that at first the mother didn’t know—even though it is suspected that she probably knew at some level, at the level of the soul where we know something that we haven’t admitted to ourselves consciously yet. Then, when the mother did find out—when her daughter told her, or when the mother saw it happen with her own two eyes—she still did nothing. Sometimes the daughter was blamed for it. More often, it was just ignored.

Part of me has compassion for these women—the mothers, I mean. I know what it’s like to not want to believe that a man whom you love could be a monster. I understand, better than most, maybe, the impulse to pretend that you don’t know what you know and to go on with life as though it’s not true, because you just desperately want everything to be OK and for everyone to get along. You feel helpless and you don’t know how you can ever possibly fix the situation. Maybe, the impulse tells us, if we ignore it, if we fail to acknowledge the horrible, ugly, nearly unfathomable horror, it won’t actually be true.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Racism is that sexually abused daughter. Maybe we can ignore it, pretend that we’re a happy family and everything is just fine, and maybe there won’t even be any more horrible “incidences” for a while. But the mother who does that is a huge part of the problem. Maybe, in a best case scenario, the mother is herself very kind to the daughter. And yet… her betrayal of her child is, in my eyes, every bit as damaging as the abuser’s betrayal.

What I’m saying is that you may, in truth, be perfectly kind to every black person you ever meet. But your refusal to acknowledge the problem of racism is a betrayal. Instead of saying, “I hear that you are being hurt. That matters to me because I love you and value your life. I will do everything in my power to stand up for you, to try to change the situation so that you aren’t hurt like this anymore,” you are saying, “I hear you saying that you are hurting. Stop making such a big deal out of it. We need to just all try to get along.” Would you say these words to an abused daughter? I guess we don’t know, since that is, in fact, what many women say. But for me, there really isn’t a choice.

What if the abused daughter were to begin to act out? What if she were to start doing drugs at an early age in an attempt to stop feeling her pain? And what if, in her drug addicted state, she did something like steal from you? Because I’ve heard those stories, too. The daughter who has been sexually abused for years, whose pain has been ignored or invalidated by her mother, grows up and does something like steal from her mother. That hurts the mother. You know, kind of like how the folks who looted that white man’s store hurt him. Does the abuse, or the hurt caused by racism, underlying the sequence of events leading up to this scenario mean that the act is justified? Is it OK to steal or to loot? Of course not. But can you see why I believe that it’s a betrayal for you to focus on the white store owner’s pain over the looting while ignoring all of the underlying hurt that led up to that event?

Yes, I, too, wish that we could all just love each other and get along. But I hear my black brothers and sisters telling me that they are being hurt. I won’t betray them by ignoring them. I will listen. I will tell them that they matter, that their lives are valuable to me, that I care about the things that have happened to them and I care about their pain. I don’t know how to fix it and I know that it won’t be fixed overnight, but I will not be complicit by ignoring it.  I will do whatever is in my power to fight to make our country one in which everyone feels safe and valued. I hope that you, my friend, will join me.