Our country is bleeding right now. It literally feels like it’s being ripped apart at the seams. People are dying in the streets and buildings are being set ablaze. People are being forced to pick sides, although to be honest I’m losing track of how many “sides” there are. I’m not here to tell you what “side” to pick, because frankly, I think there should only be one side – the side of life. But we can’t even agree to that. The lowest bar a society can possibly set for itself is that killing is a horrific act that should be condemned. We can’t even clear that bar. Within 24 hours of George Floyd’s death people were rushing to justify or validate why he was killed. “He shouldn’t have been doing something illegal! He shouldn’t have resisted!” I’m not going to claim to know the whole situation or backstory. And even if I did, who am I to judge? And that’s part of the problem – he never even had a chance to be judged.
I’ve been thinking and reflecting at length this entire week, and if you’re reading this I imagine you have been as well. The thought that continuously crosses my mind is this – what is my role in all of this? What I can possibly do to alleviate even an ounce of this hatred, pain, or suffering? I’m not going to lie, it’s unbelievably disheartening and discouraging to think about. In previous years, whenever something of this nature erupted, I chose to ignore it and wouldn’t even allow myself to think that far. I can’t choose to ignore it this time.
When the protesting and riots were happening in Ferguson I didn’t respond with anger or rage or attempt to empathize with how the African American community was feeling. No, I was ashamed. I was embarrassed that my city was making national headlines for such a negative thing. I was afraid St. Louis would be labelled as dangerous and that it would have an irreversible black eye in the minds of other Americans.
Acknowledging the pain, suffering, and evil in my own community made me uncomfortable. So I ignored it and waited for the situation to eventually blow over. Because I could. I had the option to not engage in the conversation because I knew I wouldn’t be affected in the slightest. As a white man I could go bury my head in the sand and wait until society moved on to the next catastrophe (as devastating as it is to write that, it’s the truth). After it was over I could go about my merry way, blissfully ignorant.
I’ve had a general rule of thumb ever since I’ve had social media – I wouldn’t post about or engage in anything I perceived to be “hot button” or controversial or anything remotely political. That included matters of racism, racial divide, or racial injustice. I was afraid of receiving any backlash to voicing an opinion one way or another. However, it finally clicked for me over this past week. This is not a controversial topic or a political issue – this is a matter of literal life and death.
When I say I was afraid to express an opinion, the actual emotion was really discomfort. I hate to be uncomfortable (duh), so again, I simply chose the safe route. But here’s the thing – my discomfort is nothing compared to the fear many African Americans live with on a daily basis. When I get pulled over I know I will eventually be back on the road. I can go for a run in my neighborhood and not have to worry about being gunned down. I don’t immediately get profiled when I enter a store or walk though a public place.
I’ll be honest, I was hesitant to even write this post because I didn’t want it to come across as a knee-jerk reaction or that I was just going with the flow to fit in with my social media timeline. But I’m choosing to put my discomfort aside because some people can’t choose to live without fear.
Back in November I began working at a YMCA in the city of St. Louis. One of my primary responsibilities is working with the teens that come to my branch – most of whom are young men and women of color. In my brief time of getting to know them I see them for what they are: bright, driven, kind, enthusiastic, confident, funny, and compassionate. Unfortunately, there are people that refuse to see those aspects of who they are solely because of the color of their skin.
All week long I’ve been thinking about these teens. How are they handling all of this? Are they afraid? Are they safe? Sadly, it dawned on me that this is probably nothing new to them. They have grown accustomed to living in fear, never knowing when one encounter with the wrong person might lead to their death. That is sickening to think about. As somebody that strives to be a role model for these young men and women, I simply can’t ignore the injustices that still plague our country. I want to be able to guide them and protect them, but I can’t do that if I don’t make an effort to truly understand them.
My approach in life is to treat everyone with kindness. As a result, I’ve convinced myself that by treating everyone I interact with respectfully and kindly that that is enough. However, at what point is it simply not enough? That kind of attitude is only trying to not make matters worse. That does not equate to making things better.
I pride myself in being Catholic and a man of Christ. I can sit here all day and say “All we have to do is love each other! Love will heal everything!” I don’t necessarily discredit that notion. I do believe love is the only thing that can unite us in the face of this evil. However, it’s become clear to me that simply saying that love is the key is not enough. I’ve been reflecting all week on how Jesus would respond in this situation. Jesus didn’t just say to love everyone, He lived it. He went out of His way to love the marginalized and afflicted. He healed those that were seen as outcasts. He didn’t turn a blind eye. Neither should we.
So again I ask myself, what is my role in this, particularly as a man of Christ? I’m not going to claim to be the most knowledgeable on the justice system and I certainly won’t be proposing any new legislation. For me personally, it means doing more to educate myself on the suffering countless people have endured for centuries. It means having conversations with the teens I work with to better understand them. It means acknowledging my own prejudices and my own privileges. It means making myself watch the videos and reading the stories that make me uncomfortable. It means confronting my own hypocrisy. Love is more than just being friendly. It’s being empathetic and selfless, providing a source of hope, and restoring trust.
What I fear will happen is that the senseless looting and rioting will be what is remembered over time. The people that are hijacking the original cause are going to ruin everything that so many people are desperately, and peacefully, fighting for. I’ll admit, I have been guilty of that very mindset. When I think back to Ferguson I immediately associate it with looting and rioting instead of the people that peacefully protested. Eventually, the looting and rioting will cease. We cannot let the efforts for equity and justice end as well.
I hate that it has taken these current circumstances to finally grasp the gravity and severity of systemic racism. I hate that it has taken me personally knowing men and women of color to finally become invested in racial injustice. But what I would hate more is if I were to continue to ignore this issue. Looking ahead, I don’t want this to be just a fleeting, one-time-only type of investment. I want to continue to push myself to do more, and hopefully, encourage others to do more.
I mentioned at the beginning how disheartening this entire situation is – how can I as one individual make even the slightest dent? How can we correct the wrongs that have been done? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try. We may not make an impact on a national scale. But if we can make a difference in our own communities, then that’s a success. I understand that I will never fully understand the plight and struggle that a person of color goes through on a daily basis. But if I can continue to learn and educate myself on how to best support them and alleviate some of that struggle for even one person, then that’s a success. There are people in this country whose objective is further division. My goal, and hopefully the goal for the rest of us, is unity.