By Vernon A. Williams
The profound literary oxymoron that launches the classic “A Tale of Two Cities” articulates the contradiction of the times in which we live. Author Charles Dickens wrote:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
No words more succinctly capture the brutish, endearing reality that is 2020.
Since the start of this year, most have been directly or indirectly impacted by the ravages of a cruel pandemic. For some it brought unending tears in the departure of loved ones who had to die alone because of the contagion, while others shouted “hallelujah!” testimonies after miraculous recoveries.
While the inhumanity of national leadership emboldens divisive rancor and acrimony among people of different religions, ethnicities, genders and political persuasions, resounding cries for social justice echoed in 358 cities throughout all 50 states and more than 70 countries. Unprecedented!
One compelling truth emerges from the troublesome uncertainty. That is, if we are going to outrun the demons and make lemonade out of the bitterness, it will require broad, forceful alliances committed to not merely rhetoric and hollow gestures but to substantive, sustainable change. Play time is over.
If Black and White Americans fail to seize this moment to set aside differences for a common good, there may never be another such opportunity; at least not in the lifetime of those of us going through social, psychological and spiritual pandemonium. This is a test of faith – a test of character.
There is a phrase that is trending, which makes me reluctant to use it, but there’s just no better way to express it. Anti-racism. At IUPUI, I am leading a group of predominantly white faculty and administrative staff in an engaging dialogue on the subject. None of us are experts. My job is to create dialogue.
That’s what we have to do on everyone’s job, in everyone’s neighborhood, in every professional, social and civic organization, in every congregation, in every classroom and every social circle. It is time to reach a new level of understanding, to ask the tough questions, to give the honest answers and to move forward without condemnation or being judgmental.
Many well-meaning white folk are trying to figure out how to react to their call for conscience in this pivotal moment in history. Some are beating themselves up with guilt. While that may be cathartic, there is a better solution. Some simply disassociate from the cause, basking in their liberality – until someone tells them it’s not enough. Some don’t give a damn, and we will always face that challenge.
But for those who do, the phrase “anti-racism,” can be a game changer. It says simply that it is not enough NOT to be racist. You have to be willing to fight it.
White folks donating to activist organizations and protesting injustices are definitely good starts to becoming an ally. Actively rebutting prejudices in your own circles is key to lasting change, as those ideas and beliefs — unless challenged — are what our children absorb and are woven into the fabric of our culture. The examples demonstrated today will impact generations.
Spelman psychologist Beverly Tatum says to interrupt patterns of systemic racism takes more than symbolic gestures. Everyone has particular spheres of influence, in which we help shape the mindsets, and thus the behaviors, of others. Ask yourself what messages you’re sending to your family, friends, workplace, places of worship and outside activities. What leadership are you providing or are you silent in the face of racism?
“Unless I’m really being intentional and thinking about how to interrupt the racist policies and practices that are surrounding me, then my silence is supporting that,” Tatum added.
“People sometimes think, ‘Well, I’m not calling anyone names or doing anything hateful, [so] I have no responsibility,’” she said. “But the system of this web that surrounds all of us is reinforced by silence. So you have to speak up against it in the places where you are.”
White friends, associates, acquaintances and strangers alike must not merely share the outrage and pain of Black marginalization and oppression, they must be willing to consistently be outspoken in opposition to it – even when no person of color is within earshot. That would be revolutionary.