When the news of the heinous murder of passengers on a commuter train in Portland broke, I was shocked and mortified. The train station in the news was the same one I had used countless times when I visited a year or so back. Knowing that I had been on that train, imagining the scene over and over in my mind, sent a chill through me. How could this happen? How are we at a place in America where standing up to bullying can end with a cut throat? How, in a liberal enclave like Portland, can we see such vile and brutal behavior? In my shock and disgust, I posted on my Facebook: What has happened to you America? You have lost your soul.
And that is when a valuable lesson in white privilege was brought right to my inbox, from a dear friend and former student.
She reminded me that though it may feel to me that America has lost its soul, and that vile, white terrorists are attempting to usurp our happiness and our freedoms, that my experience with this feeling is relatively new. Most people of color in this country, however, have had a fear of white terrorists their entire life. America hasn’t lost its soul, my student told me, it is right where we left it centuries ago.
We had a long discussion via messenger, but it was when she said these words that the ‘a-ha’ moment really occurred:
“In order to be shocked, things have to be different than the way you perceive them. America hasn’t gotten “worse” per se, just worse for certain sects of the population that, through privilege, had the luxury of not being cognizant of the seedy underbelly. The issue now, with everything happening, is that people that were not previously impacted by the goings on, are feeling the direct effects. Example: unemployment rates. All of a sudden, jobs are an issue. Well, call any minority (Hispanics and Latinos included), and they will tell you our unemployment rate has been in the double digits since ’99. Ask any minority about ebbs and flows of daily violence, or how the institutions of America have never worked for you, because they were not designed with your inclusion in mind. After all, you were in the books as 3/5 of a person.
That other story, the one with the congressman who slammed the journalist, that got publicized because it was a reporter. Well, there were no cameras rolling when my little sister, one of only four minority kids in her entire elementary school, was bodily moved out of the lunch line by the principal, a white woman, for talking. She then was made to wait until every child had received their lunch, before she was allowed to get her food. Worth noting, nothing was said to the white girl she was talking with.
So, has it gotten worse? No, this is exactly the America I have known it to be my whole life.”
I am so grateful for people in my life who challenge me and help me grow. We are at a crossroads in America. So much damage has been done. So much damage ahead. But, if we hope to turn this dark time in our country into something other than hatred, and fear, and despair, we must be willing to listen to others and to check our pre-conceived biases and privileges at the door. Yes, America is broken. But, it has been for some time. Some of us have been lucky enough to watch it from the sidelines.
We are all in it now, and before we can move forward together, we must be ready to admit that we have failed to see the full extent of our brokenness in the past. We didn’t help. We waited too long. We are a part of what made this mess. Before we acknowledge this truth, growth and healing cannot occur.
We are broken, America. We have been broken. Let’s break ourselves more and, through the cracks of our collective pain, let’s let the light shine through.