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In July of 2000, I was 19. I was a freshly-minted not-virgin, and much of my summer felt like a classic coming-of-age film. Of particular note was the bizarre road trip adventure I took with a couple of strangers that eventually wended its way to downtown Richmond, Virginia. I grew up in North Carolina, in the most segregated city in the country by many measures at the time (Winston-Salem), and I was no stranger to racism. But as I stood on that street, I realized there was an entire universe of racism I had yet to comprehend. Towering monuments to the confederacy (I refuse to capitalize it) lined the street. In my memory of it, there were at least 20, but apparently it was only 5. But what horrified me most was that the street was mostly full of Black people (to the point where my white stranger-friends and I stood out like sore thumbs). It felt like white people, clearly a numerical minority here, nevertheless felt the need to assert their ownership of this street, this city, this country–and to remind Black people that they were unwelcome. I was genuinely, truly, absolutely confused and shocked that the hundreds of Black people I saw on the street weren’t trying to tear down these monuments RIGHT NOW. The fact that they weren’t suggested that 1. They were really used to this kind of blatant oppression 2. Social conditioning had taught them not to worry about it right now and 3. Perhaps most ominously, that there were bigger racial problems they needed to deal with. There’s been a piece of my heart that’s been sad and angry and guilty and horrified ever since.
I wanted to rip those monuments down myself, but I knew that I didn’t really deserve that satisfaction as a white person. I’m devastated that it took 19 fucking years for these monsters to come down, but I needed to go see for myself that they had, and to mourn the agonizingly slow rate of meaningful racial change in this country.
One of the awful truths that gets lost so often in our conversations about racism in America is that structural racism means that white people grow up in a state of carefully government- and socially-crafted oblivion. On some level, we know that life is harder for Black people, but we don’t really understand why or how or feel any connection to it. The system is designed to keep us in barely sympathetic ignorance. Something has to disrupt our illusions in order for us to “get it,” and then it takes years of effort and education to destroy a lifetime of smoke screens (what the great Black sociologist W.E.B. DuBois called “the veil”). That day in Richmond, I felt like someone had accidentally let the veil slip in front of me, and I’ve never been the same since.
I saw a post from a Black woman on Twitter recently saying, “white people aren’t used to thinking this much about race, take care of yourselves.” One of the many components of white privilege is that worrying about race is sort of optional for you, and I’m well aware that depressingly few white people do. But I’ve opted in for most of my adult life since that day in Richmond; thinking about race is a big part of my job, and explaining it is something I do almost every day. White privilege for me means that I don’t have to think about race every day *all the time*; but more importantly, I get to emotionally disconnect from it–which is different from not thinking about it. For me as a white person, that twitter user was sort-of wrong: I think about racism constantly, but I’m not used to letting myself *feel* this much about racism everyday, because if I did, I’d just sob while I taught my classes. I’m accustomed to completely disconnecting from my lessons on race in order to get through them. Even while writing this, I’ve often had to correct myself from talking about white people as a “they” to a “we,” because distancing myself is how I normally cope. As soon as I start changing those pronouns, I start crying.
I went back to Richmond yesterday for some catharsis. I cried for much of the drive down, but surprised myself by not really crying at all once I got there. It felt like a battle had been won. Lee’s monument has little graves all around it memorializing Black people who’ve been shot by the police, which is heartbreaking. But being there, I can tell you that there’s no question that a battle has been won. Lives were tragically and horribly lost, and it’s only one battle in a very big war, but Black people were taking a well-earned victory lap all over that monument while I was there. There were so many Black families cheerfully posing for photos that I didn’t even get up on the monument myself as I had planned to. This was their moment, and as an ally, I bore witness to their victory from a respectful distance without needing to coopt it.
Symbols matter. There’s a little piece of my heart that feels hopeful and assuaged seeing these stone heads metaphorically chopped off. I wanted to guillotine them myself, but I accept that my role as an ally means trying to make a safe space for Black people to do the chopping. And I’m posting this with the hope in my heart that this is not just the end of something. It’s the beginning of something else.