The first week I was on my own, I was in New York for a week doing orientation. I was excited about all the new people I was going to meet and all the curriculum I was going to learn to better myself in this year of service and how to make this year productive . Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that week of orientation would be about white supremacy and racism. The second day of orientation we dove right into the topic of white supremacy, it was weird honestly. I was uncomfortable, but not uncomfortable because this was a new topic to me, because it wasn’t as a person of color. As a person of color I have to go out into the world with my head held high on my shoulders and my ears opened but immune to the comments being shouted at me either on my body or even because the color of my skin. I was uncomfortable because being in a room that was ninety-five percent white and being one of five people of color in the room made it uncomfortable. Made it so awkward because you could see the shame and guilt on everyone’s faces. When we talked about white supremacy and racism I fell silent, I felt I could not speak, not because I didn’t have thoughts forming in my head, but because I was afraid to say how I actually felt and my own experiences with white supremacy and racism. I was afraid of being looked at with those eyes. What I mean by “those eyes” is the guilt felt and often times filled with petty eyes, that people not of color give you when they feel bad for you. But this is besides the point, I wanted to take the time to write this blog because I wanted everyone to know what a true honor it was to be apart of something so beautiful. Being in a room of people not of color trying to better themselves and make up for their ancestors past mistakes, made my heart warm. I think about that orientation a lot. That orientation gave me hope that I had been lacking because of the world we live in today. And it still does, knowing that the people in that room are trying to fight alongside me to help stop injustice action, racism, white supremacy, etc. That we won’t stop and our voices will continue to be heard, we will fight and stand up for what we believe, now in this year of service, but also for the rest of our lives. Thank you YAV orientation for giving me that hope back. For reminding me why I am here and why I continue to fight for what I believe in.
I have never been so aware of the color of my skin.
That was my main reflection after spending a day of YAV orientation in New York City.
My time as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) started with all 48 YAVs gathering for orientation, or as it is affectionately called “Dis-orientation.” There was no time wasted in disorienting us! We jumped into Crossroads Antiracism training on the first day which focused training people to have the tools to dismantle racism.
As one of the first activities, we were asked to work in our small groups to write a six word essay about why it was important to have these conversations about race before we go out to do a year of service. One group wrote “Because white supremacy isn’t extinct yet.”
This statement first stuck out to me because the use of the word “yet” reminded me of an inside joke. But as we continued this training, my thoughts kept coming back to that sentence. Even though I am guilty of thinking it is a thing of the past, white supremacy isn’t extinct. But it can be.
During training, we discussed what characteristics, abilities, and qualities are valued and seen as good or the norm. Some examples were white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, English speaking, educated, healthy, employed, well dressed, clean. These characteristics allow people to be in the center of society.
From there we dove into the harder question: What characteristics don’t fall into this narrative that we have painted to be right and good? Who are the people that we cast into the borderlands, the outskirts of society? Maybe you are already thinking of some. The qualities that make you uncomfortable and put people on the outskirts of society. Things that we tend to view as bad or wrong. A few of the examples we used were: brown or black skin, overweight, uneducated, having an accent, not speaking English, illiterate, depressed, unwealthy, old, weak.
That may have been hard to read. But it’s real. And one thing I learned from this is to not brush away the hard feelings, but to lament.
We are built around a center of white supremacy and that leaves many people in the borderlands-the area that surrounds this center of norms. Not just in this country, but around the world. There are characteristics that are seen as good and bad and the value of people is based around how well they fit into the center of our social hierarchy. And the center of this system is white.
It’s okay for it to be hard to hear this. Its okay for this to be bringing up a lot of feelings. It did for me. I had so many hard feelings while doing this training. All of them in a big jumbled mess to the point where I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling or thinking. I still don’t know if I can. I know that there is anger toward our systems of oppression, sadness for the pain and trauma white people have caused throughout history and today, and guilt for my complacency in seeing problems but doing nothing about them.
But white guilt and shame gets us nowhere. White supremacy isn’t extinct yet. It can be, but it isn’t an easy road to get there.
I sat in this training wanting to do something about all of this but not knowing what to do. I was hoping the facilitators would tell us how we can fix it. I wanted to have a checklist of things I can do to make me not be racist and to fight systemic racism.
But that is not how this works.
New York City
We took a trip to New York City the day after we officially completed the Crossroads Antiracism training, but the discussions of race had not stopped there. The excursion was to help us put into practice some of what we had been learning and notice the systems of White Supremacy all around us.
I was very aware of my white skin the entire time. The fact that I have lived for 24 years never having to think about how my skin color is affecting me and those around me shows how White Supremacy is ingrained as a norm. I was aware of my whiteness as I sat on the subway and walked through the streets.
I was aware of my white skin as my group walked into a small visitors center and gift shop to use the restrooms. The employee at the counter happily greeted us and talked with us. As we milled about waiting to use the restrooms but buying nothing, our presence of eight white adults did not seem to be an issue for him. Would it have been the same story if eight black young adults walked in off the street in search of a bathroom? I think not.
I don’t want to make this seem like I am saying I am now so aware of my white skin and I am ready and equipped to fight racism in every way. I am so far from perfect. I mess up. I messed up less than 24 hours out from this training as we were in New York City.
As we walked down the streets of Harlem, we saw a black man laying on the sidewalk, obviously in pain and needing help. There were two people who had stopped to help him and were calling an ambulance. Many people were walking right past him with little regard for what was happening. Classic bystander effect.
As we walked toward him on the sidewalk, I had time to think of what I was going to do. When we got to him, laying on the sidewalk in pain, I did nothing. I kept walking. Didn’t ask if I could help in any way.
I was thinking about being white and walking through a predominantly black neighborhood. I didn’t want to be seen as a white savior. I was so hyper aware of my white skin, aware of all the harm that white people have done trying to fix things. I knew I didn’t want to fall into that category, so I did nothing.
Two weeks later I am still thinking of that specific moment and feeling the same thing for how I acted. I feel ashamed and sad that I did nothing. It makes me feel sick.
Inaction is an action
After learning what I have, I cannot be complacent in this unjust world any longer.
With the constant reminder that white supremacy isn’t extinct yet, I am spurred to take action. I can’t go back and change that moment in Harlem, but I can change how I react in this world of white supremacy each day going forward.
It is hard to think about, but I would rather acknowledge that I have benefited from my ancestors oppressing people and work to fix that rather than ignore the damage that was caused and keep the unjust systems going.
Two weeks after this training, it is still fresh in my brain. I hope it stays there for the rest of my time as a YAV and long into my life. Taking action to break down the borders that oppress people is the only way I see to move forward and that’s what I plan to do during this year.
Like most people in the United States, I was heartbroken when I learned about the slaying of nine members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I was overwhelmed by this event, especially due to it's significance within a history of violence against Black churches and Black people. Living on the border, I have begun to fully realize, for the first time, the ways in which our society consistently marginalizes and abuses people of color. On the border, this racism is embodied in unjust immigration policies, racial profiling, and the death, detainment, and deportation of mainly Latino migrants. On the border and in our nation, this racism is embodied in the death and incarceration of countless young Black men, hate crimes, and unequal access to education, job opportunities, and healthcare for people of color. Recently, these injustices have felt almost unbearable for me. As a privileged White woman, I am not as aware of these inequities because I do not have to face them everyday. I merely wake up to these injustices, ever time there is a large national events.
As an educated college student, I naively thought I was knowledgable about these issues as I had learned about institutionalized racism, slavery, and various forms of oppression in classes. But it is very different when you are surrounded and immersed by issues of race. These issues affect you differently when your friend tells to you about leaving a job because they were racist towards her. These issues cut more deeply when you tell someone your roommate doesn't like hiking and they assume it's because she's Black. You start to see patterns when your friend is denied a driver's license and a college education because of his immigration status. It startles you when you realize you haven't had to learn about or protest this because you are White. Our society usually caters to you with you having to do anything.
Amidst these daunting, depressing thoughts and realizations, I have found strength in my YAV community, my church, and the Tucson activist circles. The Sunday after the Charleston shooting, my pastor, Rev. Bart Smith of St. Mark's Presbyterian Church, compared the gigantic monster of racism to Goliath from the story of David and Goliath. We are David and we must be brave, patient, and purposeful as we throw little stones at the beast's head. As Bart held up a small river rock, he reminded us that the monster of racism is not only external, it also resides in the deep, dark cavities of our heart. We must work to cleanse ourselves of our own prejudices as well as working in community.
Recently, I listened to President Obama's eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the pastors of Emanuel A.M.E. Church. It gave me much hope, clarity, and peace. I strongly recommend listening to his wise words. I'd like to reflect of some of things he said.
"Clem was often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant. But the person who asked probably didn’t know the history of AME Church. As our brothers and sisters in the AME Church, we don’t make those distinctions. “Our calling,” Clem once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation but the life and community in which our congregation resides.”
I deeply respect the AME Church for the longstanding commitment to fight for justice for all people. During my YAV year, I have had the opportunity to worship in churches like Southside Presbyterian Church and St. Mark's Presbyterian Church who try to live out the gospel every day of the week, not just on Sunday morning. They live out their faith by providing sanctuary for migrants, putting water out in the desert, visiting migrants in detention, and advocating for humane policies.
"We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history, but he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress, an act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion, an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways.
God has different ideas.
He didn’t know he was being used by God.
Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer would not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group, the light of love that shown as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.
The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. [Video below] He couldn’t imagine that."
When I learned about the shooting, the first thing I thought was, "Why? Why would God let this happen this to His people?" Although I do not believe that Dylan Roof's actions were part of a divine plan or necessary for people to come together, I do believe God works in mysterious ways. I was blown away when I heard the victim's families forgiving Roof, just days after he had murdered their loved ones. God's grace and love are boundless and impossible to predict or define.
According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.... By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.
This has helped me understand my name, Grace, as an action. We can embody God's grace through racial reconciliation, by loving our neighbors, advocating for our neighbors and fighting for a Kingdom-like world alongside our neighbors.
Below are some questions I am still pondering. If you have any ideas or answers please let me know.
Why would God create a world where such horrible things happen?
How can we forgive people while still holding them accountable for their hurtful actions?
How can I, as an ally, express God's grace?