When you get to be as old as I am, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve figured out at least a few things. I can operate the cable TV remote, I can fix my lawn sprinklers if the timer quits working, and I even know a lot more about myself than I used to. It would be simple to sit back, put up my feet, and believe my work is done. But when I take in the full weight of living in a culture in which two innocent black men are killed by police officers in two days—following many, many similar situations—I understand that this is no time for confidence and sureness.
I also get it that what I can do about this grim reality is confusing, frustrating and very murky. For one thing, there are just way too many things wrong with a society in which certain people are considered less than human. The mess of hatred, violence, fear, and contempt has become melded together, around and top of itself, like a really horrible game of pick-up sticks. Finding the key to the solution, the pick-up stick that will dismantle the muddle, feels beyond the reach of most of us. If there is any chance to allow ourselves to opt out of helping to find the solution—in my case, “I’ve done my time and I think I’ll just rest on my laurels now”—we lean in that direction.
Like most monumental problems, the answer or solution to this one is complex and many-fold. We can’t do it alone and getting us “together” on it feels a little like trying to run really fast straight uphill. We grimace at the futility of online petitions, social media clichés, and letters to our elected officials. We mourn in our small groups and families, and we shake our heads in dumbfounded horror that a society as advanced at ours has barely moved in its consciousness and treatment of each other.
We may not have the capacity to immediately eliminate the problem, but I believe we have more than what it takes to move quickly in the right direction.
I almost didn’t write this because I don’t have an answer, and that is part of the problem. I find myself slinking away from conversations about race and otherness because I don’t have anything new to offer. I pat myself and my friends on the back because, if you squint enough, it looks as if we are living with respect and love for all humans—our own “adequate personal solution,” as feminist writer Robin Morgan once described it. And, in many ways, we are. But self-satisfaction is our worst enemy in a time when so many people are able to turn their backs on profound injustice.
Though the scared, lazy part of me would love to be able to feel as if I’m doing all I can, I know this isn’t the truth. In fact, this is the time to do exactly the opposite. It is the ideal occasion to have the conversations that go beyond confirming my own beliefs. It is in this moment that I must read and hear all the stories about the ways that people are treated unfairly and inhumanely, offer my skills, listen openly and question my comfortable viewpoint. It is on this very day that I must be the opposite of indolent; when I need to work extra hard to understand my biases, my own role in the archaic system of privilege that exists in the culture. Hatred will not budge until we love each other fully, with respect and authenticity.
Even as a lesbian woman who has lived most of my life with shame and rejection from the larger culture, I am white, I have resources, and I have privilege. Now is the time to acknowledge that fact and to say no in every imaginable way to a society that prides itself on justice and equality that is offered only to certain people. This is when we need to bring our most creative and loving heads and hearts together to be the true geniuses I believe we can be. Even if it is on my own block, or at my own kitchen table, I need to understand what it means to be someone who isn't afforded my opportunities, to grasp the ways the larger culture treats "others" differently, and to actively reject the notion that this is in any way acceptable.
What I’ve truly figured out at this end of life is that my knowledge and abilities and position must be used to shine a harsh light on systemic inequality, on the heartless ways we dismiss, mistreat, and destroy people who are not like us. We may not have the capacity to immediately eliminate the problem, but I believe we have more than what it takes to move quickly in the right direction.