Courtney writes to her best friend about race and intentions for the new year.
Date: Tue, Jan 16, 2018
It was so great to catch you yesterday — thank you for pacing outside the grocery store entrance in the frigid cold to talk while Mimi decided I was her favorite play structure. Yesterday was my first day alone with both girls because Mimi’s daycare was off for MLK Day, so she was a little stir-crazy after being cooped up all day, save for a freezing cold walk to the coffee shop.
I thought about joining in one of the many MLK Day activities in the area – several marches including a march for tots and museums with special programming, but between Mimi insisting on putting her own socks and shoes on (proud of her, but it takes ten million hours to get out the door), her midday nap, and Syl’s unpredictable feeding needs, it just wasn’t going to happen. While I recognize that being progressive doesn’t require that I march on MLK Day with my infant and toddler while solo parenting, my lack of involvement got me thinking about the danger of being a white woman at this stage of my life – with a family and career to look after and tons and tons of privilege – the danger of complacency if I don’t find ways to politically engage.
Did you see the (brilliant) memes by artist Daniel Rarela about not whitewashing MLK Day? Several depicted images of Martin Luther King, Jr. with quotes from his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. One read, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate … The Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not … the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than justice … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” MLK’s quotes resonated, because they challenged me to examine where I might be failing. What does it mean to not engage in an MLK-related event, no matter the reason? And worse: am I whitewashing elements of my life in order to feel more comfortable? Also, why was I reading MLK quotes in memes and not rereading the letter itself?
At the new year a couple of weeks ago, so many people were like, “Ugh, 2017. Hello 2018!” I get it. We have a racist, unstable president (did you see this Times’ rap sheet?) and way too many people are complicit in keeping him in power. They challenged every policy I care about and made great strides in dismantling entire institutions meant to keep powerful interests in check. It was a really shitty year, and I didn’t even experience the direct harm and trauma that many in more vulnerable positions faced as a result.
But after reading MLK’s letter, and recently, books by two of our great contemporary thinkers – [Ta-Nehisi] Coates’ “Between the World and Me” and [President Barack] Obama’s “Dreams from My Father” – each making sense of their black, male identities as they come of age in a country plagued by white power and privilege, it feels particularly ridiculous to consider 2017 in isolation. Or to say that progressive values were attacked in 2017 in a way they haven’t been before. This is what Dr. King meant, I think, by white moderate’s shallow understanding. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail challenges white people the same way many black thinkers and writers do today: wake up to what has been happening to black people and and People of Color all around you for many, many generations, and use your whiteness to do something about it.
This doesn’t mean 2017 wasn’t really, really bad. But Trump and his supporters – the primary perpetrators of 2017’s harms – are mere functions of the pervasive racism that has existed since our country’s founding. And 2018 will be no better if we don’t recognize how we contribute to that racism and examine how we can stop it.
So one of my intentions in the new year: do more to identify my privilege and use it to challenge racism. I will read and write and think more about race (and gender, obviously). I will go to all of the political actions I can, and use my body and mind to challenge racism. I will teach my children about race and privilege. Please check me on this. Because best friends don’t let best friends be complacent.
When Mimi woke up from her nap we watched Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. She became disinterested in the fuzzy black and white footage, so I showed her Kid President’s commentary on the speech. When it was over, she ran across the room, turned around, and said, “King, Dream?!” I was like, YES!!, elated that she had picked up the basics. Then she requested that I play the Moana soundtrack, soooo more work for all of us.
Cannot wait for the package and to read your letter.
Photo: At the Fair by Eudora Welty