I was around ten years old, and my class was studying the slave trade. Many of us were deeply affected, and I remember having several emotional discussions with my parents as I tried to understand how slavery could have happened. As a white girl, I didn’t understand the extent to which the mindset was still happening.
Strangely, I remember one art project in vivid detail from that time, over fifty years ago. “Stevie” was considered one of our class’s finest artists. He was great with color, deft with his hands, accurate with measurement, drawn to different textures. This time, he built a ship from wood. He carved out a half-watermelon shape, and lined the edges with a thin slat. He then sawed a flat cover. He attached a flag, and added color and detail to his ship, with the flat cover as his deck.
The class ended and we gathered to admire Stevie’s beautiful ship. Then he lifted the flat cover so we could see the carved area below deck. He had created stick figures from dark-colored wire and seated them, crowded side by side. He took a thin chain, the width of a light necklace, and looped it around their legs. In contrast to the ship above, he added no light or decoration.
The entire class, including the teacher, stood speechless. I distinctly remember standing frozen, trying to contain a surge of emotion, feeling a bit dizzy, realizing I had forgotten to breathe. Looking back, that was the moment when I understood that art can evoke oceans, speak volumes, empower action, incite change. I didn’t learn that lesson from a museum or a special exhibit in a professional artist’s studio. My teacher was a skinny, quiet, brown haired child.
Today, as protests form all over the United States, I watched an interview with Robert O’Brien, who is Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor. In his tailored suit, his sensible tie, his perfect hair — Robert O’Brien firmly denied the existence of “systemic racism” in the U.S. police forces. Needless to say, Robert O’Brien is white.
Folks, I’m white, too, and I have a request — more like an urgent plea. We white folks need to stop talking and start listening. We need to admit that our lack of understanding stems from our privilege. We have no right to tell black people what they have and have not experienced. As a white woman, I cannot ever inform anyone of color that racism does not exist. I can ask them, but I cannot tell them. Then I need to listen.
When I say I need to “listen,” I mean listen in a specific way. I need to open myself to different perspectives. I need to accept that regarding racism, I’m always a student, never a teacher. If I realize that I have contributed to any form of racism, then I need to avoid my natural impulse to turn defensive. Instead, I need to embrace my own discomfort, because that discomfort is my guide to improvement. If I’ve made mistakes, I need to own my flaws and do better, then much better, then even better. Change is difficult, and in order to be on the correct side of change, I need to start humble, maybe more humble than I’ve ever been. I need to remember that there’s no loss of self-respect in humility.
Declaring that racism doesn’t exist only worsens the problem. The United States has a history of several hundred years’ worth of oppression and death due to ongoing systemic racism. Robert O’Brien’s words are outrageous, arrogant, infuriating. More to the point, his aggressive refusal to acknowledge racism is an act of aggressive racism.
Around five decades ago, a 10-year-old child caught the essence of racism in a stunning piece of artwork. In case anyone is misreading my message as being that white people are bad, here’s a quick fact check — Stevie was white. In my own way, with my own style, from my deepest self — I’m going to follow Stevie’s lead. I hope you’ll join me.
That’s my message.
RIP George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor…
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written in support of same-sex parents, to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.
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