Done doing nothing

November 15th, 2016

Ten years ago, my husband and I went on a weekend wine-tasting getaway in Central Texas. We stopped at a beautiful, Tuscan-inspired winery and went inside where we proceeded to chat with the older gentleman who was pouring tastings. Off-handedly, we mentioned that we were preparing to move to Nashville in a few months. The man said that he had heard nice things about Nashville, paused, and then continued, “And the blacks there are nice and well-behaved, not like the niggers in Memphis.”

Ten years later, this incident still haunts me. I should have done anything except what I did, which was just stand there and act like that was a normal, acceptable thing to say. I should’ve paid for the tasting (or not) and walked out. I should’ve asked to speak to the manager. I should’ve said, “Excuse me?” or “That kind of language is unacceptable and offensive.”

Instead, I did what I was conditioned to do, which was ignore it for the sake of niceness and keeping the peace. I was a young woman, just out of college at the time; he was an older man. If I’d challenged him, he probably would’ve responded that he was “just joking,” as if using that word is a joke. Whether consciously or unconsciously, he decided, as a fellow white person, that I was a safe person with whom he could be explicitly racist.

Since then, there have been other instances, none of them quite that blatant, that I have looked the other way. When my neighbors wring their hands about “those people” moving into the neighborhood, I have not asked them what they mean and why they might object to people of color living near us. When the grounds committee only complains about how the people working for the landscaping company don’t speak English but fails to recognize their hard work in a variety of weather conditions, I have stayed quiet.

As this election cycle came to an end, I decided that I am finished being nice. I am through letting offensive and hurtful remarks slide in my presence. I need to let my fellow white people know that this is not okay, that I am not a safe landing space for their racism. I am putting off the Gospel of Niceness that I was raised with as a Southern, female Christian, and I am putting on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I will probably make people mad and uncomfortable, and I am ready for that. I might lose some friends and alienate some family members, but my soul will be at peace. No one can denigrate and demean other people who are made in the image of God in front of me.

For years, I have read and listened to my brothers and sisters of color — their struggles, their joys, and their sorrows. Now, this is my work, to challenge other white people to examine their own implicit bias against “the other” as I have been examining mine. I acknowledge my own racism and fear of “the other.” I admit that I benefit from white privilege, that I can go places without being questioned or followed, and now it is time to use that white privilege to challenge other white people, to do that which is frequently too dangerous for my friends of color.

As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.” When I confess my sins, I regret much more the “things I have left undone” than the things I have done. I refuse to let evil triumph. I refuse to do nothing.

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