I’ve been affected by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many many others, but the truth is that one of the stories that really hit home is a name I don’t think we need to keep repeating: the White woman in NYC who called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher. Not that this is by any means the first time a White woman has done such a thing, but it never felt quite so naked. And I know that privilege. My White female tears have gotten me more than sympathy, whether I mean them to or not. For example, I have a guess that they once got me a free upgrade to first class on an international flight. And I’ve both thought and spoken about deliberately using White concern for my White female tears. I don’t think I’ve used this power for evil, but I know I have this power, and she knew she did too. Thinking about what this power can do is terrifying, like Dr. Jekyll discovering the existence of Mr. Hyde.
When the wave of news and outrage about these injustices started to hit, while I and others were already feeling like the pandemic had us at our limits, my first response was depression. I have been able to act at all this week because of two things: one, that I’ve been supported by family, friends, and colleagues, and two, a public expression of pain that cut through my heart. One of my coping mechanisms during the pandemic has been taking my kids for frequent walks through our idyllic neighborhood to get exercise and fresh air and admire my neighbors’ gardens. It’s a pretty stereotypical suburban neighborhood, not monochrome by any means, but people are pretty serious about their lawns and there was an honest-to-goodness lemonade stand on the street the other day manned by mask-wearing kids. Earlier this week we passed one of my Black neighbors’ house and saw that they’d spray-painted on their lawn:
WE SEE YOUR SILENCE!
And right there, I felt I couldn’t look anyone, particularly my Black neighbors in the eye, while there remained not a single public expression of support for Black Lives on the street, and while I personally held that weight of guilt for my privilege and failure to act.
So my 7-year-old and I sat down for a craft project and made a BLACK LIVES MATTER sign for our window. We read books about famous Black people and talked about race. We donated money. It’s not enough, though it was enough of a start to keep me walking around the neighborhood at least. I’m not sharing to get anyone’s praise or thanks, and I don’t think anyone needs to feel they have to share their private contributions, I’m only sharing this in case there’s anyone reading this who is still throwing up their hands and saying “well, things are terrible and it’s sad, but it’s too bad there’s just NOTHING I can do,” despite so much of the news and social media and Black (and other) voices sharing long lists of actions.
Acting is a moral imperative, not only at home, in every part of our lives. Is it my job to do anti-racism work? Well, yes and no. No, because when I was hired, I was not asked to provide evidence of my commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Maybe an oral question in the interview? No, because when I submit my documents requesting tenure, I will be required to submit statements of my research and teaching contributions, but not a statement of my contributions to a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture (and even if this were part of the package, I don’t know that it would affect my case—generally we expect that research impact is the only thing that really counts). No, because even if diversity is part of the University’s mission, the University is not paying me right now because it’s summer. And even though I’m still doing work, since I have no childcare help I am working part time. As others have noted, a strange silver lining in the pandemic is the perspective it gives us to see that the way things are is not the way things need to or will always be. Yes, because I volunteered to help start a committee on diversity issues in my department last year. However, I am advised to make sure this work doesn’t take time and energy away from the part of my job which will ensure I keep my job. What I can do will still never be enough. Yes, because as faculty (even junior faculty) I am like an executive, and I make decisions for myself about my time and duties. I can craft a pitch for the importance of my work with the best of them, but my research isn’t going to produce a COVID vaccine, and the urgency in it comes mainly from the need to promote my career and those of the people I supervise. Yes, because I am a person with a conscience, and on top of that I have the privileges of my Whiteness, my socially-acceptable gender identity and straight marriage, my abilities, and my resources including my financial stability and support network. It’s hard for me, and I’ve certainly also wallowed in self-pity and wishing I had more support than I have. But I know it’s so much harder for Black people, and I will be doing what I can.
Note: edited to add Christian Cooper’s name.