I drove by a Black Lives Matter protest in my small Vermont hometown last week, and I didn’t stop. Not because the movement itself, and the powerful need for it, doesn’t stir me. In fact, it stirs me too much. “Sorry people,” I thought. “The powers that be aren’t going to pack up institutionalized racism because a smattering of white people take a stand in a bank parking lot.”
When I’m overwhelmed by the world, I get cynical. And when I’m cynical, I typically miss the point.
The point being that an important idea is finally catching on from inside White America. Where I come from, there are a lot of people — myself included — who have struggled with the phrase “white privilege”. When your playgrounds are vacant factory buildings and broken down barns, when you work hard your entire life for every meager thing you call your own, when you ain’t no senator’s son, “privilege” (no matter the color) just feels like a word that belongs to someone else.
What that White America is starting to realize though, is that privilege doesn’t mean a free ride through college or an internship at your dad’s company. It’s not a studio apartment or a new car. It’s surviving a walk down the street.
We’re living through the fastest period of social change in the history of the human race. It’s going to be hard. All of us can think of things that happened in childhood, young adulthood, or 6 months ago that just could not happen now. I’ll give you a small, ugly example:
In high school, I was cast as the role of Tituba in our production of The Crucible (most likely because I was one of the only brunettes to audition). At the dress rehearsal, the director handed me a pallet of make-up and told me to go put it on my face. I remember standing in front of the bathroom mirror, dabbing the sponge timidly and applying it in nervous swipes. During the show, I felt a specific kind of embarrassment that I couldn’t name because it was new to me: shame. Still, I did was I was told because I was 16, because it was the bitter end of the 20th century, but mostly because there were no Black people in the audience, or in my life. At that time in White America, a lack of diversity often weakened the imperative for Black cultural awareness. I think the recent protest in my hometown was as much about proving the end of this idea as it was about ending police brutality. Had they been there when I was 16, I may have thought more clearly about what I was being asked to do.
I’ve never spoken publicly about “that time I wore blackface”. Maybe now isn’t the best time to bring it up. Or maybe it’s the exact right time. Maybe this jet-fueled period of change isn’t about building ourselves up as social justice crusaders, but rather about the reckoning we should seek between the world we came from and the world we want.
I could be subject to a reflex, common in white people, to protect myself by pointing at all the ways I support the Black Lives Matter movement; my Black friends, my years of practicing the Afro-Brazilian martial art of Capoeira, or the travels and experiences related to that practice. But the act of pointing is little more than ego armor, a comfortable distraction from my reckoning.
A few years ago, I was visiting a friend in North Carolina the same weekend her Capoeira group was invited to perform. I happily agreed to join in. What we didn’t know was that the performance was part of a Caribbean-themed night at a club in a Black neighborhood of Raleigh. Our all-white troupe of Capoeristas recounted Afro-Brazilian folklore through the art of dance, set to African rhythms, in front of a sea of Black people there for Dancehall Reggae. Patient is about the best way I can describe the reception. And that’s fair play. Who am I to sing songs about escaping persecution? Who am I to show movements representing that kind of struggle? And it makes me wonder: Am I just doing blackface all over again?
Thing is, I don’t feel shame when I play Capoeira, and that’s in part due to the work I’ve put in to learning about the artform and the African diaspora it comes from. But, I know when I get too lax in my commitment to that cultural awareness, or conversely when I get too comfortable in my presumed understanding of the Black experience, I cross a slippery boundary.
I’m not wrong to train Capoeira, just like I wasn’t wrong to play Tituba in the school play. As with most things, it all depends on how it’s done. If I were to direct my 16-year-old self, I might ask her to research the lives of slaves in New England during that period — what African or Afro-Caribbean traditions did she bring to Salem with her, and how were those used to eventually condemn her to death? How are Black historical figures often portrayed in works of literature, and why is the way we portray Tituba important?
Yes, it’s a complicated world and yes, we have to try harder. That means keeping it raw— even if it feels ugly. That means sympathizing, not empathizing. That means working to see the layers underneath that you didn’t know were there.
I once wore blackface. And I still fumble as I edge closer to the heart of my reckoning; but all of it, especially the discomfort, underscores the importance of what’s going on now and helps me take stock of the moment of change we’re in. And that helps me fight off cynicism and overwhelm. Maybe I’ll even stop at the next protest in the town square. Because if those people — whose day-to-day lives are totally unaffected by the plight of Black folks— are finally catching on to what white privilege really means, and whose sudden dawning hunger for justice makes them want to yell into the phone even if the line isn’t connected, “NONE OF US IS FREE UNTIL ALL OF US IS FREE”…well, that’s something to stop for.