I doubt I'm the only one who has struggled to find the holiday spirit this year. Mind you, I'm a holiday fanatic—decorate, give, wrap, deliver, entertain, even cook—but I've had to work hard this year to get to my happy Christmas place.
Blame the news cycle—and Americans' response to it. It's easy to find all the news about police brutality and sexual assault depressing, and I certainly have felt it, especially when I listen to victim-blaming and rationalization of the use of excessive force for minor crimes that no one, of any race, would want used against their own family members.
Just about everyone I know, including those who seldom talk about race, have told me they've had to unfriend people on social media who have revealed a side they'd never seen—and in very offensive, vitriolic, unfiltered ways. Certainly, the election of President Obama has meant that many of us have had to block blatant racists from posting on our pages and offending us and our friends.
This time around, it's a more insidious and vexing problem: It's not just the obvious racists and hate mongers. People we know, love and respect(ed) are stereotyping and blaming "the other," using sound bites (like "black-on-black crime") that have little relevance to the current discussion and ignore parallels (like "white-on-white crime").
It's not enough to unfriend and disconnect these people, allowing the excuses and complacency to remain unchecked and grow. Clearly, that's what the nation did decades ago when, after basic civil-liberties and rights finally happened for most, many Americans decided it was all "over" and time to "move on," leaving the work of healing division undone. Now, it's clear to just about everyone that this nation is almost as divided as ever, and that is costing us in so many ways.
We cannot disengage and just focus on trivia. It's vital to not turn our heads from these tragedies and their underlying causes; we must use them for positive change and progress. Most people reading this are headed to a holiday dinner table with family this week, and it might be tempting to take one of two routes: blaming and stereotyping "the other" angrily and with lots of eye rolls; or talking about anything but the ugly elephant lurking in the nation's consciousness.
Let's do something differently. Let's seek love, empathy, asking and more listening than we're accustomed to in our know-it-all nation. And let's really watch the tendency to first blame the victim—for doing something wrong, getting themselves killed (or raped), or daring to speak out about it if they are still able to. And we must challenge stereotypes and victim-blaming, as hard as that may be.
We may not have asked for, or wanted, this historic moment of dealing with both continuing racism and sexism at the same time. But ever since the police killing of Michael Brown, and the subsequent grand-jury decision not to indict the officer, became the tipping point of police brutality in America, our country has been forced to grapple with all sorts of unresolved issues that rest just below the surface. Then, of course, along came the Cosby allegations—which have been largely ignored for years—and the complicated race baggage attached to it (from accusers like Beverly Johnson who said they held back their stories to not pile on black men to Cosby's past delight in attacking baggy britches rather than systemic problems).
How we deal with all of this now is going to either strengthen or weaken our nation's future. Our nation's power has always been in our diversity and our ideal of democracy toward all types of peoples with varying viewpoints—and it should grow as we figure out how to actually bring the American dream (which includes safety and criminal justice) to people of color and women of all races. We cannot afford to go backward or stick our heads in sands of denial because we can't stand to face painful truths.
My friend Stacey Patton wrote a powerful piece this month for Dame Magazine, "White Women, Please Don't Expect Me to Wipe Away Your Tears". In the essay, Stacey calls out the instinct toward denial that she has seen from many of her white friends. "Many White people have little sense of the daily lives of Black Americans: the constant terrorizing and harassment, the fact that police do anything but serve and protect, and Black people's ongoing fear for their lives," Stacey writes.
"And so the level of insensitivity and cluelessness, defensiveness and outright racist comments may not be so surprising, especially at the outset, and not everyone is going to be open to being enlightened."
Like I am, Stacey is most concerned about "the White women who are more or less on our side, but who don't know their place in the conversation." These are the women, and men, who don't want us to get into the nitty-gritty of the problem, who would rather us all smile and move forward despite all the pain and without solutions.
"As a result," Stacey writes, "their comments are often more presumptuous, who say things like they don't 'see race,' they're not the enemy, or they're feeling hurt and attacked. ... When I, or one of my Black friends, write something about race on our walls that gets their panties in a wad, some White women complain, chastise, unfriend or block us. These acts become another way to assert White power and the privileges emanating from White supremacy."
Gulp. "White supremacy" are tough words that most white people would like to never hear again. But take a breath and think about it: When people of color are trying to talk publicly about police officers routinely unloading multiple rounds into unarmed children and adults, and they're told repeatedly by supposedly smart people to shut up about it, what is that if not a privileged response from people who do not face the same epidemic? If you don't want to be accused of it, then try a different response.
I know Stacey, and she is not anti-white, no more than I am (although I'm sometimes called that on social media when I refuse to take the approach she criticizes above). Stacey appreciates and wants a diversity of people who "get it," and she throws around the word "love" to people of various ethnicities more than most people I see on Facebook use toward people of the same race.
Our weak spot as a nation has always been when greed (or power or plain old ignorance) has led some people to hold others back—or to not want to even listen to their concerns, much less take them seriously enough to take action. It's a backward paternalism to assume someone else's problems don't exist because we don't share them. And it's unacceptable to take the "gradualism" approach that many white moderates wanted in the 1960s: Be patient; times will change.
No, we can't be patient because things may not change. Even one more death of an unarmed family member, or one more ignored sexual assault, is not acceptable—nor is refusing to talk about it with those who fear it the most. Proverbs 18:13 offers good advice on this one: "If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame."