Like many other people, I watched in horror and with anger when I saw former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine agonizing minutes as Mr. Floyd pleaded for air to breathe and two additional officers used the weight of their bodies to push Mr. Floyd’s body into the filthy concrete. I could not help but wonder how everyone could participate in such an act of sheer inhumanity; I didn’t understand how it could have come to pass that they somehow saw George Floyd as being less.
Seeing it unfold before my eyes — or maybe seeing this act unfold after seeing so many other, similar acts unfold in a similar fashion over the last few years — has had a profound effect on me. George Floyd’s death was a tipping point, not just for the Black Lives Matter movement or the movement to reform policing, but even for many white Republicans like me who once chose to believe — perhaps were taught to believe — that the fight to end institutionalized racism had already been won. Something inside me had been reluctant to believe the system was still being perpetuated today. No more.
I’ve accepted that something in my white heart still needs to change. I am pushing myself to come to terms with my own heritage, my white privilege and my flawed beliefs, as well as to develop a better understanding of the experiences that people of color have living in America today.
This moment requires that I acknowledge that the America I grew up in is not the same America many people of color grow up in. This moment requires that I admit I indeed live a privileged life that has never once been thrown off track because of the color of my skin. This moment requires I accept there’s still much in my heart and my mind that needs to be separated and sorted through. This moment requires that I lay bare my flawed beliefs and root them out, even if doing so brings shame or retribution. This moment requires I lay down my political rhetoric and listen to everyone’s experiences without raising my partisan defenses. This moment requires me to invest more time in reading and listening and watching and learning from the stories of shame and heartbreak and hate and injustice and tragedy pouring out of many of my fellow Americans today.
Most of all, this moment requires me to accept that, until I change what’s inside of me, I cannot truly change the world around me in the ways that are so deeply needed.
Long ago, I told a friend, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” and I fully believed those words at the time. But having spent time listening to people of color describe how racism plays out in their lives rather than reacting defensively to what I thought they believed, I’m not sure I could say the same thing with conviction today. Sure, I’ve never knowingly treated a person of color with disrespect or purposely made an insensitive comment to or about someone of another race. I’ve also never used racial slurs or hurled racial insults. And I’ve certainly never thought a person of color was in any way inferior to me.
Yet none of that proves I’m innocent of all racism, prejudices or biases that I may not realize are there; they’re only the answers to the most obvious questions. When I’ve asked myself more difficult questions — like: Why aren’t any of my close friends Black? Why did affirmative action first strike me as “unfair”? Why aren’t many of my personal heroes people of color? Why do I insist on teaching my children that Black people are “no different” from them when I’m actually aware of the many societal disadvantages they face? — I’ve recognized the need to look deeper within.
This led me to another uncomfortable question I’ve had to ask myself: Why is this the first time in my life I’ve really pondered questions like these at all?
I realize now that, contrary to what I’d wanted to believe about both myself and America, I’ve been on the receiving end of countless micro-lessons reinforcing racial stereotypes. Educated by my friends, family members, religious leaders, the media, politicians, teachers and scores of Hollywood movies — I’ve been influenced in more ways than I can probably even imagine — unconscious prejudices or stereotypes are likely as much a part of who I am as the blood running through my veins.
In the days after Mr. Floyd was killed, former President Barack Obama wrote, “For millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal.'” I finally accept that what’s been normal for others has never been normal for me.
I’ve never experienced the snide remarks. I’ve never been turned away by a dentist or received lesser treatment at a hospital on account of the color of my skin. I’ve never lived in a neighborhood that was specifically designed to keep me down. I’ve never had the father of a girl I love call me a racial slur and tell his daughter she could never see me again. I’ve never seen red and blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror and thought of anything other than how I was going to try and get out of a speeding ticket. I’ve never had my scholarship called into question by a teacher. I’ve never thought, as this man has, that I have to be “twice as good to get half as much respect.”
I’ve been alive for nearly four decades and I’ve never experienced any of these indignities even once in my lifetime. It’s high time I start listening to the people who have. Speaking about Mr. Floyd’s death, Michelle Obama said, “Race and racism is a reality that so many of us grow up learning to just deal with. But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it.”
I accept that charge.
Jesus Christ once encountered a man who begged Him to cast an evil spirit out of his child. “If thou canst believe, all things are possible,” Christ said. The man responded with tears in his eyes: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
I’ve borrowed these words in every prayer I’ve uttered since George Floyd died. For far too long I’ve lived the life of a privileged white man, unable or unwilling to believe that racism still exists in the world around me. Worse, I’ve never confronted any of the prejudices that I now realize live within me, let alone acknowledged that they existed at all.
Just as the #MeToo movement ushered in a moment where men began recognizing the need for lasting, systemic changes to end sexual harassment and sexual abuse, I pray that George Floyd’s unnecessary, unconscionable death will be the catalyst to make millions of people just like me finally wake up to both the personal and systemic discrimination and racism that people of color experience, and why that must end.
Lord, help thou mine unbelief, so I can stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.