I have been trying to come up with words for days, but nothing but a jumble of emotion comes to the surface. I’ve read articles trying to understand and empathize with something that I can’t possibly truly understand. I see our country splitting apart, rage and frustration at racial inequities boiling over, a deadly cocktail mixed with the unimaginable loss of life and hardship caused by COVID-19. It’s too much, too much of everything for everyone. And what now?
I can never truly understand what people of color live with every day. I live in the richly diverse city of Birmingham, Alabama, steeped in the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. I teach at UAB, one of the most culturally diverse universities in the country. My neighborhood is filled with people from all walks of life, for the most part living in peace together. And still…still, racism and gross inequalities exist here, covered by a thin veneer of Southern charm.
I realize that I live in a bubble, teaching my clarinet and music education students of all colors, sexualities, shapes and sizes, with diverse colleagues, happily working and making music together. They are all beautiful to me, precious in the individual differences and gifts they bring to bear. I have always believed the adage that our differences are what make us stronger and better.
I feel helpless to do anything of substance; I post memes and educational articles on social media, I do my best to be kind and loving to everyone I meet, but it feels so insignificant in the big scheme of things. There are protests here in town (mostly peaceful so far), but after our brush with COVID I am fearful of being in large groups of people. I have no idea when that will change, but just writing those words makes me feel ashamed to be afraid of a virus when the message of solidarity is so important. I only know that I won’t be silent in the face of such pain, the pain of systemic racism, the pain of the world. I have to find a meaningful way to join my voice with so many others. That is the only way.
For now, I’m trying to educate myself, I’m having discussions about the issues with friends of color. I am thinking about the privilege I’ve had growing up as a white woman; even growing up poor I had so many opportunities that others didn’t, simply because of the color of my skin. I think of my former student, Vincent, a travel nurse who chose to go to a COVID hotspot in New Jersey to help fight the virus, truly one of the most wonderful young men I have known. He messaged me a couple of weeks ago saying he was out jogging between shifts and ended up calling an Uber. As he waited for his ride while standing on the side of the road in an affluent neighborhood, he was worried that something could happen. That absolutely broke my heart. Vincent is like a son to me, and I so want to protect him and all of the other students who have come through my studio from the cruelty of racism and ignorance. I want to stand up for what is right and decent and good in our country…even though it can be difficult to know how to do so right now.
I guess the first step is standing up, admitting that we are broken and working on starting a dialogue in which white people truly listen to what people of color have to say. We have to examine the racism that is woven into the threads of society and begin to pull those threads out. It won’t be pretty or easy, but not doing so is unacceptable. We must do the hard work if we can ever hope to move forward. When anyone of us is considered to be not equal, whether it be because of the color of their skin, who they love, how they choose to worship, their socioeconomic status- whatever- then we all lose. I promise you that we are stronger together, stronger when we lift each other up, and when we celebrate our differences. I believe all of these things, but tonight my heart aches for those suffering and afraid, for those who feel their voices are never heard. I hear you, and I want to help.