I have been spending a lot of time recently thinking about racism. About how it affects my community, the people I know and don’t know who live here, and how it affects me. I am white, middle aged, female. In my culture, I am mostly invisible. There are ups and downs to this invisibility, but the biggest up is that when I leave the house I’m relatively certain that I will return home alive. The same can’t be said for lots of folks who don’t share my demographics, who are always being noticed and feared by people like me, who know they are not necessarily safe in my community. I struggle with that fact, given the horrible outcomes that we’ve seen come from it in recent days, knowing that those headlines are only a small part of a much larger problem. I struggle with how my whiteness implicates me in this injustice. I struggle with how to do my part to change things.
I understand that privilege isn’t my fault, that it is a present that a broken society gave me when I was born. Privilege isn’t my fault, and its partner, racism, isn’t my fault. Both stem from the same roots. But I know that I benefit from both, and that others suffer negative consequences from both. As a functioning, contributing member of my community, I have come to understand that they are my responsibility.
Understanding privilege is a little like understanding the weather. If you live in Southern California, the weather is a fabulous, consistent 72 degrees pretty much every day of the year. You never have to think about whether to take a coat or gloves when you leave the house. You never even have to notice that it is beautiful out. Southern Californians don’t even realize that their weather is weather. Midwesterners, however, we know about weather. Today, as I write this in my thankfully air-conditioned office, it is a humid 98 degrees in Iowa, feels like 100 something. You hardly dare to step outside if you can avoid it; it almost isn’t safe. Since I’ve lived where I live in Iowa, we have experienced two major floods, a major tornado, and a major drought. I’m talking really major—historic, life-changing, killer weather. There are also frequent common, run of the mill dangerous storms, floods, and tornados, any of which can bring with it bad, even deadly, consequences. And that is just the summer. Winters bring brutal cold, cold enough to freeze to death, below zero temps for weeks on end in the worst years. Snow storms that bring feet of snow and ice and close the streets and roads, making it all but impossible to go to work or school, winds that take out power lines and leave folks without lights or heat, sometimes for days. The big question is why would anyone live like that? The answer is that sometimes you kind of don’t have much choice. Because this is the reality that life has handed us. The upside of the weather here? Those days in the spring and fall when the temperature is pleasant and the crops are growing or are being harvested from our gently rolling countryside are like gifts from heaven. The first nice day in the spring, after months of hunkering down, we can hardly contain ourselves; even though it is really way too cold for the shorts we rush to put on after layering all winter, we go for it, longing to just feel the warmth of the sun on our bare skin for even a few minutes. And those lovely days in the fall, after the summer season of heat and humidity has wound down (and yes, for those of you who are not aware, it really is the humidity, but the heat is no picnic either), knowing that winter is waiting around the corner, we cherish those just as much. Because of the extremes, we notice our weather here. We can’t help it. And even in the summer heat and winter cold, when it isn’t safe, we still have to get on with our lives. We still have to go out into the heat and the cold because we have to. That’s our life. We do the best that we can. That’s just how it is.
Do you see where I’m going here? White privilege is Southern California, an invisible, safe, unchanging, beautiful forecast, day in and day out. Occasionally something unexpected might come along, a tsunami or rare freak weather occurrence, but otherwise daily life is lived with little or no concern for, or even awareness of, the weather. However, in California, even the slightest variation is noticed and becomes fair game for complaints, just like charges of “reverse racism.” When my friend in San Diego complains that it is cold there and I learn that cold is 65 degrees, I am not impressed, just as I am not impressed by white people who argue that affirmative action actually works against them, because it gives a black person a job that was rightfully theirs. Racism experienced by people of color in our country is Iowa weather—always a concern, often a burden, always a question mark, sometimes extreme and sometimes very extreme, even deadly, but always present in some way. When it is bad you don’t like it but you also aren’t surprised, and you may be tempted to shrug it off as just the way it is, the way it always has been, the way it always will be. You just can’t get away from it.
Mark Twain famously said that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about. This may be where my extended weather metaphor breaks down a little, because that’s where we find ourselves today, talking about racism. And that’s something at least; though I’m going to go on to argue that we aren’t doing it in the right way, so hang with me for a few more sentences. For years those of us with privilege have moved to San Diego. We white folks let ourselves believe that the weather was good, good for us and good for everyone else too, because the Civil Rights Movement changed everything and Obama got to be president and we are now living in a post-racial society. Somebody might die from a weather disaster once in a while, but that was just because a freak tsunami hit and we don’t have to worry about that every day, and maybe they just made a bad decision and we can blame their fate on their own behavior. What were they thinking, going out in a storm like that anyway? Otherwise, our weather is 72 beautiful, sunny degrees every day. We don’t notice it because we don’t have to, and we certainly don’t bother to talk about it. But people of color have been living in the Midwest, putting up with the daily misery of dangerous, increasingly volatile, weather patterns, knowing that a storm might kill them someday, knowing that weather is unpredictable like that and that it might not matter what precautions they take to avoid it, it still could take them out without a moment’s notice. And, impacted by the effects of global warming, our Midwestern weather is getting increasingly more dangerous all the time, though there are those who still deny that those changes are happening. Climate change deniers, racism deniers, are cut from the same cloth–they can’t see the truth when it is staring them in the face, or choose not to because the truth might cost them a few degrees of privilege.
The big question for a lot of us right now is what can we do about it? There don’t appear to be easy solutions, if there are solutions at all, and that’s all we seem to be able to talk about. (That, and holding the victims of racism responsible for what happens to them.) We are stuck here. But here’s a thing—the weather is something that we also can’t do anything about. But that doesn’t keep us from talking about it. Here in Iowa, where the weather is a constant concern, we talk about it incessantly. We turn it into a bigger deal than maybe it really even is. We study weather maps and radar on line. We all have weather radios that alert us to potential danger. Sirens go off when storms are looming. Local TV meteorologists are huge celebrities, and stories about the weather lead the news almost every night. The weather is the one topic that total strangers strike up conversations about in public spaces. Does all that talking about the weather actually change it? Of course not. But here’s what it does do. It changes our experience of the weather. It increases our understanding of what is happening around us that is going to directly impact our lives in the coming hours and days and months. It helps us to be safer and make better decisions. It helps us to live with the weather and to have a better quality of life. We can’t change the weather, but by talking about it and thinking about it and becoming more aware of it, we can better understand the weather. We don’t have to be caught in a bad storm with no clue of what is happening to us. The same is true of racism. The more we talk about it, the more we will understand it. White people with the gifts of privilege especially need to pay attention to what is going on around us, we especially need to think about the systems of oppression and how they work in our culture. We need to listen without judgment to the voices of people of color who must move differently in our society than we do, think about the ways that we have privilege and advantages that they don’t, based solely on the color of our skin. And we need to talk about it, talk about it with friends and with strangers, talk about it like we talk about the weather. When we see an incident of racism, or even an incident of simple white cluelessness, we need to talk about it, call it out, have meaningful, potentially transformative personal conversations. When our Southern California transplants head into winter in Iowa without a proper coat, gloves, hat, and boots, we educate them, take time to thoughtfully correct their naivety. We can do the same for racism. Talking about the weather won’t change it, but talking about racism will. It is the only thing that will. When thinking, caring, feeling people talk in meaningful ways about racism and its effects, we are starting to take steps to change things. Every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step but the journey to change racism begins with a thousand conversations. Small conversations, big conversations–with friends, with family, with strangers. And it doesn’t stop there. Because talking by itself will not be enough. But once you start seeing injustice, you can’t help but care. And once you care, the process of change is just beginning.