White Tourists

I am honored to be part of a reading group focused on anti-racist books. We read a few chapters at a time and then spend an hour or so a week (on Zoom, at this point) discussing what we’ve read. We began with Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist. Kendi gave us a basic and common vocabulary and a conceptual framework to house and hold our learnings.

I wish I could say we were so smart as to know that this was exactly the place for us to begin, but that wasn’t the case. We were led, quite apart from any insight of our own, to precisely the platform from which to begin well.

Then we moved to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. We’re most of the way through that book, and we’re feeling it together. As we read about the casual hatred and callous cruelty of so many of our white sisters and brothers, we experience the draining cocktail of pain and shame, incredulity and outrage, depression and despair, which result from confronting the daily realities of life for Black and Brown people in America, and our complicity in those realities, especially in the American carceral state.

It’s a cumulative experience — each week of shock and horror building on all the previous words and weeks. I know we’re not very resilient in this regard. I certainly am not. We don’t have to deal with this shit hour by hour in our lives, so we’re weak in our resistance and response. We might be getting a little better, a little tougher, a little more able to sit with the struggle and let it wash through us, but we’re really novices in this discipline.

At our most recent discussion, the weight of the grief and the pressure of the anger floated to the surface and asked to be acknowledged. There was no explosion or anything conflictual — we’re all white people in this group and thus equally culpable. So we’re not angry with each other.

We needed to name what we were feeling, to say it out loud, and to claim it as our common response to our horrific heritage — which continues to unfold before our eyes daily in headlines, in political decisions, in physical violence, and communal injustice.

We know intellectually that we are not separated from the four centuries of violence perpetrated in our names and on our behalf. We are complicit. We are responsible. We benefit from the suffering and death of Black and Brown people in our community, our state and our nation. We, as a group and individuals, are in the first moments of modest awakening and skating on the surface of an evil whose depths we cannot plumb but only study.

I imagine the pain we feel to be like that one experiences when your arm falls asleep. I sometimes sleep with an arm under my pillow. I wake up with little feeling in my arm. The process of brining that limb back to life is painful and sometimes takes a few minutes. The pain is necessary and a sign of a kind of reawakening. I hope that’s what we’re experiencing as we read and reflect together.

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

Yet, even that brush with racist reality shakes us, but only at the periphery of our lives. What shames me more than anything, even as I give thanks for this group, is precisely that reality. I read these texts like a tourist reads a guide book, and I know it as I do it. I don’t live in the land where hatred toward me is the air I breathe, the water I drink, and the roads I must travel. My pain and rage are third-hand, borrowed, glimpsed through emotional binoculars from a safe distance. To think otherwise is to compound the violence and presume further on my privilege and power.

Like any tourist, I can leave whenever I choose. That’s no great insight. But then, I haven’t come upon anything in this journey which could be construed as a thought original with me. That’s precisely the point. This isn’t my experience. This isn’t my reality — at least not from the inside.

Any thoughts I might have are either derived from the natives, or they are wrong. Any conclusions I might formulate based on what I observe cannot be worth the bother, because they have no reach into the darkness of the land. I can listen and learn, but I certainly don’t know what I’m talking about.

As I read and think, reflect and listen, I am a visitor. I am a tourist. And I am a voyeur. I don’t mean to be, and I don’t leer at the evils of white supremacy for titillation or pleasure. I don’t explore for entertainment. But still I can only look and not really be touched. Even as we groan and grieve in our discussions, it’s always at a distance. It has a partially counterfeit character. And it’s best to acknowledge that as we go, so we at least don’t make things a lot worse.

Like all tourists, we can get a first feel for the lay of the land. We might become familiar with a few major landmarks. We might learn the high spots of the history. We might even learn a rudimentary vocabulary in the language of this terra incognita where Whites are always the interlopers, invaders, and intruders.

We might be able to reduce a bit the number of stupid mistakes we make as we interact with the natives and try to find our way around. We might even muster enough courage to go ahead and make the mistakes that visitors always make. That’s probably the best we can do, but that’s something.

It is a start. We can watch for cues as to how we might be less clumsy allies, working in directions that are actually useful. One of those directions is working for the dismantling of the carceral state, both our own Nebraska system and the system that undergirds our national obsession with locking up Black and Brown people, including children. Especially the work of Stevenson, not only in his book but in the overall project of the Equal Justice Initiative, offers us motivation, hope and resources to do something to help.

In Nebraska, there is a concerted effort to build a new 1500-bed prison — somewhere, anywhere that might tolerate such a social albatross burdening the moral fabric of a local community. The current system has 1500 inmates too many, and that system is projected to grow by another 1500 in the not too distant future. So the proposed solution is to build a shiny, new, efficient, modern, prison to take the load off the other facilities and to allow some of the other places to function as minimum security and work release centers.

This is precisely the wrong solution. As long as we focus only on the warehousing issues of the carceral state, we will never be able to keep pace with the hunger of that beast for new bodies. Policy and practice, law and logic, must reflect a decrease in the imprisoning of nonviolent offenders, those in need of health care rather than punishment. That’s what works in the long run. This is a priority for racial justice, of course, since the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated are black and brown bodies.

I live in Nebraska’s state senate district 12, and I’m glad that Steve Lathrop is my senator. He is active in trying to reform our perverse system and to slow down the growth of our Nebraska prison-industrial complex. I am grateful for his focus on repair and reintegration rather than revenge. I will do what I can to be part of the solutions he and others like him propose.

Of course, I’m still a tourist. But I want to leave the places I visit better than I found them. For now, that may be the best I can do. But I’m not sure…