I remember seeing an Instagram post a couple of weeks after the announcement that a grand jury had decided to not bring criminal charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.
The post was written by Andy Merrick—a white Instagram user. It said:
“There are racist tones
Hidden away in these bones
Depart from me, sin.”
I have not forgotten it since.
Racism comes in many forms and perhaps one of the most dangerous is the subtle kind—the racist tones. They’re not hostile. They’re not angry. They’re just…present.
A hint of condescension.
A wariness of someone else.
A general classification I’ve come to believe.
Thoughts that are so second nature I don’t see them coming. And then, I don’t even notice they’re there.
There is a reason that the second feeling I felt when I heard about the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile was shame. First, I felt sadness. Then, I felt shame.
Because deep down somewhere in my bones, something wondered if I was any better than those police officers, that if the horror and disgust I felt toward them could be redirected and pointed at my own self.
For there are indeed racist tones in these bones. Only, I can get away with them. Because for me, the reaction isn’t something that will sweep up the nation in a call for justice. My racism is not something I’ll be arrested for or lose my job for. My racism is almost worse, in that I could live my entire life without being called out for it.
The knee-jerk reactions I have toward someone because of what he or she looks like. The assumptions I make. The phrases that enter my mind, like “They always do that.”
They—as if an entire people group can be some certain way. I dehumanize souls with these thoughts. I take away their individual minds, hearts and character and clump them together into one. The desperate scramble to define something or someone I don’t understand for fear of my own misunderstanding.
Those are the racist tones in my bones. And I feel sickness in my stomach even now as I write about them. I’ll lose bits and pieces of my soul and my heart and my ability to empathize—racism chips away at those things—but I am free to roam the streets. And yet, am I any less dangerous?
So, we can call for peace. We can call for reconciliation. We can stand aghast in horror. But I wonder how much good we are doing—as a white and privileged people—if we don’t first stand aghast at the reflection in the mirror.
Maybe we’re not getting any better because we’re not being honest about our personal, deeply ingrained, shamefully racist tones. For how does anyone heal if she does not first admit that she is sick?