Racism lives in our minds and bodies—to end it, we must first find and feel it.
Like so many in our country, I am sick—not from the coronavirus, but by the ways systemic racism continues to shackle and kill people of color in our country and by the ways in which too many white Americans continue to deny it, look the other way and/or fail to see how there lives benefit from it.
In the U.S., systemic racism is one of the primary default programs all citizens use to filter day-to-day experiences. The random fact of being born white comes with unearned power and an unseen advantage over people of color. I have learned from antiracist friends and colleagues that racism is so deeply embedded in our societal structures and subconscious minds that if you live your life without examining your biases and the biases of people who were instrumental in shaping your beliefs, you will inevitably replay the learned racism consciously or unconsciously.
For many white people, it is too easy to believe that you care deeply about social justice but are too busy with work, taking care of kids, or paying the bills to join an all-out war on racism. It’s been too easy to only think about Black lives mattering immediately following the killing of another Black person by the police. The mass of diverse protesters across our country are screaming in one voice that inaction is no longer tolerable. It is time for white people to take responsibility for changing the culture of racism by changing themselves and the unequal social structures they have created. Silence is not an option.
In more intimate groups of well-meaning white people, I have heard many share how they feel stuck, frozen by guilt or fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing. They want to jump in but don’t know how or where to start. Taking responsibility must begin with an increased awareness of one’s own biases—how they were created and how they benefit all white people. Only then can any of us honestly own the role we are playing in perpetuating the status quo.
Racism lives in our bodies and therefore we cannot simply think our way of it. We can not escape into our heads and create a new community ideal without first feeling the impact of racism. We must feel the pain that people of color have endured and to use that pain to fuel action for change.
Examining my own whiteness and unearned privilege takes me back to my roots in Maine, which remains the whitest state in the nation (2020). Here I can begin to understand how seamlessly my own racist education started and how deeply it lives in my cells. This is not an exercise in self-flagellation, but rather an attempt to see where it stills lives in me. I understand that it is impossible not to be racist when you grow up in an environment with toxic levels of bias, judgment and misinformation about people of color. I can not become an anti-racist without owning and identifying where racism lives within me and in my communities.
To say that race relations were not on my radar growing up would be an understatement. In fact, in high school I was just coming out to myself as a lesbian and I was preoccupied with the injustices in the LGBTQ community in the later ’70s. In Maine, there was plenty of homophobia to worry about. However, for my family, that changed in the spring of 1979 when my father traveled on business to New Orleans. On his first day in NOLA, after eating dinner in the French Quarter, he and a colleague walked back to the Hyatt Regency. At the entry to the hotel, they were held up by two young men, and my father was shot and killed.
Within hours, my family was told that “two Black men” had tried to rob my father and his colleague. This was my first substantive exposure to someone from the Black community. My family had been shattered by the murder and naïvely believed that the legal system in New Orleans would help us seek justice for the death of my father. We had no idea that what we were told was filtered through the New Orleans legal system well known for its racist attitudes. When the photos of the suspects, Isaac Knapper and Leroy Williams, popped up in our local newspaper, I remember looking at them closely and wondering what in their lives would have caused them to rob and kill. It never occurred to me that the prosecution would withhold exculpatory evidence at the trial and that one of the young men, Isaac Knapper, would be wrongly convicted for murder and sent to prison for the rest of his life. My family did not question the arrest and verdict for many reasons, but the biggest was that my family was solidly part of the white, dominant culture. One does not have to be an avowed white supremacist to be racist—you simply have to be brainwashed 24/7 by a culture that defines health and acceptability as the birthright of all white people and associates people of color with violence.
When I found out in 2005 that the alleged killer of my father, Isaac Knapper, had been exonerated in the early 1990s, I was shocked and sickened. By then I had become a psychiatrist with a deep interest in issues of social justice and was well aware of the gross inequities that existed in America between people of color and white people—in health care, life expectancy, educational opportunity, housing, wealth … the list goes on and on. However, until I learned of Isaac’s exoneration I had no way of knowing how entwined my own story was in America’s racism. The traumatic memory of my father’s murder was now exponentially more painful as it now involved the wrongful conviction of a 16-year-old boy. The anguish was now compounded by images of Isaac as a young man in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola where he was sent to live out the rest of his life with no chance of parole.
By 2015, I was both curious and furious. Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, Michael Brown—the killings of Black men by police just kept happening. I decided to take personal action to more fully understand the horrendous racist event that my family had unwittingly been involved in. With much fear, I reached out to Isaac Knapper (who had been released after 13 years and was living in NOLA) and asked to meet. In December of that year my sister, Nancy, and I met with Isaac and his wife in New Orleans. The meeting and our friendship have transformed my life. What surprised me the most was how easy it was to be together—how we didn’t stop talking and sharing the entire weekend we spent together. What disturbed me to my core was hearing Isaac’s personal experience of police brutality. How much worse his experience had been then I could even imagine. He shared his violent arrest at 5:45 a.m. when he was awoken with guns pointing at his head, the brutal interrogation where police beat him to within an inch of his life in an attempt to force a confession (it failed), and the utter disregard for his humanity at every turn of the legal proceedings. Yet, despite all he had been through (and continues to go through as a Black man in this society), he also listened to our story and our pain with deep compassion and caring.
One lesson I have learned from Isaac and his family is that the process of healing racism will hurt and at times, the risks you will need to take will be terrifying. But the pain is not penance for bad behavior (though there is room for that as well). When you hurt so badly you feel you will die—pay close attention. Feeling unspeakable pain may mean you have finally begun to feel clear empathy and resonance with the relentless agonies and indignities faced by people of color. You must walk directly into that pain to fully understand the price Black and brown people have paid for your/our white privilege. If you can’t stand it, don’t stop feeling, find someone who can help you hold it. Do you dare to risk everything to be part of the movement to repair the racial divide that has plagued our country since white people enslaved Black people over 400 years ago literally using their Black bodies to build America?
Isaac and I have established a deep friendship—one that feels more like family. It is a chosen family that I cherish. Within it I have had the opportunity to heal and to grow and to witness my own biases in a way that humbles me. We have chosen to write our story in an upcoming book, Fighting Time. In sharing our story we hope to inspire people to move into the fear and the pain of systemic racism and to have the conversations that are desperately needed to see and feel one another and to help our society grow beyond our tragically racist roots.
- Walker, Maureen. When Getting Along is Not Enough: Reconstructing Lives in Our Lives and Relationships. 2019, Teacher’s College Press, New York, NY
- Kendi, Ibram X., Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. 2016, Nation’s Books, New York, NY