I was a senior at USC in 1992 when Los Angeles erupted in anger. After a graphic video showed four LAPD officers savagely beating Rodney King, a jury stunningly acquitted them. After years of racial and economic inequality in the city and growing frustration and hopelessness, the acquittal ignited six days of flame- and violence-filled riots. My finals were cancelled, and I fled the chaos of South Central LA to take refuge in my sister’s beach house in Pacific Palisades.
I was disgusted by the police brutality and the verdicts, but I was equally confused and frightened by the riots and the destruction and deaths. Yet I didn’t seize the opportunity to try and understand why those who had been my neighbors for four years were responding this way. In fact, I had squandered the living, breathing classroom surrounding campus that could have taught this girl from overwhelmingly white Montana the most.
During my four years at 'SC, I only made a few visits to volunteer in the neighborhood schools. Instead, I insulated myself with excuses of heavy class loads, demanding extra-curriculars, and ensuring I got into a top-ten law school so I could—as my application essay said—“be the voice to all whose who weren’t heard.” And while I made my first Black friends in college, I approached those relationships (and the many to come) colorblind, thinking that the way to not be racist is to ignore race.
I shake my head at that naïve, hypocritical and self-absorbed 21-year old who had the chance to listen and learn to those who weren't being heard, but didn’t. I was eager to get out of college and LA and on to the University of Virginia Law School in a smaller, quieter, more peaceful Charlottesville. (The irony was not lost on me decades later as I watched the hate-filled images and actions in that idyllic town). From there I had a short stint as a lawyer being the voice for large companies defending lawsuits, the safe and practical choice to pay off my loans. And then I became a voice for companies and causes as a PR pro, and a parent who brought her kids to knock on doors for campaigns and march for common sense gun legislation, protecting the environment and the Women's March. But never racial injustice, because I told myself there wasn't anything I could do besides vote.
Well here I am, 28 years after Rodney King, watching our country erupt again. This time it’s jarring me out of my complacency. Because I’m faced with an undeniable, inescapable truth.
This problem was created and is perpetuated by white people.
And it’s our problem to fix.
All these years, I haven't even understood racism. I thought it was conscious hate. But the words of American author and poet Scott Woods blew my mind and blew up my excuse for inaction:
“Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people's expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn't care if you are a white person who like black people; it's still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don't look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say that no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values. That are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life. To keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.”
I'm part of the problem. And being part of the solution is going to take hard work. In the words of author and historian, Ibram X. Kendi, "The opposite of racist isn't 'not racist'. It is 'anti-racist." This requires more than temporarily getting as vocal about racial injustice on social as we do about not being able to get an effing manicure in a pandemic. We must LISTEN, LEARN and ACT.
If you’re a white woman like me, you may not know where to start. So I want to share with you what I’m doing to learn how to become part of the solution. This is undoubtedly an incomplete list, so please share resources with me in the comments or by contacting me through my website, and I’ll keep updating.
Follow those who will teach us and learn from them. Not just on social, but through their books, classes and newsletters. And then amplify their voices and efforts, take action where they direct us, and donate to the causes they highlight. I’ve started with Rachel Elizabeth Cargle (@rachel.cargle), Layla F. Saad (@laylafsaad), The Conscious Kid (@theconsciouskid), Grassroots Law Project (@grassrootslaw), Check Your Privilege (@ckyourprivilege), Austin Channing Brown (@austinchanning), Campaign Zero (@campaign zero) and Luvvie Ajayi Jones (@luvvie).
Learn what it means to be an ally. I found “For Our White Friends Desiring To Be Allies,” by Courtney Ariel in Sojourners super helpful.
Learn what Black Lives Matter really means. If you’ve ever heard those three words and even thought for a split second “All Lives Matter”, read Rachel Cargle’s powerful opinion piece in Harper’s Bazaar.
Make racial justice action a part of your life (and your family’s). I shared this article from Medium, “75 Things White People Can Do For Racial Justice” on my social media channels, and I hope you join me and commit to doing two things from this list every week. I’ve heard from a few people that they find fault with the logic of a couple of the things listed, so they’re discounting it entirely. This approach will continue to dramatically contribute to the complex system of injustice. If there are a couple things on the list that you don’t agree with, then simply do the other 73. It’s a start.
Build your anti-racist library. I'm turning to both hardcopy and audiobooks to understand systemic racism and to learn why protests are important. I've started with New York Magazine's list. Our kids' reading lists should expand their understanding of racial injustice. This list on The Conscious Kid will support conversations about race, racism and resistance with young kids. For teens and tweens on this library's site and I'll be sharing on social media what Nate and Bebe are reading this summer. If you're purchasing books, I encourage you to choose black-owned bookstores and Bookshop.org, which supports local indie bookstores.
Watch movies that will teach you history and empathy. If we don't understand the past, we will never be able to help improve the future. And film is one of the most powerful ways to learn. Start with When They See Us, Selma, 13th, 12 Years a Slave, Hidden Figures, 4 Little Girls and Just Mercy.
Look at your work environment. What biases are you leading with? Commit to improving inclusive hiring, speaking up and out about peers and challenging your company when you don't see people of color represented at all levels, including Blacks in leadership and on boards. How can you mentor Black people to support their growth? Will you use your voice and position to speak up for them to ensure Blacks are seen and their absence is noted?
You may be thinking, "Damn, Romi, that's a lot." But Black people are overwhelmed every single day, and they have no choice, no ability to catch their breath. It's about making a conscious effort every day to learn, listen and act. Choose five things you can do now. Once you do those five, pick five more. And let's not stop until we see change.
I know I’m going to make mistakes and say and do the wrong thing, and you will too. And we will be uncomfortable because change is always uncomfortable. But we can’t let it stop us. Instead we must promise to get better and fail forward, just like we do in the rest of our lives.
I've heard so many Black friends and public figures express how tired they are. Well I'm tired of being ignorant. I'm tired of being complicit. I'm committed to finally stand up and speak out, to become anti-racist. I can forgive 21-year-old me; she was a kid who didn’t know better. But thanks to the brilliant warriors of color who have been fighting and speaking and writing and serving, almost 50-year-old me now knows better. Which means I’ve got to do better.
For thousands who died at the hand of police, but so many more at the hands of racism in a country who didn't value them as human. Emmett Till, Martin Luther King, Jr., Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, Alton Sterling, Miriam Carey, Tarika Wilson, Tanisha Anderson, Darius Stewart, Yvette Smith, Shantel Davis, Trayvon Martin, Kendra James, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Oscar Grant, Brenda Williams, Eric Garner, India Kager, Jamar Clark, Rumain Brisbon, Jeremy McDole, Sherese Francis, Ronell Foster, Mya Hall, Nathaniel Pickett, Shelly Frey, Samuel DuBose, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Alesia Thomas, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Akai Gurley, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and thousands and thousands more.
For every black mother who lives in a constant state of fear and heartbreak and rage because she knows that at any moment, her child can be hunted down and even killed. Whether he’s walking in Harlem or at Harvard, Birmingham or Beverly Hills. Or whether she's sitting in her own home.
For Gianna Floyd and every other black child who grows up in a system that makes it harder to reach their God-given potential because of the color of their skin.
For Nate and Bebe, who need and deserve better modeling so they can be a powerful part of the solution.
I understand I will never understand. But I stand. Late as hell, but I’m here. Join me.