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Stumbling toward wokeness

Stumbling toward wokeness

 

After George Floyd’s death, she wanted to be anti-racist. But what would that mean, exactly?

 

TULSA — The text messages were flying in to Christine Tell’s cellphone. They were coming from a group of friends who taught with her at a preschool inside the Methodist chapel near the green fields of the University of Tulsa.

 

“A woman on our FB post is claiming we are a whites only school,” one wrote about the interaction on Facebook. “Someone tell me what I’m missing.”

 

When Tell looked at the post, she knew exactly what was missing: photos of black and brown students. All of the smiling children featured on the school’s post were white, which the teachers insisted was a coincidence.

 

“So far from the truth,” one responded, noting some of the children in the post were Hispanic.

 

“This pisses me off,” said another.

 

“Dumb,” said a third.

 

Tell tried to figure out the right way to contribute to the conversation. Ever since she watched a video of a police officer digging his knee into the neck of George Floyd, she had pledged to become a better white person.

 

Even though she lived hundreds of miles from the street corner in Minneapolis where police pinned Floyd to the ground, Tell felt complicit in his death. She had convicted herself — and white people just like her — of a lack of concern about racism in America, shaping a country in which black men could be killed in such a disturbing and public way.

 

“I always thought I was the type of person who would do the right thing, and this summer I realized it was not true,” Tell, a 36-year-old mother of two, said later in an interview. “I was walking around oblivious to the concerns of the black community.

 

“No, not oblivious. It was like I could see their problems, but I couldn’t see the problems.”

 

She wanted to be an anti-racist, although she was still trying to figure out what that meant. It was a messy process, stumbling toward wokeness, in which she would learn the limits and frustrations of trying to dismantle structural racism.

 

Tell was among the throngs of white people across the country reexamining their role in America’s racial dilemma. Books about anti-racism have been flying off the shelves and the Black Lives Matter protest movement had gained newfound support in all crevices and corners of the country.

 

Social justice groups were seeing waves of new white supporters, who, while awash in feelings of anger, guilt and shame, were eager to find some semblance of activism and absolution.

 

“They all want to know what they should do,” said David Harland of Aware Tulsa. It is part of a rapidly expanding national network of organizations called Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, formed to help white people learn how to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

 

Harland gives this advice: Amplify the concerns of black voices, because this time is not about you. Educate yourself on the history of systemic racism. Most of all, have awkward, delicate conversations about race with friends and family.

 

“White anger is not the same thing as black anger,” Harland said. “It does not come from the same place. It resolves itself in a different way.”

 

In the text exchange, Karen Cody, the school’s executive director, at first, became defensive at the stranger’s accusation.

 

“This year we were very white heavy but I don't control who enrolls,” Cody wrote to the group. “I don't get my feelings hurt EVER. But this hurt my feelings."

 

The angry texts continued. Tell tried to figure out how to shift the conversation from their feelings. This was an opportunity to have the awkward conversation about diversity. She didn’t want to ruin her chance.

 

Her friends called her Chrissy, but she was nervous about being a “Karen” — Internet-speak for a privileged, self-righteous white woman.

 

“Even though I thought racism was the dumbest thing ever, I keep thinking about how racism lived in me,” Tell said. “I don't know how it became so ingrained."

 

She had made racist jokes to her friends and mocked black women’s hairstyles. She remembered the times she locked her car doors when she saw a black person pass, and when she imagined her English professor, a black woman, as a criminal when she saw her put on a hoodie.

 

Tell remembered a time when she ignored the racist rant of an in-law who spat epithets while watching a basketball game. Instead of questioning his words, she was more concerned about who might hear him because the front door was open.

 

She joined a local political organization in 2017, in search of camaraderie with other Democrats in a state in which President Trump won 65 percent of the vote. She wanted to talk about the new president threatening women’s rights. Others kept talking about race.

 

Through the group, she learned about the Tulsa race massacre, which was not often discussed in the segregated part of the city where she lived. She became aware of the coded-language of using “North Tulsa” to mean the black neighborhoods. She learned about the highway system that segregated the two sides, the lack of grocery stores on the black side, and the 12-year difference in life expectancy between the communities.

 

Tell had seen those issues as someone else’s problem.

 

Floyd’s death snapped her out of it. She couldn’t get past his cries for his mother, the seeming nonchalance of the officer ignoring pleas for mercy.

 

She could no longer ignore the demands of black people taking to the streets again to assert their lives’ value and the seemingly glacial pace at which the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were being investigated. She took faith in the anti-racist evangelism she encountered in memes and videos streaming on social media during this time of pandemic-imposed isolation. “If you ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the holocaust or the civil rights movement; YOU’RE DOING IT RIGHT NOW,” read one meme.

 

“I’d have been the Northern white woman that didn’t agree with Jim Crow but didn’t even try to do anything until I saw little girls getting blown up at a church or Emmett Till’s mother at his funeral,” Tell said. She considered it “a shocking and disappointing revelation about myself. It completely shifted my lens.”

 

Tell wanted to reach out to her black friends, but she realized she didn’t have any close ones. And recalling a tweet from writer Ijeoma Oluo about the emotional toll this moment can have on African Americans, she felt now wasn’t the time to make one. “Don’t make us swim through your tears while we fight,” the tweet said.

 

 

Tell was nervous about joining protesters on the street — she didn’t want to risk exposure to the coronavirus. But she watched Ava DuVernay’s film on mass incarceration, “13th,” and purchased the audiobook version of Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility.” She listened to podcasts and took in more memes.

 

On May 30, for the first time, she posted “Black Lives Matter” on her Facebook page. And then, for the first time, she argued with her cousin, Matt Willis, who figured Tell was falling for a liberal attempt to exploit racial tensions to unseat the president.

 

“So do white and brown lives,” Willis responded. “All lives matter.

 

Facebook friends seized on the comment, leading to a heated back-and-forth about police brutality and defunding the police.

 

Eventually Willis deleted his comment and stopped following his cousin on Facebook.

 

“Somehow because I say all lives matter, they think I'm a racist,” Willis said in an interview. “It will take a lot to get people to see your point of view nowadays. Emotions are too hot right now."

 

Still, Tell had hoped the conversation would resonate with him one day, even if it did not right now.

“Doing this is exhausting,” Tell said. “But that’s a stupid thing to think because black people have to deal with this everyday. That’s exhausting.”

 
 
A good read...may just help some become "awoke"...first step is a desire to become "awoke".
 

"FAKE 45 #illegitimate" read a sign at the Woman's March in DC, 1/27/2017
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