We were on the shores of Lake Superior when we learned about George Floyd’s murder, just as we were when we learned about Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s murders. We were in Eagle Harbor, our home-away-from-home, where generations of my partner’s family have lived and worked and played. We were getting bonus months up north in this very white community thanks to COVID-19 and our stable white-collar jobs that had us working remotely. We had fled north when school closings and shelter-in-place orders were popping up back in March in order to be available for my mother-in-law, who lives alone, but we also knew that, for a while still, we were safer up north, where we joke that social distancing is the way of daily life. And so we were also on the shores of Lake Superior when we began to learn about the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on Black and Brown communities in Milwaukee. As we mourned and raged and talked in that grand kitchen with in-heat flooring while looking out over another lakefront sunset, I was reminded that we were also here when Sylville Smith was shot in 2016 and Sherman Park rose up. And I started jogging my memory to remember, what other explosions of injustice were witnessed from afar, up here in Eagle Harbor?
In all of these moments, my instinct (often at odds with my partner’s instinct and the wishes of my own mother, who is so grateful that her baby and her baby’s babies are safe) is to go home. It feels wrong to be here in idyllic, very white Eagle Harbor when my city is in crisis. It feels necessary to be home in solidarity, to stand in protest or at risk with my neighbors, to be in my multiracial and economically diverse chosen community if only to declare to my neighbors and the universe: I am with you. I am with you. I am with you. But every time, I stay. With my family, in this place that doesn’t fit me quite right but is still my home, where I am welcomed and loved.
I was reminded of this dissonance today as we headed out to a protest in the North Shore suburbs of Milwaukee. We had spent the morning at a smallish children’s march a few blocks from our house. A peaceful walk through a residential neighborhood ended at the MLK Peace Park, where Black community members spoke to the children, led us in call-and-response chants, and asked for nine minutes of kneeling silence to honor George Floyd. While white allies and other people of color were present, the crowd was predominantly Black. Harambee is, after all, a Black neighborhood in one of America’s most segregated cities.
From Harambee, we went to Shorewood (our neighborhood, Riverwest, sits between the two and is a hodge-podge mix of all sorts of everything), where a young person had organized a seven-mile march through several North Shore suburbs. The young man is a friend’s university student, and we were eager to march with friends and support the racial awakening of white folks. In fact, I’d earlier explained to my children that there were different kinds of anti-racist work for us as a white family to do: yes, there is the work of being an ally and co-conspirator, leveraging resources in support of Black communities, but there is also the work of being a catalyst for change in the white community, of rooting out racism among ourselves because ultimately it’s up to us as white folks to release our grip from white supremacy. Of the 30 or 40 different actions in Milwaukee this weekend, I chose these two for my family because, yes they were kid-friendly, but they also offered an important lesson to my family about the multiple ways of being an anti-racist.
So this afternoon, we went directly from the “What About Us?” children’s march to the “North Shore Justice for George Floyd Peaceful Protest.” The crowd at the starting point for the march was big. For blocks, there was a stream of mostly white folks headed to the lake with posters and Black Lives Matter t-shirts and face masks. There were a smattering of Black families, multiracial friend groups, and other people of color, but it was mostly a sea of well-heeled whiteness. My stomach lurched. On the one hand, YES! White people created this system; white people must dismantle it. We NEED white folks to show up for racial justice (and yes, there’s a #FBgroup for that). But on the other hand, what I really felt was indignation. If Black lives really mattered to this sea of white folks, why had they self-selected life in a town that is 87% white? Why did Black students in their schools report systemic racism and alienation? Why had I heard reports of police physically preventing Milwaukee protestors from crossing into the town earlier in the week? Why had they gleefully opened their town back up when the Supreme Court struck down the governor’s stay-at-home order, knowing that this disease is disproportionately harming Black and Brown folks in Milwaukee? I couldn’t help but look around judgmentally and think, “To whom in this crowd do Black lives actually matter? And for whom in this crowd is this just another event in the White Woke Olympics?”
Full of judgment and self-righteous indignation, I happily volunteered to be the parent to take my whiny, tired, sore-footed youngest child home. These were not my people; this was not my march.
Except: They are my people. And this is my march.
It’s no accident that I have been in Eagle Harbor for so many moments of racial injustice and trauma. It’s no accident that I am able to sit in the long, late rays of the northern sun, bothered by not much more than ticks and mosquitoes and a s’mores marshmallow that caught fire too quickly, and rage, argue, mourn, and debate at a distance. It’s no accident that, despite my urge to go home and be with my ‘real’ community, I don’t go home.
It’s no accident because this is how whiteness works. It’s a cocoon that we can’t quite escape from. No, that’s not right: it’s like a poisonous bubble that we are safe from as long as we are inside of it. No, that’s not right either. It’s more like this recurring dream I’ve had since childhood where I’m chewing gum—crappy, cheap, very sticky gum. In my dream, I forget that I’ve been chewing it for a while (or that I have braces, or dental work, or a presentation coming up), and when I try to spit it out, the chewing gum just spreads into finer and stringier filaments that cling to my teeth-gums-orthodontia-palette-throat, and when I start pulling at those filaments with my fingers, those strings of no-longer-satisfying gum stick to my skin and just keep spreading around my mouth with every pick, floss, and pull. In my dream, I never get the gum out. I am mortified by the mess in my mouth that everyone can see, and I am anxious and heartbroken at the irrevocable damage to my teeth and my smile. I’ve never quite figured what the underlying anxiety is in this dream that I’ve been having for as long as I can remember, but damn if it isn’t the right metaphor for whiteness when you’re trying to do antiracist work.
In our little nuclear family, we have intentionally crafted a life that we believe aligns with our values, where justice and antiracism are central. We chose the city over the suburbs; we chose our neighborhood because of its economic and racial diversity; we chose our children’s school because of its intentional integration and Montessori approach; we chose our jobs because they allowed us to teach in ways that aligned with our values.
These choices: this is me trying to pull that gum out of my teeth.
But then there is also that little idyllic town up north, where we can retreat when needed. Where the next harbor over still has restrictive covenants. Where intergenerational wealth—yes, often built through back-breaking work in the mines and other blue-collar jobs that used to allow for financial stability—allows (mostly white) families to maintain homes and connections and community. Where old friends good-naturedly joke about “insiders” and “outsiders.” Where the county has more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in Michigan. Where zoning keeps things just as they are. Where we joke that we won’t ever have to run away to Canada because this place is otherworldly all on its own.
This: this is the gum that I can’t ever really get out of my teeth.
Let me be clear: I love Eagle Harbor. It’s magical, really, as anyone who’s traveled north with us will attest. And I am so grateful to have a second home where, in times of both duress and joy, we can retreat. If YOU had an Eagle Harbor, you’d love it, too. But let me also be clear: this is how whiteness works for those of us who are white. It’s a magical protective shield behind which we can retreat when necessary.
So white folks, we need to be honest with ourselves: when and where are we retreating?
This was the source of my initial discomfort with this afternoon’s march: it appeared to me at first like a performance of solidarity in a community that is in and of itself a retreat into whiteness. My knee jerk reaction was thus one of judgment and moral superiority, but it shouldn’t be. Louder for the folks in the back: It shouldn’t be. I am not morally superior. Because I have my retreats, too. Part of the work of becoming antiracist is seeing when we retreat into whiteness, seeing when we capitalize on the systems of oppression that benefit us, and then the hardest part: training ourselves not to retreat. But like that gum in my dream, our whiteness is sticky. So after our performances of solidarity, after our right-now reckonings, all of which are A CRITICALLY IMPORTANT FIRST STEP, we have to look into our own dark corners and acknowledge: as long as there is whiteness to retreat into, we will keep retreating.
Let me be clear: When people say that all white folks are all a little bit racist, when people say that all white folks experience privilege, this is one of the things we mean. We have the option of retreating, physically or metaphorically, when the world is scary or uncomfortable or difficult. And so when we say that we have to unlearn racism or that antiracism is a journey we never leave, this is what we mean: When the protests are over, and we’re back home and able to look into our dark corners and reveal what’s there with no one else watching, white folks, let’s ask ourselves, how have we been retreating?
Doing this often requires that we sit with shame, discomfort, vulnerability—all of the things that whiteness protects us from. There’s a reason Robin DiAngelo’s work on “white fragility” has been so popular. Sitting with these emotions and experiences requires humility. It requires that we stop talking and start listening. It requires that we decenter ourselves and our comfort. This is the antithesis of the “racial arrogance” that whiteness teaches us. Whiteness has not socialized us for humility. It has not socialized us for pain. It has not socialized us to listen.
White folks, I know this seems hard. I know it can be painful and uncomfortable and risky. I know that we all have a chorus of “yeah buts” going on in our head to justify our retreats and to protect us from hurt, and I know how easy it is to march and shout and rage and then go back to regular life.
But then I want you to remember that George Floyd had a knee in his neck for nine minutes and Breonna Taylor was shot in her bed eight times and they will NEVER get to go back to regular life.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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