I’m staring at my unfinished drafts hanging out on this blog. I have started and abandoned a handful of posts about getting back to running during a pandemic.
Then, the events of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder stole my thoughts. Everything I had to say about running seemed so small compared to what was happening in the the world. Then, Breonna Taylor. Then, George Floyd. Everything I had to share about my personal running goals seems really insignificant to talk about right now stacked up against what’s important.
I’ve never written anything about racism that wasn’t directly assigned to me by a professor. I share articles, I read, I listen, but I don’t speak. Parts of my quiet on this topic is my own fear of getting it wrong, further perpetuating what I am trying to unlearn, and causing more harm. My quiet is also part of my own upbringing to not make others uncomfortable by my words/thoughts/emotions and to constantly question my own knowing. My quiet is also my own social anxiety that sucks the words out of my throat as soon as I open my lips. My worst fear is if you ask me to articulate these important things in the moment and the feeling of air escaping my lungs. Hence, the writing.
I remember at the Women’s March in 2017, I saw a sign that said “I hope to see all you nice white women at the Black Lives Matter rally” or something to that effect. The words were like an arrow in my heart, because it struck a truth I didn’t want to admit. I felt the discomfort and guilt, but didn’t lean in to that feeling, rather ignored it. Fast forward four years. Like many of my white friends in 2020, I’m listening, reading, digesting, reflecting, and showing up at events and protests to support black lives. I’ve been questioning a lot of things, including the way white supremacy has impacted my own thinking. How my silence and inaction perpetuates the power in racist policies, structures, and systems.
Over the past week, I took my family to a small park while on vacation. It was the tail end of our trip before we settled in for a long ride home. A daycare showed up at the playground where my children were playing as I watched from a nearby bench. Teachers encircled the preschool age kids as they swung from the equipment. A new group came running over and a young black girl took her position on a swing.
I heard this child call to her white teachers by name, repeatedly, to help her on the swing and push her. She couldn’t have been more than 5 years old. Again, she yelled, “Teeeeacher! Teeeeeeeeacher! Ms.____!” I looked over at the white teachers and they continued to play with the other all white group of children on the equipment. This child continued yelling for her teachers. “Teacher! Teeeeeacher! Push me!” Her brow beginning to furrow and her frustration building. I thought, maybe they can’t hear her? There was a man annoyingly close with a leaf blower. Then, I noticed. I was equidistant from this child and those teachers. Meaning we all could hear her just fine, even above the leaf blower. Again, she persisted. I watched these teachers actively ignore this child for several minutes, which felt like an eternity. We’ve all done our share of active ignoring. Pretend we can’t hear someone yelling for us to do something we don’t want to do. I do this when I’m asked to take my turn cleaning the cat boxes. I saw the teachers laugh and engage with the other kids with their backs to this child. Tickle the other children’s toes while they climbed. All while this child screamed for someone to acknowledge what she was saying. At this point, just a nod and “I can’t push you right now” would be at least honest. Eventually, the leaf blower stopped. Still shouting and still ignoring.
I turned to my husband to check if what I was noticing was real. He did. I felt an uncomfortable pit grow in my stomach. It raised up through my chest. I had so many questions in my brain. Am I over analyzing? Is it just because I’ve been reading anti racist materials and now I see racism everywhere? Maybe those teachers pushed her at the other swings and I didn’t notice? Maybe I should just enjoy my time watching my kids play. To me, I was watching the representation of everything I had been reading, hearing, and learning and I couldn’t unsee what was happening. A black child’s needs are actively being ignored by a white system and she is shouting at the top of her lungs for someone to listen. And we are all pretending we can’t hear. Including me, making up excuses for why the white system is not noticing. As a mother, I thought if this is how the teachers act towards something as easy as engaging in play with her, what does the rest of her day look like?
I turned to my husband and said, “I’m going to do something.” I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I thought the pit would explode if I didn’t move my body from that bench. I still didn’t know what to do or say as I paced toward the swings. The social anxiety of walking into conflict started to ache in my chest. I thought, maybe I will just stand next to her and talk to her so that her teachers will pay attention to what she is saying. Perhaps use my privilege of an older white lady would encourage these teachers into paying attention. I started talking to her from a distance about why she was upset. She told me she wanted to swing and her teachers weren’t swinging her. I tried to make my voice loud, “you mean those teachers over there!” Still not looking at us. I stared down those teachers, trying to will them to look at us. Then, I suggested, “I bet if we go over and talk to them they would swing you.” She looked at me and said “no.” As I reflect on this thing I said to her, I’m thinking about the words I heard recently from a black activist addressing white women in the crowds for not doing the work of calling out their white allies and here I was suggesting a young black child to walk over and plead again what she is SHOUTING versus amplifying her direct message with my actions. Her message is painstakingly clear, but here I suggest saying it in a different way. No. She was clear the first time and it’s not up to her to make it any clearer to these women, or me. It didn’t dawn on me then, but this is the pill that stuck in my throat the whole way home.
After a few minutes of talking to this young girl, my own children came running up. I had a moment of realizing that they will never have to scream on a playground for someone to notice them. They will be fine. They are white. The system is built to cater to them and it is my work to help them understand the complexities of their white privilege. I’m in charge of their unlearning too. The juxtaposition of this situation squeezed a vice around my heart. Eventually, I caught the eye of one of the teachers walking over to where we were standing. Without words, she picked up this young girl, placed her on the swing, gave her a big push, and walked away. Like she was flicking a fly off her shirt.
It was time for us to go. This young girl had achieved her mission, being pushed by her teachers and swinging. She seemed to be feeling better. I had probably overstayed my welcome as a weirdo adult hovering around her. We drove away and my mind wracked with the things I did wrong, my missteps, my misinterpretation, not doing enough, maybe I made this child more uncomfortable, maybe it was all nothing, maybe I could write the daycare director sharing my observation, or maybe this was a big giant projection of how I was feeling about the situation versus what this child was feeling. My mind has been a merry go round since.
I still don’t know the answers to any of these questions. The takeaway for me is remembering the pit in my stomach. The intuitive ick of watching something unjust happen and knowing my complacency continues to feed racism. Feeling the movement in my body to lean towards what was happening versus look away. What’s different for me was getting off the bench. What use is all of this reading, discussing, if I’m not going to do anything with it. What a useless waste of time and energy, if I don’t act, speak, question, challenge, and ruffle feathers. My actions and voice are still wobbly. I am still reflecting on this.
When I started out running, I only ran flat routes. I would painstakingly plot courses to ensure no difficulty would meet me at any point. My muscles would seize and panic when I saw a hill. Thinking I can’t do it. What happened is I never got better. Every hill felt like an impossible mountain. What happened was I stayed the same. I kept my same pace, felt no obstacle, and never got better.
At some point, I realized this was stupid. I wanted to get better and I was missing out on routes that would take me to new places. I started tackling smaller hills, which made my confidence grow. Even hills I didn’t think I could make it over, I was accomplishing. Now, hills don’t scare me…as much. I got better. I take my time and make it over.
I realize I am still finding my legs in antiracist work. My brain is exploding with unlearning, learning, reflection, and building new muscles. I will probably not reach the top in my lifetime, but I will continue to do my part in leaning into the discomfort, which begins with getting off the bench.