I was born in the midst of the civil unrest of the 60s – just months before the assassination of JFK. I was also born white, to an educated middle class family, in the socially progressive bubble of the Pacific Northwest. My father was nearly 50 when I was born, and he struggled with the challenges of parenting on a lot of levels. But wherever else he may have failed, he got the most important things right.
When I was in the seventh grade and Portland Public Schools began desegregation, my father made a radical suggestion. I had been lamenting how unfair it was that my new friend, an African American girl who was bussed from her familiar surroundings every day to an all white neighborhood far from her home, never got to spend any time with schoolmates outside of class or recess. Invite her to come home with you after school one day this week, my dad says. He even offered to drive her back to her house after he finished work.
Just the idea, at which I was simultaneously awed and terrified, was shocking. Even at 12 years old, I understood that what my father was advocating was more than a little risky. It was provocative, if not dangerous, bringing a person of color into our neighborhood. And equally provocative, if not dangerous, for my father to drive her home – a white man with a black child (especially a girl) in an all black neighborhood. But my father made the offer and encouraged me to act on it without addressing any of this. It was an ordinary, everyday extension of hospitality. He was teaching me not to treat others differently just because they looked differently, no matter what others might think or say or do, without ever saying the words. Because he knew that the words could never ever be as powerful as his behavior.
I remember how hesitant my friend was to even entertain that invitation, and we both were pretty sure her mother would never allow it. But, she did. And that’s how Jackie came over to my house after school one day. It was fun. But it wasn’t lost on either of us how nervous my mother was when it was time for dad to drive Jackie home, especially when he allowed me to come along for the ride. We all knew what was at stake, and we did it anyway.
A couple of months later, I took a punch defending a friend from a schoolyard bully. Two years later, with my father’s guidance, I reported a city bus driver for forcing a black child off the bus claiming she hadn’t paid her fare. She had, and everyone on the bus knew it. And that was just the beginning.
In the decades since, I have never once questioned who I am or what I stand for or what to do about it. I have always known to the core of my being where my line is drawn and to what lengths I will go to hold it. In case you’re still wondering, THAT is what it looks like to stand up for what is right in this world. DO right, even if it means you might be putting yourself in harm’s way. Because, though you might not realize it, you already ARE in harm’s way.
I’ve seen a lot of folks struggling to find a way to respond to recent events, and a lot of social media peeps advocating for donations to various civil rights organizations and social justice activism groups – which is awesome. By all means, throw your support behind the folks already fighting on the front lines. However, if that’s ALL you do, if you’re not actively pushing back against injustice when you see it happening in your daily lives, I’m sorry, but you are part of the problem. You are, and you need to own that.
But if you ARE pushing back, if you are calling out bad behavior and shouting down hate when you’re faced with it, then for goodness sake, ease up on yourself a little. You’ve already got this. And I should know, because an old white man taught me so.