On Saturday, our family attended the 19th Annual Martin Luther King Festival. It was a wonderful event, full of artistic expression, African and black music, thoughtful speakers and mind expanding discussions. At the end of the day, we participated in a workshop on the Trauma of Racism.
As an opening exercise for the workshop, the facilitator said, “Beginning with your toes and rising to your head, tense up every muscle in your body. Feet, legs, thighs, abdomen, chest and face. Close your eyes and hold your breath until I tell you to release.” When she told us to relax, she said, “What you just experienced is how African-Americans experience every day in a white dominated culture. We are always tense, always on guard, always holding our breath and there is no release.”
She went on to describe her first visit to Africa and how quickly she began to feel her body relax, her posture straighten, her walk change and her spirit lift. She spoke of her amazement at how it felt to live and breathe in a society where everyone looked just like her, where racism did not exist. She also shared her dismay at how quickly the tension returned when she entered the airplane to return to the United States.
I can’t fully communicate the power of both that simple exercise and her story. I was profoundly moved and understood the black experience as I had not previously. For a brief moment, I understood it physically rather than as an abstraction. I was also deeply embarrassed. I was embarrassed that this was the first time in my life that I’ve attended any celebration or event to commemorate the birth and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was embarrassed, that even though I’m raising a black daughter, I’ve spent little energy in intentionally learning about the experience of people of color. I was embarrassed that there were so few white people at the festival.
I often hear white people complaining that “racial tensions are higher today than they’ve been since the days of the Civil Rights movement.” They often blame this state of affairs on President Obama or Black Lives Matter. They never suggest that racial tensions might be high because white people continue to resist any responsibility to educate ourselves about what it is like for people of color to live and breathe in America today. They never acknowledge that “making America great again” is code for making America a place where minority voices are marginalized and silenced again.
Sadly, many white people are not interested in understanding the experience of people of color. We avoid their books, their movies, their events, their Facebook pages and websites. We seldom ask them to share their experiences. We do this because our ignorance allows us to sustain the pretense that we bear no responsibility for today’s racial tensions.
Even more troubling, when a person of color tries to share their experience or challenges our narrative, we become defensive. When they speak of the trauma and pain of their experience, we act as if we’re the victims. How dare they imply that we play any part in their trauma? They are to blame for rising racial tensions, for the discomfort we’re feeling, even though they’ve never experienced an America that didn’t make them tense.
Today, on Martin’s day, it is fitting for those of us who are white to remember that Martin’s dream is still not a reality. Most of us have done little to address continued injustice. We’ve been satisfied with legal equality while tolerating cultural inequality. We’ve defined the Black Lives Matter movement as people of color demanding special privileges rather than victims of racism challenging white privilege. We’ve refused to see the election of Donald Trump – and not of Barack Obama – as truly indicative of the attitude of many white Americans.
Martin’s Day will not truly become a national holiday until white people join people of color in remembering, acknowledging, listening, learning, addressing, changing and reconciling. Martin’s dream will only become a reality when his holiday is celebrated by everyone. Only then will racial tension end. Only then when we all feel the sweet release that comes from living in a nation where everyone is just like us.