Recent My Turns, beginning with Britt Tonnessen’s in late June and continuing this past week, are good examples of a critically important dialogue recently pushed to the forefront of national conversation following the killing of George Floyd.
The two of us are currently engaged in just such a dialogue about the very fraught topic of race. Like most Juneauites, we knew each other from around town, but not well. We participated in a 49 Writers event last winter in which Patty read a short essay she’d written describing the impact of visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama. Established in 2019 by lawyer and criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson, the memorial honors thousands of identified victims of lynching committed by white people in our country. Its companion museum serves as a wrenching history lesson attesting to the atrocities of slavery and its continuing impact on the lives of Black Americans, including the extreme disproportionality in our nation’s criminal justice system.
For Laurie, it was her study of European history that prompted her to ask how Hitler’s hatred could woo an entire nation to perpetrate the Holocaust, its racist ideas still visible in recent atrocities committed against the Jewish people. On closer examination, she couldn’t overlook homegrown practices that have endured for 500 years. Slavery, though practiced for eons in many cultures, is truly an American institution whose legacy continues today in many manifestations.
White privilege, indeed matters of race in general, hasn’t been something either one of us has devoted much attention to in our lives. This is not something we are proud of but something we acknowledge and commit ourselves to changing. The truth is, we didn’t have to pay attention, because our white skin was something we didn’t think about, even while it opened doors for us without our ever noticing: being able to live in whatever part of a city we wanted, not worrying about being able to secure a bank loan, feeling safe rather than fearful when we encounter police.
We write not as experts, but as students. We are embarking on a path to understand the systemic underpinnings of racism and white supremacy, and our own involvement in these systems. We are learning this can’t be simply an intellectual exercise, and that both our ignorance and our silence is tantamount to complicity.
We cannot undo our country’s history of owning other human beings, of stripping land from Indigenous people and the lengthy list of other atrocities experienced by Black and Indigenous people. What we can do is work to understand the history that has largely gone untold in our schools and in our history books. We can do our own internal work to understand our personal role and participation in a caste system based on color. And we can learn what we can do as individuals to help dismantle such a system.
We are trying to unlearn implicit biases by educating ourselves about racism, justice, and fairness. We are studying our present unequal racial systems that are deeply embedded in American life. But perhaps just as important, we are doing this work together. Laurie initiated our first conversation, reaching out via email, asking are you willing to be my companion on this journey it seems we are both taking?
Gratefully, we are not alone. Several of the books we are reading lead contemporary best seller lists, including “White Fragility,” “How To Be An Antiracist,” “Me and White Supremacy” and “Just Mercy.”
This is uncomfortable work. Hard work. It’s difficult to look at our own biases that have driven us to do or say things we may not have realized were racist. But, our own feelings of discomfort must not be an excuse to look the other way, to say this is not our problem, or not our responsibility.
We urge you to begin your own dialogue with friends or family. And, in this challenging time in our country, to elect leaders at all levels whose actions support your values.
• Laurie Craig is retired naturalist and Patty Ware is a retired Juvenile Justice administrator. Both are Juneau residents who say they offer these words in kindness and humility.