Listen closely. Do you hear it? Do you hear the sound of millions of white people furiously cramming for a test we had 400 years to prepare for?
Nationwide, bookstores and retailers are sold out of titles about how anti-Black racism has remained at the center of our society and how white people of all political persuasions have played an active role in upholding that intolerable status quo. Book clubs are eschewing Sheryl Sandberg for Robin DiAngelo, and local booksellers are placing bulk orders for How To Be An Antiracist.
In film too the cramming is apparent, if a bit less heartening. Even as America reopens from the first part of Wave 1 of the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, citizens are staying home to watch The Help (sigh) and 13th (lfg). Even that sacred safe space for white complacency, podcastdom, has been overtaken by a fervor for racial justice.
In other words: at least 401 years after the first America-bound slave was kidnapped, brutalized, and brought to our shores; 237 years after the Constitution falsely claimed that its authors believed all men were created equal; 155 years after the enslaver’s rebellion was put down by force; 134 years after Rutherford B. Hayes traded generations of Black dreams for four years of power; 99 years after Black Wall Street was pillaged and burned by domestic terrorists; 65 years after Emmett Till was murdered; 57 years after Bull Connor’s attack dogs; 55 years after Malcolm X was murdered; 52 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered; 28 years after Rodney King was beaten; 8 years after Trayvon Martin was murdered; 6 years after Mike Brown and Laquan McDonald were murdered; 3 years after Eric Garner was murdered; 4 months after Ahmaud Arbery was murdered; 3 months after Breonna Taylor was murdered; and 2 weeks after George Floyd was murdered… white people have discovered we may have some work to do to dismantle white supremacy.
Now, that sounds like a condemnation—and in part, it is. Cramming for a test we’ve had our whole lives to prepare for is deeply embarrassing. But feeling embarrassed and trying to educate ourselves are two of the better things we can do right now. The situation is deeply embarrassing and at the same time it’s encouraging. Understanding that contradiction is central to how we maintain the momentum of the last few weeks.
We wrote after Ahmaud Arbery was hunted and killed that we’d been here before, and that it had all become so sickeningly familiar. Now, this time feels different, no doubt. But for it to actually be different it’s going to require white people to finally do the work we’ve been putting off for half a millennium.
So reading up, getting educated, and sharing resources is a good start. But it really is just a start, a bare minimum first step, and we can’t lose sight of how much damage has been done by waiting this long. If the last-second studying gets us anywhere, it’ll hopefully be a place where we start to conceptualize the work and time that’s needed to repair that damage.