Just under two weeks ago, just over a mile from my house, George Floyd was murdered. It is indisputable that if he were white, he would still be alive today.
We’re all exhausted. It’s hard to sleep with helicopters circling overhead, and with the constant threat of violence in our neighborhoods. It’s hard to sleep with white supremacists and anarchists descending on our city and hiding in our backyards. It’s hard to sleep when we see so much injustice all around us.
We white folks slept better a few weeks ago, didn’t we? But how? The racism and hatred that led to George Floyd’s murder has been with us all along. Without systemic change, it was inevitable that another black person would be killed by another white police officer. How did we sleep?
We slept by pushing these terrible, inevitable facts out of our minds. We focused on the small things we could do, and on our good intentions, and on the donations we made to the right causes. We did this even as the coronavirus continued to spread disproportionately to communities of color. We knew these things, but they were too uncomfortable to face, so we looked away.
It’s much harder to look away now. How will be sleep? Maybe we won’t. Probably we shouldn’t.
What now, white guy?
I’m a well-meaning white man. I’ve been extremely restrained on social media, because I believe it to be an echo chamber at best. And while my priority is to listen carefully and openly, I need to make my feelings public and clear:
Racism is poison. I’m committed to working against it, even when it makes me uncomfortable. I’ll listen better and learn more, and I’ll use my influence to make things better. I’ll put more of my money, and all of my votes, where my mouth is. I stand in solidarity with the black community and demand justice for George Floyd. Black lives matter.
So what? So nothing. To build a society that works for all of us, this statement and the thousands just like it being posted across the internet by well-meaning white people are less than the price of admission. I know I need to back up these words with actions. I’ll write more about that in future posts, including how to lead people through these challenging topics and times.
The center of the world
I love so much about Minneapolis. I love its lakes and its restaurants, its culture and its parks, its sports and its quality of life – I’ve even written a song about it. But Governor Walz put it perfectly when he said that:
We don’t just rank near the top on educational attainment. We rank near the top on personal incomes, on home ownership, and on life expectancies. We ranked second in a survey of the 50 States, second in happiness behind Hawaii. But if you take a deeper look and peel it back, which this week has peeled back, all of those statistics are true if you’re white. If you’re not, we ranked near the bottom.
Have you heard about “Minnesota Nice”? It’s the idea that we Minnesotans are as pleasant as can be when we’re together, but that we’re just being “nice.” That we’ll do anything to put someone else at ease, but we don’t actually mean it. That we’re not genuine, we’re just trying to avoid conflict. This is something we readily acknowledge and often laugh about, and that white people often credit to their Scandinavian or Germanic heritage. How can it be bad to be nice?
The truth about “Minnesota Nice” is that it can prevent us from getting below the surface, from really understanding and connecting with each other. “Minnesota Nice” is what allows us white Minnesotans to say we empathize with black people, to donate to black causes, and to vote for people of color without actually engaging in the community or the conversation. I keep thinking of the lyrics from Lou Reed’s “Busload of Faith”:
You can’t depend on the goodly hearted
the goodly hearted made lamp-shades and soap
It’s time to stop being nice, to stop avoiding conflict, to stop running from the hard stuff. It’s time to engage.
Clearly Minneapolis is not the only city in the country – or in the world – with a racist history, and with racist policies that have created vast inequities for hundreds of years. Still it’s my city, and right now it feels like the center of the world for the worst possible reason.
This is our time
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Right here, right now, we have an incredible opportunity to shape the future, to turn Minneapolis into a city that works for all people, regardless of the color of their skin. If we can rise to the occasion, then maybe we can be the city where things got so bad that they finally started to get better.
This is a time to listen openly, to challenge our ways of thinking and behaving, to stand up for the things that matter (including each other), and to work for change. This is our time.
We can sleep after that.