Confessions of A Haunted Past

Remarks from Southbourgh’s Neighbors for Peace Vigil for Peace & Racial Justice on June 14

Five years ago this week, Disney Pixar released the film “Inside Out.” For those you who haven’t seen it, the plot takes place in the mind of an adolescent girl named Riley. We get to see the control room of her memories as the characters, the emotions Joy, Sadness, Anger and others try to direct how Riley feels things and remembers. The memories of her life get saved in colored glass orbs that can then later be replayed for Riley to re-experience that event and the emotions with them.

One of the running gags in the film happens when someone from the storehouses of Riley’s memories sends up the orb which contains the jingle for a Triple Dent Gum commercial. The memory unwittingly gets replayed, and Anger blows his top trying to figure out how that silly song got called up to the control room in the first place.  You probably have similar jingles or songs that you first heard years ago that somehow get replayed in your memory at the oddest of times.

One of those has reemerged for me in the past few years after lying dormant for decades. The one that gets replayed for me at the most inopportune times is not a song for a product from the 70s, but rather a ditty I was taught at a very young age. However, it is not a happy memory for me because that little song of 15 seconds has as its highpoint a racial slur. I cannot tell you who taught it to me, but I do remember singing it multiple times in succession as an early elementary school kid and having the adults laugh.

I could just push that aside as a one off, a time when I did something that made others uncomfortable and ignored correcting me, but I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit amongst an extended family and a community that were equal opportunity racists. Oh we wouldn’t call ourselves that, of course.  We were polite and good people all around, but on this aspect we were blind.  We didn’t see those different from us as equals. Vulgar epithets were in plentiful supply. And as time went on and we should have known better, I remember hearing a joke using that same horrible word from a young woman in the youth group I attended.  I felt uncomfortable then myself, but I chuckled and said nothing.

I’m saying all this today—a secret I hadn’t even told my wife, Melissa, until yesterday—because it’s important for me to recognize my own involvement in a system that has generously placed me in its good graces while it simultaneously looks down on and oppresses others. As a straight, white man with a handful of degrees, I’ve grown up with the system smiling on me, telling me that I would indeed go far in life. And it isn’t enough for me to never utter that little ditty again making sure the words go with me to my grave.  Nor is it enough for me to just shake my head when I see the news of another African American or Latino or Asian or Native American be harassed or beaten or killed and perhaps remember to mention their names in a prayer the next Sunday at church.

You see, It is not enough just to be “not racist,” as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi describes it, as one who doesn’t make racist statements or tell racist jokes. Rather I must become antiracist, one who actively works against racism, because that is truly what the opposite of being a racist is.

And the thing I need to do now—as do all of us who’ve grown up with the collective community smiling on us extolling the places we will go—is to listen.  To recognize that it is far too easy to dismiss someone else’s stories—someone else’s truth—and say that I haven’t had that experience myself.  It is much harder to hear the pain, the fear, the trauma, and just listen. Not try to fix or sugarcoat or ignore.  But to be present and to learn.

Which is of course why we are here tonight.  We no longer want to ignore the systemic racism that has been in place for over 400 years. We do not want to forget George Floyd, or Rashard Brooks, or  Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Trayvon Martin.  We want to take our place alongside so many others in the long and difficult work that has been going on for centuries to eradicate the deep injustice in our nation. This work will not be easy, but it is only together that we can truly make a difference. Thank you for being a neighbor standing for Peace and Racial Justice.  Thank you for coming and being here tonight.  Thank you for the work you will continue to do in the days ahead.

Photo Credit: KYcactus Flickr via Compfight cc

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