— Ethan⁷ ? BLM (@luvjoon_) May 30, 2020
I see the FedEx truck pulling down my driveway.
I’m sitting on my front porch, having my morning cup of coffee while talking on the phone with a dear friend. I laugh, thinking, how embarrassing—it’s 10 a.m., and I’m still in my pink pajamas and slippers, with messy, unbrushed hair, and no makeup. When I see the driver is an African American man, I quickly become embarrassed for another reason.
It’s been just four days since a Caucasian woman walking her dog in Central Park called the cops, screaming that an African American man was threatening her life. The truth is, she was breaking clearly marked park rules by having her dog off its leash, and the man, Christian Cooper, a birdwatcher, nicely asked her to leash her dog.
And it’s just two days after George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, died while in police custody.
A bystander captured a now viral video of Floyd pleading for his life, saying, “I can’t breathe. They’re going to kill me.” It shows Floyd, handcuffed and pinned facedown on the pavement, with a Caucasian police officer’s knee on the back of his neck in broad daylight. The explosive footage has ignited outrage and a call for justice throughout his community and the entire country. Protesters took to the streets, demanding the officers involved be charged with murder, something Floyd’s family is peacefully requesting as well.
This is heartbreakingly nothing new, but the latest high-profile case of police brutality and misconduct toward Black people. It’s what former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, calls “part of an ingrained, systematic cycle of injustice that still exists in this country.”
Actor Will Smith said, “Racism isn’t getting worse. It’s getting filmed.”
The unjust and inhumane incident has rightfully reignited deep-seated anger, rage, and unimaginable pain across a racially divided United States.
So, as the friendly, smiling FedEx man approaches me, I cheerfully say, “Hi!” and flash him a toothy grin. He hands me my package (a dress from Bergdorf Goodman), and I smile saying, “Thank you!” But what I really want to say to him is, “I’m so sorry.”
I want to hug this man and apologize on behalf of all White Americans. I want to tell him I’m sorry that despite the fact that we both live in the same free country, I have freedoms and privileges he doesn’t and may never have. Unlike him, I will never be racially profiled or have to worry about being a victim of police brutality. It is highly unlikely that someone in any park or anywhere will ever call the cops on me and say, “A blonde white girl is threatening my life.” If someone did, it would most likely be met with roaring laughter—not guns and violence, and certainly not death.
There’s so much I want to say about this topic, and so much pain in my heart to express, and yet it’s challenging for me to do so because I feel too privileged to even share my thoughts. I know life isn’t fair, but these injustices are unacceptable, and our society somehow allows it to keep happening again and again. Innocent lives are being taken.
This isn’t an African American problem or a police problem, this is a White American problem.
We have blood on our hands through silence, ignorance, denial, or any other inaction. It’s on us to demand justice. That doesn’t happen by any of us pretending our voices—especially as privileged as they are—don’t matter. They do. But our hearts matter even more, and it starts with atonement.
The word originally meant “at-one-ment,” or being “at one,” or in harmony with someone. This important act of making amends was brought front and center during a lecture I attended four years ago by best-selling author and activist Marianne Williamson, at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City.
During the Q & A portion of the evening, an African American woman stood up and spoke about her anger over the senseless acts of violence toward Black men. She openly expressed her fears and frustrations about how something must be done to bring about more peace, equality, justice, and safety for all. Marianne, of course, agreed. She’s written and lectured on the topic numerous times.
“Our current racial dramas have their roots hundreds of years ago, and nothing less than pulling out those roots will heal the situation today. America needs to reconcile with our racial history—seeking genuine atonement, and making meaningful amends. Until such time, tortured race relations will continue to plague us with more and more tragic results,” said Williamson.
She told us that we’re all going through this together, and acknowledged that while slavery has ended in our country, racism is still very much alive.
In a recent blog post, Williamson wrote, “Reparations are not a radical idea; they’re considered a basic tenet of social and political policy throughout the world. Why should America not pay reparations to the descendants of slaves who were brought to America against their will, used as slaves to build the Southern economy into a huge economic force, and then freed into a culture of further violence perpetrated against them? It’s not as though all that’s over now; if anything, the problem has grown within the cells and psyches of every generation since.”
Germany, for example, has atoned for its sins against the Jewish community since World War II. Children are taught about the Holocaust in school, and society doesn’t pretend it was any less evil and atrocious than it was. The German government has paid reparations to Jewish organizations.
“America, on the other hand, won’t go all the way yet,” said Williamson. Our nation’s leaders have never taken the time or made the effort to make a full apology and pay reparations. Too many of our children don’t even know the full history of slavery.
But this isn’t a time for anger or blame (it never is). Williamson told us, “We cannot sit back and wait for the government to apologize. The healing has to begin with us.”
She told us we all must take a “brutally honest moral inventory, and ask ourselves, ‘Where do I have to surrender and atone?’”
She went on to say, “Each of us must commit to making love, not fear and hate, a social and political force.” In that spirit, Marianne led the White Americans at the lecture in an apology to African Americans and their ancestors on behalf of our country.
I stood up and faced a beautiful, young African American woman named Charlie who was sitting behind me. With nervous energy, I took her hands, like Marianne asked, and held them tightly in mine, almost as if to say, “It’s going to be ok, I’ve got you.”
I stared straight into her big, golden brown eyes, smiling at her. It was beautiful how she stared straight back, also smiling. We were complete strangers, standing inches from each other, holding hands, taking each other in, not knowing what to expect.
Marianne began the apology. Word by word, I began repeating after her, and apologizing to Charlie in what would be one of the most powerful, intimate, soul-stirring moments of my life:
To you, and all African Americans from the beginning of our nation’s history, in honor of your ancestors, and on behalf of your children, please hear this from my heart.
Please forgive us.
With this prayer I acknowledge
the depth of the evils that have been perpetrated against Black people in America.
to White Supremacist laws,
to the denial of voting rights,
to all the ways,
both large and small,
all of them evil,
all of them wrong.
For all the oppression,
and all of the injustices,
Please forgive us.
For the denial of any civil rights,
for inequalities in criminal justice,
to any instances of police brutality,
to the denial of opportunity,
for economic injustice,
for all the ways that a racial element
has been played into the perpetuation of injustice,
Please forgive us.
With this prayer, I acknowledge the beauty and genius of your culture,
the power and genius of those who came before you,
the power and genius of your children and your descendants,
and with this prayer, we pray,
may your children,
may your men,
be blessed and protected.
May all your men, women, and children be surrounded by angels at this time,
And Dear God, may a great healing occur.
We place in Your hands the relationship between Black and White Americans,
may it be lifted high above and beyond the walls that would divide us.
May our hearts be awakened to the truth of our Oneness,
and racism and prejudice be no more.
Dear God, please come upon us and heal our wounded hearts,
but to you, my African American fellow citizen,
please accept my apology this night.
It is for you, and for your grandparents, and their grandparents before them, and their grandparents before them.
May the screams that were not allowed be allowed now,
may the cries and tears that were never heard be heard now,
and thus may the healing begin.
The tears that we cry may be cried, and thus in this sacred container, may the healing begin.
And so it is.
In the midst of many tears and hugs, everyone in the church that evening held in silence this sacred moment. I don’t know that I have ever experienced something so profoundly powerful and necessary.
The instant I said, “Amen,” Charlie and I reached for each other, tightly embracing not just our bodies, but our hearts, our souls. Through her tears, Charlie, with both grace and joy said, “I love you, Kate.”
“I love you, too, Charlie,” I said, barely able to speak.
I was so choked up from the heart-wrenching prayer, and apologizing for such inhumane and heinous acts such as slavery and lynchings. I cried for our country’s injustices, both past, and present. I cried for the very real presence of racism that sadly still exists. I cried for all the innocent lives lost. I cried thinking what sweet Charlie’s ancestors endured. I cried for the woman in the row next to me, who broke down and started screaming in pain, and I cried for being part of one of the most sincere demonstrations of love and forgiveness.
When I sat back down in my seat, everything seemed lighter. Deep-seated wounds were open, but it was okay, we had hope now, and we had each other.
It was clear, a major shift had occurred. Marianne herself would call that a miracle. I know there is no quick fix to this serious problem, but I believe that our prayer, our apology helped heal and shift the collective consciousness in our country from fear and hatred to love and peace. I think it’s way past time we all rise up to be ambassadors of love in our communities. I personally stand committed to using my privilege in the service of justice and equality.
It is my wish that you, too, will find it in your heart to take action, acknowledge our country’s history, be willing to apologize or forgive, and stay committed to educating and healing yourself and others.
We need you.
There are numerous ways to stay informed and take solidarity action that can help move the needle. Here are some anti-racist teachers, leaders, organizations, and resources you can learn from and support:
1. Anti-Racism resources for white people.
2. Guidelines for what people of color want from white allies.
3. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
4. Talking to Strangers by Malcom Gladwell
Watch an anti-racism hour with Jane Elliott talking with Waylon Lewis of Elephant, here.
A worthwhile read: Minneapolis Mirror: Being the Change we wish to See.