Effecting change takes time.
Changing a 400-year history of racism in our country will take time.
And it will take courage.
I want to share a personal story – not one I’m proud of.
Decades ago I was riding on public transportation in the Washington, DC area when two well-dressed white men in about their 40’s or early 50’s began making anti-Semitic comments, blaming Jews for all the woes of our country. They went on and on for about 15 minutes while my rage at their stereotyping began to bubble over. So what do you think I did?
I was afraid.
But I hadn’t been afraid to protest the war in Vietnam. I hadn’t been afraid to protest the killing of 13 unarmed students on the campus of Kent State University in 1970 that ultimately led to the closure of colleges and universities across the country. It’s easier to have courage when in the company of likeminded people. It’s harder to have courage when standing alone.
Since the murder of George Floyd, I have thought about that first incident almost daily. Because I didn’t stand up. I didn’t speak up. I just cowered in my seat immobilized by my fear. In retrospect I wonder: What are we afraid of that keeps us from standing up against racism, discrimination, bigotry and injustice? Could it be
- Fear of personal harm
- Fear of rejection or ridicule
- Fear of confrontation
- Fear of doing anything that will fuel their beliefs
- Fear of loss of employment or loss of income
This is the time to find our courage and our voices. To acknowledge fears that stand in our way and, as in the title of a classic book, “Feel the fear . . . and do it anyway.”
"Courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of fear."
~ Mark Twain
We can find our courage to do the right thing by calling up memories of how good it felt when you did what you thought was right. I think back on how weak and ashamed I felt when I let my fear immobilize me against the anti-Semitic conversation. And the very different sense of pride I felt when our protests honored the memory of the young pstudents killed at Kent State. Cowardice vs. courage. Two different behaviors. Two different feelings of self-worth.
For those who, like me, gain much from the power of journaling, I invite you to consider these questions:
- Make a list of your fears. What frightens you about standing up against racism and discrimination?
- What is the most courageous act you have ever taken? Write the specifics of the situation for five minutes. Then write about enabled you to undertake that act?
- Then think about a time when you had to do something you didn’t think you could do and yet found doing it well. What gave you the courage in that circumstance? How can you recapture that same courage?
- Make a list of the times when you have demonstrated the courage to change.
- Write about a time when you faced the challenge of doing something you believed was the right thing to do.
When you hear your inner voice say “I’m not sure I can stand up against racism,” tell yourself, “Yes, I can.” You are not alone in this movement.
Eleanor Roosevelt, one of my icons, once wrote “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
I have come to believe that courage is looking fear in the face and refusing to be intimidated. It’s the fire fighter who rushes into a burning building to save a child or soldiers, like my father, who advance against an enemy, fully aware of the dangers they are facing but accepting the challenge to do what they believe in.
Today we need to find the courage to:
- Stand up in a county council or city council meeting to argue for police reform
- Stand up against racist remarks from friends, colleagues and family members
- Initiate a conversation with a black man or woman you do not know
- Listen with an open mind to his/her experiences – without judgment
- Refuse to listen to or partake in racist jokes or jokes that disparage any other group of people
- Stand up against a justice system that favors white people in allocating consequences
- Commend those journalists who report accurately on what they see
Have the courage to face the reality that almost 250 years after signing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, systemic racism still exists in our country. Courage is facing the fact that all of us who claim not to be racist have closed our eyes to the reality of our black neighbors, colleagues and friends. Let us not let our fear keep us from doing what we know is right, what is long overdue.