#DAPL, #BLM, and the #WPER

Recently, I was chatting with a student after class. We’ve been having a robust conversation for the last two weeks on the environmental implications of Mary Shelley’s most famous novel, Frankenstein.

“What I don’t get,” the student said, “is this drive for achievement and production at the cost of environment and the well-being of humans. Mary Shelley knew about the dangers of it when she wrote Frankenstein. Why haven’t we learned in two hundred years?”

This student is indigenous, a senior looking ahead to a graduate degree in Environmental Science, and the conversation inevitably turned to the massive organization taking place in North Dakota, what has essentially become the first global summit of indigenous peoples committed to protecting not just Native rights, but human rights. My student and I talked about how, time after time, indigenous people have put their bodies on the line to preserve whole communities and ecosystems, not just Native (or even human) ones, while white folks seem to go on about their business, unfazed.

“You know about the White Person Eye Roll, right?” he asked. “Every time a Native person starts talking about political issues, all the white people in the room roll their eyes. We see it all the time. You white people don’t think we see it, but we do.”

While I’m not sure if I’ve witnessed a literal White Person Eye Roll (let’s hashtag it, shall we? #WPER?) en masse, I’ve seen plenty of it on an individual level. I’ve certainly felt the energy in the room change when a person of color speaks to a group of mostly white people. I’ve felt the awkward shift of weight, the aversion of eyes and, most tragically of all, a silence with so much mass, so much gravity, it becomes a black hole of apathy.

My student is certainly on to something: I’ve witnessed not only a vast silence from white friends and family regarding the controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), but a general ignorance about it.

White folks as a whole are not paying attention.

But the White Person Eye Roll – literal or figurative, conscious or unconscious – is not limited to indigenous voices. There’s a similar aversion of white eyes surrounding the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

I experience a surreal juxtaposition of lived experiences when scrolling through my social media feeds following a significant #BLM or #DAPL news story. The people of color in my newsfeed – significant in number – use this space to voice their pain, their rage. They talk about life and death and a fear that has seeped into every corner of their lives. Some actively call on the white community to speak up, to explain their silence, to just look at their anguish. And sandwiched in between these posts, these calls for action, these digital wounds, is a stubborn silence from white friends and family. No, not silence. Silence might be more respectful. No, what I see is an entirely different mode of reality, one that is the antithesis of the way people of color experience their lives.

Perhaps these white folks don’t have diverse voices in their newsfeed. Perhaps they don’t see the pleas I do. Perhaps they aren’t aware of the forces of violence and oppression in our nation and our local communities, or read the news. Perhaps they don’t feel qualified or knowledgeable enough to speak and so turn away. Worse, I’m sure some of them simply don’t care.

But here’s the thing: ignorance may be bliss but, in the Information Age, it’s also unforgiveable.

One of the most pernicious lies we tell ourselves is that we can remain silent – for whatever reason – and not be changed by that choice. Because – never forget – silence in moral matters is a choice, and it will weigh on our hearts and minds. It will alter us, harden us, make it easier each time to look away. Patterns of silence make it more difficult each time we are confronted with a moral crisis to step up and do the hard (but right) thing, to engage in difficult but transformative conversations.

Don’t fool yourself: silence is deadly. It’s deadly in the people-are-literally-dying sense and deadly in the way it erodes and kills moral courage.

Silence is killing us all.


Recent Publications

I’ve had a couple of publications in the last month:

The first is a memoir piece I wrote for my friend Shannon Kopp’s new online magazine, Soul Paws. The essay is about adoption, grief, and the unexpected ways dogs can heal us. You can read “What Remains” here. I encourage you to poke around Shannon’s site, especially if you love dogs. You might even consider purchasing her book, Pound for Pound.

The second publication contains the results of a project on which I and four other colleagues at my university collaborated about transparent teaching and problem-based learning. You can find it here in the American Association of Colleges and University‘s latest journal issue.

Also, if you’re new to the blog, you may have missed a post I wrote last year in the wake of the Ferguson protests. The devastating events of this week have resurrected this essay, and it’s seeing some significant traffic online. You can read “Race Matters” here.

Happy reading!

In Praise of Flip-Flopping

A few weeks ago, a friend on Facebook asked, “Have any of you ever changed your mind about politics based on a meme, shared article, or social media post?”

I thought it was an interesting question. “Not based on a meme,” I typed, “but I have changed my mind after reading a particularly thoughtful post or an article that made me think about an issue in a different way.”

I was the only person to respond with any form of the affirmative. In a sea of “no,” “nope,” and “not me!” responses, one person said, “No I wouldn’t [sic].”

That’s a curious turn of phrase: I wouldn’t.

This person isn’t just speaking to historical events (no, I’ve never changed my mind based on a political post) but is invoking the future. Since I’m assuming this person is not clairvoyant, what’s really going on is that he’s making a statement about his moral standards.

“Have you ever drowned a kitten?” someone might ask.

“No! I would never!”

Or, “Did you cheat on the final exam?”

“I wouldn’t cheat!”

“Have you changed your mind?”

“Never!” comes the battle-cry, fist raised.

When did it become a point of pride to never change one’s mind?

I hear variations on this theme both online and in person: “I hate it when people post about political issues. I already know who I’m voting for, so I don’t need to see all that stuff.”

What if you don’t have all the information? What if you haven’t looked at an issue from a certain perspective? What if you’re misguided? What if you’re…wrong? What if I’m wrong?

It’s entirely likely I’m more worried than the average person about my knowledge base, about having all the information, about considering and reconsidering and reconsidering again because, well, I’m an anxiety-riddled perfectionist who has commitment issues with taking sides. At some point, I know I have to stop reading, stop listening, and make a choice – the best possible choice I can make in that moment with the knowledge I have. But this idea that revising your opinion shows either a weak mind or weak ethics (or both) is symptomatic of a diseased culture.

Symptom 1: Clinging to extremes.

Not only are we highly polarized in the U.S., but we cling desperately to those simplified black-or-white, this-or-that, us-or-them stances. We know our side, our side is the absolute truth, and any other perspective is absolutely wrong. Many people struggle to imagine – or admit to – more ambivalent possibilities, the contradictions, the gray areas present in any issue. People on both sides of the spectrum are equally guilty. I am often guilty.

A mark of intellectual maturity is being able to embrace contradiction. Sometimes, those minute degrees of contradiction can tip the scales in a new direction.

Symptom 2: Intellectual laziness.

“I already know who I’m voting for” is the equivalent of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and shouting LA LA LA LA LAAAAAAA. I would never change my mind. I’ll prove it.

What you’re saying is that you don’t want to be bothered with encountering new ideas and having to rethink your stance. Processing information is hard. Coming to thoughtful, reasoned conclusions in a flawed world is even harder. Harder still is hashing out those ideas with other people who may not agree with you.

Symptom 3: Information isolation.

“Well, I do my own research,” some might say.

This is one of the reasons I’m such an advocate for formal, diverse, higher education: humans can only research to the limits of our imagination. It’s hard to come up with a Google search phrase for a concept we’ve never encountered or imagined. Good instructors – experts in their fields who have spent more time reading, listening, talking, thinking, and writing about their subject of interest than most people ever will – can guide students to engage with material beyond their sphere of knowledge, with ideas they may never have discovered on their own. If your research consists of your old stand-bys, you’re missing a lot of information and a lot of perspectives.

More and more people rely on social media for their news. This means they get their information from a curated set of media outlets, friends, and family. We tend to block voices with whom we disagree, and we add voices that reinforce our worldviews. We all do it to one degree or another, but this means that we are becoming more isolated from perspectives different from our own and the people with whom we socialize.

In my own Facebook newsfeed, for example, out of a community of 500+ people and over 1,000 media outlets I follow, I don’t have a single outspoken Trump supporter. There are a few friends I suspect are Trump supporters, but they’re not admitting it publicly (which is telling in itself). In any case, that’s a huge statistical deviation. And there’s a reason for it: consciously or unconsciously, I’ve built myself a sturdy anti-Trump bunker.

Symptom 4: We don’t read enough.

I don’t know how many times a week I ask my husband if he’s read about something I saw online. I’ll give him a one-liner to catch him up, he’ll ask me a question, and I find myself saying, “I don’t know. I only read the headline.”

And I blush.

If we’re only reading headlines, bumper stickers, and memes, if we’re only listening to the one-minute sound-bite (I refuse to watch almost any video on social media that runs past two minutes) how can we possibly understand the nuances of an issue? How can we engage intelligently? How can we carry on a conversation about it?

Read. Read books. Read articles. Read poems and stories and personal essays. Read widely. Be discriminating about your sources. Pause to process and rethink your stance after you read. But mostly, just read.

Symptom 5: We talk at each other.

My son will argue any point, any time of the day, with any level of information (or misinformation) simply for the sport of arguing. It’s just who he is. Someday, because he can look at any side, follow any line of inquiry, he’ll make a great lawyer or scientist or inventor. He’ll be a great philosopher or writer.

But too often, we see conversation as a competitive sport. Debate has its intellectual place. Done right, it can lead to rich, complex understanding for all parties. Done wrong (which it usually is), our conversations are nothing more than a tennis match with no hope of resolution, no point.

“Don’t talk at me,” I tell my son. “Talk with me.” I want to hear what he’s saying, and I want him to hear what I’m saying, and then move together toward something higher, something more significant than an irreconcilable tennis match both of us are determined to win.

Listen. Really listen. Ask questions to be sure you understand. Reflect back what you think the other person is saying. Weigh it and respond thoughtfully. Keep an eye on your emotions. I don’t mean ignore your emotions, or remain emotionless. Just be careful in the ways you use those feelings.

Symptom 6: Mistrust of education.

This past week I read Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks. It’s a novel set in Appalachia in the 1930s, a time of massive change for a historically isolated group of people. I chose it because my family comes from Appalachia, from poverty, from an ultra-conservative worldview. The Appalachian voice and the novel’s themes tugged at the roots of my identity.

In the novel, a husband becomes convinced his wife is a witch because she grows to see herself as her own agent – she sneaks out at night to walk alone, she develops friendships outside her marriage, she attends classes offered by the new government agent in town, she wants their son to be educated. She also dares to claim her body as her own, rather than an object her husband, by virtue of ownership, can take and use at will. The husband’s fear of change – his paranoia – grows into a demon of his own making.

The plot resonated with my own story. My background is just eccentric enough that I often feel like I stepped from the 1930s into the twenty-first century.

The more I considered the book, though, the more I found myself shocked at how relevant it is to broader American cultural wars. We’re still arguing about who a woman’s body belongs to. We’re still arguing about what it means to be married. We’re still arguing about the place – and worth – of education.

In the last fifteen years, I’ve seen an increased trend toward not just suspicion of the educated, but outright contempt: “I don’t need a piece of paper. I have common sense. College will just brainwash you.” These could be lines straight from the husband’s mouth in Franks’ novel.

What if we revered our elders more instead of less? The ones who have gathered more life experience, more wisdom? What if we sat at their feet and absorbed their histories and their knowledge? What if retirement homes were more like temples, holding the sacred within their walls? What if instead of retirement homes, our elderly – our wise – were placed with reverence at the center of our homes?

What if we respected the knowledgeable and the pursuit of knowledge? When did the path of learning become something ridiculous, something only peculiar people chase, daydreamers who don’t understand or can’t survive the “real world” (and what is this “real world,” anyway)? When did academics become Ross from Friends, bumbling idiots who are barely tolerated by the people around them?

Symptom 7: Fear of failing or being wrong.

We are losing our capacity for creative play. We live in a culture that values the quantifiable, the efficient, that certain journey from A to B. We want what’s right, and we want it now, preferably in capsule form. A flavored capsule that goes down smoothly would be even better, thank you very much.

My students have a positive horror of being wrong. This is usually why they struggle to speak up in class, why I have to nudge and prod and convince them to take risks in their projects, to start with a question they don’t know the answer to and simply follow the path the question will take. There’s something wrong with our culture when we produce students who have a creeping terror of actual growth.

Being wrong is where the good stuff happens. It’s where humility shows us truths we’d never see otherwise. Failure is exciting. It’s dynamic. I respect a good failure.


People who know me even superficially can tell right away I’m a bleeding heart hippie leftist. Those who have only known me in the past five or ten years, though, would be surprised to know I voted for George W. Bush the first time around. Even worse, I voted for him for no better reason than that was how my husband voted (he’s done a lot of changing, too). And if I’d been old enough, I would have voted for his father.

I’m a big believer in the power of changing minds. When people accuse political candidates of “flip-flopping,” I understand the mistrust of the pandering politician. But I also believe that people do change. They gather information, they listen to other points of view, and yes, I hope they change their minds. If you haven’t changed your mind about something significant, that tells me more about your fear than about your courage or your standards.

Poet and educator Taylor Mali said in his poem, “Like Lilly Like Wilson,” “changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

I wish you a life filled with fruitful flip-flopping.

Why Environmental Literature Matters

While researching for the upper-division Environmental Literature course I teach every other fall, I came across this quote from Dr. John Tallmadge:

“Environmental literature…engages the humanities in pressing concerns of the day. We often blame environmental problems on industry, capitalism, bad science, or rampant consumption, and we think that technical fixes or clever new laws will solve them. But these address only the proximate causes. Environmental problems ultimately stem from our values, beliefs, and ideas about the proper relations between human beings and nature. We will never solve them without understanding those beliefs, subjecting them to critique, and transforming them with capable imagination. Such work has always belonged to the ‪humanities, and this means that humanists now have a vital role to play as public intellectuals in a culture that is groping halfheartedly toward a sustainable future.”

I’ve long been a champion of the humanities for this very reason: while science and politics have an indisputable place in remaking the world into a safe, thriving place for all sentient beings, it’s the humanities’ unique emphasis on methodological self-reflection that hold the power to bring awareness to hypocrisy or internal contradiction and transform a person’s values and beliefs, which drive behavior. The humanities are where the revolution of spirit happens. Without this revolution, our conversations and actions surrounding the most pressing issues of our time will remain stagnant.

It’s no secret that my favorite courses to teach are literature courses, and that’s because it places me on the front lines of this revolution. As students encounter new ideas, new kinds of intelligences, new ways of moving through and knowing this world, new voices that have been historically relegated to the margins, I can witness the transformation of values on a personal level. That’s exciting and immensely rewarding.

All literature has this power, but I believe that, of all the branches of literary criticism, exposure to ecocriticism is the one that wields the greatest power to transform. Thankfully, the study of simple (and, for my tastes, leaning toward the sentimental and passive) environmentalism has been overtaken by the principals of environmental justice, the idea that ecological issues intersect with human social and political issues surrounding race, class, gender and even sexuality.

This theoretical transition from environmentalism to environmental justice follows a logical progression of moral development we can see on the individual level: once a young person develops empathy for the plight of mammalian cousins like polar bears, for example, she will begin to worry about the ecosystem the polar bears exist within and start to work to conserve habitat or to slow climate change. Under the care of a good educator, as this student learns about climate change in her effort to save the polar bears she will begin to tease out the complex implications of climate change that impact not just those starving, exhausted bears, but all living beings on the planet. She opens her mind and heart to vulnerable groups of people who are most devastated by rising seas, unpredictable weather, famine, drought, soil erosion, and deforestation. This student – and I’ve watched this happen – will begin to feel the weight of her responsibility not just to the polar bears and their immediate habitat, but her empathy will range in ever wider circles. From there, it’s a short leap to extending empathy to living beings everywhere and to work for transformation in all political and social systems in an intersectional way.

Environmental justice is social justice, and vice versa.

One of the powerful things about teaching environmental literature is that, more than other literary discourse, the study of environment, even a study grounded in the written word, is best taught in a direct, hands-on way. I’ve come to learn that environmental literature courses that don’t take students out into our woods and plains, our lakes and streams, our grasslands and oceans, into the very heart and lungs of the earth, are missing a powerful and transformative teaching tool. All of our literature courses could draw on this lesson, certainly: as students read Kafka, for example, with an eye toward Marxism, what would it be like to take those students into agricultural fields to speak with migrant farm workers, or into a massive Amazon warehouse where workers’ bodies are searched before and after their shifts and walk dozens of miles a day to retrieve items to be shipped across the world? But there’s something immediately personal and visceral about our connection with nature, even in those students who begin an environmental literature course oblivious to that connection. There’s something about the study of nature that humbles us, that reminds us of our dependence on our common Mother. Nature nudges us in the direction of equality, because as a species we are equally vulnerable, our future equally tenuous. Nature teaches us that we are tied not just to each other but to all other systems.

If our university’s mission is to provide transformative education, a complex study of ecology that includes the voices and written or spoken experiences of many kinds of humans should be a part of that education. I’m pleased that my university opens this course not just to English majors or those interested in the abstract, critical and theoretical underpinnings of written codes and signs, but requires the course for all Environmental Science/Studies majors. Maybe the next step could be offering that course more often than every other fall.

About That Flag Cartoon

Last week was cause for celebration in my house.

Thursday, the Supreme Court of the United States rejected a legal challenge to Obamacare. The President declared affordable healthcare “here to stay.” Because my husband and I both work with impoverished populations, we’ve seen firsthand what the Affordable Care Act can mean.

Friday morning, I stumbled out of my bedroom in pajamas and disheveled hair to announce “MARRIAGE EQUALITY!” punctuated by my fist in the air. I hadn’t realized how badly I needed to hear that our country can do something good, something meaningful, something that proves we’re not a lost cause, until I couldn’t keep back my tears over breakfast.

I can only imagine what that moment meant for the people who had just been granted the right I’ve enjoyed for over twenty years now.

Later that day, I watched the first black president of the United States deliver the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney: minister, senator, and activist shot to death by a white supremacist along with eight others at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I expected it to be a mournful hour. And it was, knowing what is lost from our world, knowing that the tide of racism never stops. But the president’s eulogy reminded me of what was good in the world. I remembered the power of the black church over the last four hundred years. I remembered the courage and defiance of black activists and white allies. I remembered that history sometimes leaps forward in blazes of light after the darkness of struggle.

After all the violence of this year, I can’t help but feel that as a nation, we are on the cusp of a series of jumps forward. Through the courageous and relentless work of activists, injustice in the United States has spread from the attention of the world to – finally! – the attention of the every day American. Race, sex, and gender politics are, at last, front page news here in the United States. Americans are now seeing what the rest of the world has known about us for years, that systemic discrimination, oppression and bigotry are our great national tragedy, one we must, after four centuries, look in the face without flinching before we can move forward.

On Saturday, Bree Newsome did what we all wish we had done. Tired of the circular debate over the Confederate flag, she climbed a flag pole outside the South Carolina State House and took the damned thing down herself. Arrested and charged with “defacing a monument,” Newsome emailed the following statement:

We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day…it’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.

Over the weekend, Bob Englehart’s cartoon depicting the Confederate flag being removed was modified by an anonymous cartoonist to add the LGBT pride flag going up in its place.

Bob Englehart's modified cartoon

The cartoon went viral. It became a simple, visual statement of the victories of the week.

But here’s the thing. In the last week, six predominantly black churches have burned in five Southern states. Investigators suspect arson involved in at least three, but – let’s be serious, now – most of us outside the South know that six burned black churches in a week would be a coincidence bordering on the impossible.

We who are working for justice have to remember that just because South Carolina takes down the Confederate flag doesn’t magically take racism away. In fact, such victories often only serve to inflame racism. Folks, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

We also can’t forget that where gay rights have gained enormous ground over the last decade, those in the margins – people, for example, who are bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and above all, LGBTQIA people of color – are still shouting to be heard, recognized, and even included in the movement.

After the marriage equality ruling broke on Friday, conservatives in my social media feeds seemed quiet for the most part (as long as I avoided the “comments” sections of news stories, those cesspools of ignorance). Most of my conservative friends didn’t comment, and if they did, their comments were brief and vague. However, given three days to regroup, hate is back on the menu. Only this time, it’s extra spicy.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Ruby Bridges has been on my mind. Ruby, in her iconic first grade photo, flanked by U.S. Marshalls on the steps of an all-white school following desegregation.


She’s so small. Did she know she would become a hero? A symbol? Certainly, when Bree Newsome climbed the flag pole on Saturday, she knew she’d become a hero. She chose the spotlight, even chose her arrest. But Ruby? I think not. As an adult, Ruby Bridges Hall remembers her mother being pressured into sending her daughter to William Frantz Elementary School. She remembers not understanding why people yelled at her, threatened her, and why she sat in a classroom all by herself for all of first grade.

Sometimes our heroes don’t choose their status. History, rude and uninvited, thrusts heroism upon them.

In this historical moment, I see many in the LGBTQIA community as reluctant heroes. Yes, so many are outspoken. So many continue to take to the streets, to make themselves heard, to fight for their very existence. This is their victory. They are the ones who have done the hard work. But so many simply want to live their lives out quietly, peacefully, happily. The way I do. They don’t choose to be heroes or figureheads or, God forbid, martyrs, but so many will become just that.

It’s ugly. It’s unfair.

So, by all means, celebrate. Keep the focus where it belongs. Stay loud, stay strong.

But never think we are done.

Race Matters

I adopted my son when he was three years old. Within the first twenty-four hours of his arrival, he told me, “I’m garbage because I’m brown.”

I don’t know what disturbed me more: the slap-in-the-face racism out of the mouth of a child, the way he had internalized the message, or the matter-of-fact manner in which he said it. He went on to repeat the phrase, obviously learned in some earlier foster home, over the next year or two until I finally eradicated it from his catch-phrase repertoire.

What took me a long time to understand, however, was that although my son eventually stopped saying “I’m garbage because I’m brown,” and even came to identify most with the black half of his genetic makeup, that phrase learned at such an early age had already seeped into his subconscious, where it was only confirmed by media messages, the evening news, and his own lived experience.

My husband and I are white, and ten years ago we were those people, the ones who believe that race is a social construct rather than biological (true) and that it is possible – and even desirable – to raise a “colorblind” child of color (false and false). So when my son said “I’m garbage because I’m brown,” I said what I thought I was supposed to say: that he certainly wasn’t garbage and that his skin color didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that he was brown and I was white (or pink, rather, as he often pointed out), or that his hair was curly and my husband’s straight, or that my eyes were blue and his were brown and Grandpa’s were hazel. What mattered, I told him, was the content of his character.

But with each repetition of the phrase over those first few months, the more my patience, my liberal smugness, wavered, replaced by exasperation and irritation. Why didn’t he get this? The phrase was illogical, nonsensical, hateful, and damaging. I told him he was beautiful. We read books celebrating diversity. We’re all different, but we’re all human, I said. Race doesn’t matter.

One evening when my son was in second grade, we sat at the dinner table. My boy scooped mashed potatoes onto his plate. “A kid in my class said I was going to jail,” he said.

I shook off the sudden chill in the room and laughed. “Why would he say such a thing?”

“He said all brown people go to jail.” He took a bite.

“That’s just silly,” I said. “You tell me: why do people go to jail?”

“Because they break the law?”

“That’s right. That’s like saying I’m going to jail because I have blue eyes. Remember what MLK said? What matters is not the color of your skin but the content of your character.”

Except that Dr. Martin Luther King never said that. What he said, as a matter of fact, was that he dreamed of a day when his children might be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. But in this historical moment, people did judge his children according to the color of their skin. Racism was MLK’s lived experience. Racism was – and still is – the reality of life in the United States.

I also ignored the fact that people do go to jail because they are brown or black, that as we spoke that night, brown and black bodies filled our prisons in catastrophically disparate proportions, that brown and black people flooded the streets demanding life and justice and were still hosed down and tear gassed and shot with rubber and metal bullets and choked and beaten and broken and hauled away to prison as thugs and hoodlums while angry white men walked away unscathed.

But this wasn’t my lived experience. This was not my reality, and I committed the cardinal racial sin of our age: I turned a blind eye from my son’s reality, assuming my reality was the only one. I took experiences that were crushingly significant to him and I brushed them away as trivial, silly, meaningless.

Later that same year, he showed me a Christmas ad from Target in which a family gathered around a Wii in red and green plaid pajamas. They smiled, laughed, and cheered as they played together.

“Sometimes I wish I had a family like this,” he said.

The family was black.

A quick, vicious stab. My center constricted. I suppressed a flash of anger and kept my voice even. “They sure look like they’re having fun. Wouldn’t it be nice if families could just play and have fun all the time?”

“Yeah,” he said. He wandered off.

But we both knew what he was talking about. I could have said, “It must be hard when you don’t look like your family. You must have a hard time knowing where and how you fit. Tell me about what that is like.” I could have – I should have – but I didn’t.

The next year, when he was in third grade, two white kids beat my son for fifteen minutes straight on the school bus while yelling racial slurs. The bus driver physically turned away from my son in silence when he asked for help. The videotape of the incident was “misplaced” for a couple of days. The next day, the principal told my husband and me that our son would just have to toughen up because kids call names. Boys will be boys. When we took the case to the superintendent, the principal retaliated by calling my son into his office in the middle of class and yelled at him for being a “whiny little troublemaker.” The bus manager found the videotape and called me, tears edging her voice. “You don’t want to see this,” she said. “It will break your heart.”

That’s what it took. Five years of denial, of living in self-imposed blindness, of telling my son his experiences “didn’t matter.” And when he came home that day from the bus, literally and figuratively split wide open, that’s the day I saw my own racism. That’s the day I understood that as a white woman, I had the privilege of being “colorblind,” but my son never would. Color did matter. Does matter. It matters to him. For him, race means life or death, freedom or imprisonment. Race – whether I want it to or not – defines my son’s place in the world, and in denying that I choose to be the bus driver, turning away from my bleeding child in silence.

A few months later, I had a chance to speak with the local NAACP president. I confessed my sins, my inadequacy, my blindness. “Honey,” she told me, “you’re gonna get that child of yours killed. You’ve got to teach that boy how to be black in this world. Whether you like it or not, that’s what you signed up for when you brought a little black boy into your house.”

Like it or not, race matters. While we’re busy talking about how it shouldn’t matter, race matters. When we refuse to acknowledge it, race still matters. When a white man guns down a black boy, race matters. When Rachel Dolezal plays dress-up, race matters. When the confederate flag flies over the state of South Carolina or clings to the window of a good ol’ boy’s pickup truck in rural Washington state, race matters. When we categorize white shooters as “mentally ill” or “abnormal” and black shooters – even if we discover too late they never actually had a gun – as faceless “thugs,” race matters.

Until white America stops averting its eyes, until we look racism full in its face, until we close our mouths and listen, until we feel something for what is happening to black and brown men, women, and children, we will never heal. And while we look away, people continue to die.