“This is the last thing I want to deal with right now,” I thought after I opened the link to a swarm of racist messages made public on Facebook. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and honestly uninterested in thinking about something that required too much mental energy.
I was sitting in the tax refund wing of Harrod’s department store in London, England. That itself was an experience unlike any other. There you, are surrounded by hundreds of strangers yelling in 30 languages, as women in hijabs walk by loaded down with bags, as hoards of Asian tourists squabble to decide who is taking what purchases where. All the while, Harrods employees methodically sort through whose turn it is. It is the DMV on steroids.
My immediate response, I think, is a microcosm for exactly how we still have a problem with race and race relations. Here I was surrounded by people spending disgusting sums of money on rabbit fur coats for babies or tiers of chocolate coated in 24 Karat gold. Sitting in that waiting room, I had exposure to any nationality you can imagine, and this exposure is a mark of the privilege I have as a white, wealthy, Wellesleyan. At the end of the day, I could go back to my hotel room and chose to ignore that — both the people there and the Facebook post I had read earlier. And, at the end of the vacation, I could return home and continue to ignore it — another mark of my privilege.
Until people began to talk about it.
Until Dr. Chisum sent an email; until my mom asked about it; my friends talked about it; the school buzzed about it; the Globe wrote an article about it; the World of Wellesley hosted a picnic over it; Dr. Chisum spoke about it. Until it was impossible for me to ignore it any longer.
Truthfully, I do not know what to say about these incredibly hurtful messages over the summer, simply because I am no expert. Racism is something I have had the luxury of acknowledging but largely avoiding: something I can keep in mind, but walk away from as easily as I can close the cover on Song of Solomon. In fact, for most of my life, literature has provided one of the only doorways for me to open discussions about race. We chose to avoid any conversation about racial differences just as easily as we can see there is a difference. I don’t mean to say this is a bad thing — I think this comes from a good place, the assumption that we are all the same on the inside. But the racist messages over the summer, the weekly shootings of young black males show us that we need to address this. Even if our insides are all the same, our outsides influence them. We can no longer pretend a difference is not there.
In writing this, I searched around to find some statistics to see how this racism we saw in our own backyard is playing out in the rest of the country. I stumbled upon the Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings this year. It is a database of all fatal shootings, but scroll through, and soon you will see the grossly disproportionate amount of blacks shot and killed. Just this morning, a man was shot and killed in Lynn, Massachusetts. Lynn! This isn’t just something happening in racist Charleston or distant Los Angeles. Racism is occurring right here at home. And it may start with a joking insult, but, as we have now experienced, that is certainly not where it ends. Racism begins in conversations– in hallways where students carelessly shout the “n-word”, in chat rooms where people verbally abuse black families — so that is exactly how we must begin to erase it: through conversations. Acknowledge the elephant in the room, address people’s racial differences — celebrate them! — so that maybe next time, it won’t be so easy for us to ignore them.