My Turn: Turn up the volume on racism

For the Monitor
Saturday, October 07, 2017

It is a crisp autumn Sunday morning in rural New Hampshire and I am watching the brilliant array of diverse colors fall from the large maple tree in my front yard.

I switch on National Public Radio as Weekend Edition leads off with coverage of President Trump’s angry tweets about professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem. When considered in contrast to his praise of NASCAR and his muddled reactions to the events in Charlottesville, I feel the discomfort and sadness building from deep within. Is our nation’s leader espousing inequality and – whether intentional or not – raising the specter of racism?

We can debate the actions of Colin Kaepernick, patriotism and free speech, but what we cannot debate is the blatant injustice that persists in our country.

The next story on the radio only confirms my distress over the national climate around difference and inclusion. New Hampshire Public Radio updates listeners on two racially charged attacks on children of color – one physically assaulted on a bus and the other the victim of an alleged attempted lynching (yes, I said lynching) by a group of young people. I am struck by the interrelated nature of the morning’s news stories and as my sadness builds to nausea, with a click I silence these tragedies.

Opening my computer, I read a story about DACA and the young people left in limbo as policies protecting them hang in the balance. I lament the undocumented students who know nothing but life in the United States and whose post graduation worries are so much more layered and immediate than their citizen peers.

Next I am confronted with a Facebook post about the inequity of the Justice Department’s potential attack on affirmative action and the prevalence of unchecked legacy preference in college admission. What was I thinking checking social media on a Sunday morning?

I power down and in silence I return my gaze to the bright reds, yellows and greens blanketing my lawn. Why? Because I can, and that is perhaps the most troubling thought of the morning. It is likely that today here in rural New Hampshire I will not interact with one person who doesn’t look like me.

I am keenly aware of the ease with which I can click off the news and power down the disturbing racism and inequality that pervade our society. As an upper-middle class, heterosexual, white male I have the choice of when I want to turn up the volume and when I want to tune out.

I don’t live in fear of my son being bullied on the bus because of the color of his skin. I can walk into a store with a backpack and not be scrutinized. As an educator I facilitate conversations about race, inclusion and hate. As a father I talk to my children about the inequity that surrounds us. As a Quaker I believe firmly in testimonies of equality, peace, and social justice. I take comfort in my ancestors’ roles in the Abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad. I encourage my children to speak up when they witness unkindness and refute the notion of a passive bystander. But this doesn’t let me off the hook or give me permission to turn down the volume.

What is the answer? (Spoiler alert: I do not have a grand solution, and this is partly what can be so paralyzing and muffling).

Should I move to a more diverse community where the leaves are not the only display of color and beauty? This may not be feasible or necessary, but I can be intentional about seeking out and engaging people different from me rather than accepting the status quo of racially exclusive communities. The pretense that racism is not part of my daily experience in a homogenous state is false and a poor excuse for a reluctance to turn up the volume. In fact, I am enmeshed in institutionalized racism as an inherent factor of living in our culture. It is for this very reason that I must consider a response to the divisive words and actions of our leaders and fellow citizens.

So what can I do?

I can show my unconditional support for professional athletes and others who use their cultural capital to make powerful statements and to draw attention to racism. I can seek to understand their reality and honor their inalienable right to free expression. I can stop speaking with soft, measured words in fear of saying the wrong thing. I can say loudly to our president and his justice department, “NOT IN MY NAME.” I can question my colleagues, friends and neighbors about how our complacency is contributing to the overt and covert racism around us? I can say Black Lives Matter without need for a caveat or disclaimer about the rest of us.

Most of all, I can embrace the discomfort that I feel from reading the headlines and be aware that it pales in comparison to what my brothers and sisters of color experience in every moment.

We cannot mute out the painful reality and hope it fades away – that silence is deafening and we must start to listen and act as individuals and communities.

Brennan Barnard lives in Hopkinton.