Thirty years ago I was hurling rocks with the zeal of a young Ken Griffey Jr. over the edge of a ravine. I’d pick up a rock, a flat one if I could find it, curl my index finger over the top of it, and then fling it as hard as I could into the abyss. I couldn’t see where the rocks landed. I just hurled and then listened. Over and over again.
When you’re eight years old that’s fun for a while, but eventually the rhythmic reverb from the bottom of the ravine gets boring. Everything started to look and sound the same – the rock would sky toward the clouds disappearing over the horizon and then we’d hear a distant thud.
We needed a new fix.
My cousin was my partner-in-crime at the time. He was older than I was by a few years, smarter and wiser too. He had more time in the streets than I did and was a mature eleven year old. He easily presented as twelve in most crowds.
So from where we stood, we knew that if we turned all the way around and faced the opposite direction, we’d be hurling stones toward the cabin. That wasn’t a good idea. If we chucked them down the road to our left, we might hit cars as they came around the bend. Foiled again. It didn’t occur to us to simply not throw rocks around people and property. So we turned up the hill to the right and started chucking the rocks again.
We weren’t exactly sure what was over there, but we figured it’d probably make a new sound that we hadn’t heard before.
We were right.
The new sound was breaking glass.
I’m not sure whose rock blew out the rear window of my Grandma’s Dodge 600 sedan that day. I’m really not. In my memory of the event we both released our tiny pieces of earth at the exact same moment.
One fell gracefully to the ground, and the other created a hell of a mess – not just from the glass – our lives were in imminent danger too.
And as quickly as oh shit passed through my brain, my Grandma and a few Aunts were out the screen door in pursuit that only a Bounty Hunter can truly appreciate.
There wasn’t an opportunity for an escape plan. No one else was outside. The Golden Girls knew we were guilty. And even my barely-developed brain had enough logical connections to understand that running into the wilderness and being on the lam with no rations for the rest of my childhood, as tempting as it seemed in the moment, wasn’t going to work out.
So I did the only thing I knew how to do.
I lied through my teeth.
I wasn’t going to snitch and try and rat out my older cousin. I knew the rules. But that didn’t stop me from trying to create an elaborate stream of bullshit consisting of something about the quickly changing evening temperatures and “maybe a colony of bats didn’t see the glass and flew into the rear window?! Seriously! Maybe?”
Fun aside: “colony” is how you refer to a group of bats.
But apparently my cousin didn’t live by the same set of rules because the second we were put on the spot he started to squeal.
The tire tracks from the bus he threw me under are still present 30 years later.
“I was an innocent bystander!” he said.
I had no idea what the word bystander meant but had enough contextual clues to understand I was in deep shit.
But before I could open my mouth to plead my case (I had seen several episodes of Matlock by now and knew the court was required to hear my side), my cousin was on the receiving end of a what I’d like to call a learning hurricane.
A learning hurricane is an opportunity to pick up a life lesson in a way that you probably wouldn’t choose, but could serve you for a lifetime assuming you lived to see the other side. It was ugly, and I can still feel some of the wind burns on my face to this day, but on that cool fall day I learned what it means to be complicit.
I don’t remember exactly what was said by Grandma Dart. But in the same way you’d never forget watching the roof get ripped off your neighbor’s house, I’ll never forget how clearly it was communicated that being complicit is no different than throwing the rock from one’s own hand.
We can’t be complicit any longer
I haven’t seen the video of George Floyd’s murder all the way through. 30 seconds was enough for my heart to break in two. I knew how it ended before I pushed play, and let me tell ya, worst. trailer. ever. A man took the life from George Floyd, and three other individuals who should have held their brother in blue accountable, looked the other way.
They were complicit. Four men had their knees on George’s neck that day.
And as I’ve watched and listened and felt the pain over the past several days, with riots and violence and rage and people truly doing anything they can to get attention and to be heard, I’ve felt an urge to amplify, to serve, to lift, and be a more meaningful contributor in some way.
I don’t want this to be an isolated moment in time where I feel extra bad for a week from the pain I see, and then go back to life as usual, detached from the world around me when the spotlight inevitably fades away.
And I want the place where my children grow up to be more tolerable and loving than the chaos we live in today.
Hi, I’m Karen
Karen (n): champions the HOA bylaw about shrubbery length and then enforces it while visiting neighbors to collect PTA dues.
So as I sit with the sense of wanting to do more, and not allowing George Floyd’s death or the Black Lives Matter protests to become a flash-in-the-pan moment, I ask myself, what can I possibly due to make a difference?
And in that moment of introspection, a YouTube clip of my life starts to play on loop. I’m the star of the clip, but I’m also the viewer. I’m standing outside of it and watching the replay in a very A Christmas Carol way.
The man in the video looks down at his phone and sees a headline: Black Man murdered by local police during routine traffic stop. The man in the video clutches his pearls, briefly acknowledges how awful it is, and how “he can’t believe anyone would do such a thing! Especially a cop who should be a trusted community servant!”. And in the next breath he sets his Whole Foods groceries on the kitchen island, and quietly listens to a mix of smooth Jazz and NPR while tending his risotto with a glass of cab.
And as I watch the video of my life scrub forward, I’m yelling at the jerk in the video. AREN’T YOU GOING TO DO SOMETHING ELSE? ANYTHING ELSE?!
In that moment I sit with the uneasiness that I’m Karen. Or at least I share a lot of common DNA with Karen. I’m white, of course. That’s how I was born. But I also live in the suburbs with a nice home and 2.5 children, a minivan, and a dog. I’m a living breathing American Dream in most ways.
And as much as I want to say “No, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m not racist. I love everyone. Truly.” I resist the defensive urge and acknowledge where I’m at in life. I recognize that in order to truly start looking for opportunities in the world to help, I have to be keenly aware of the privileges and blessings of my own life. That’s the true first step.
To ignore my privilege would be complicit. I’d be a bystander, and not an innocent one.
So today I’m starting with the acknowledgement that Karen and I are more alike than I’d like to admit. It makes me uncomfortable, but I can handle the discomfort if that’s my “price to pay”. I’ll deal.
Here are some great places to start as you recognize, and then push out your inner Karen:
- Give Money: Donate to Black Lives Matter
- Article: 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
- Anti-racism for Beginners
- Article: 31 Children’s books to support conversations on race, racism, and resistance
- Article: Families Of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor Urge Nonviolence Amid Protests
- Podcast: Code Switch – Race. In Your Face.
- Book: So You want to Talk About Race
Black Lives Matter.