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Peterson: Going backward to make progress

WHITE PEOPLE … DO SOMETHING.

Among the hundreds of signs at Wednesday’s Black Lives Matter protest in Vail, those four words hit me the hardest.

Do something.

That thought has nagged at me these last two weeks following George Floyd’s death on a street corner in Minneapolis.

Like so many, I participated in Tuesday’s blackout on social media. I’ve shared various opinion pieces that struck a chord in recent days — from President’s Obama’s message about using this moment of national turmoil to effect real change to former Denver Post Editor Greg Moore’s chilling recounting of his experiences with law enforcement over the years

At the same time, I’ve felt lost for words and utterly helpless when it comes to channeling the anger, sadness and guilt that I know so many are feeling into something, anything … that would have any meaningful impact.

Undoubtedly, I’m part of the problem, complicit in my silence.

What exactly is white privilege? It’s white ignorance. It’s white convenience.

It’s the fact that white people in America, like myself, can pick and choose when to think about racism and its corrosive effect on our society while Americans of color have to live with the reality of it every minute of every single day.

That reality is terrifying. We saw that, yet again, in the video of that police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while three other officers stood by doing nothing. That knee remained there for nearly three minutes after Floyd became unresponsive on the pavement following desperate pleas of “I can’t breathe” and “Mama,” which went ignored.

As white people, we’re not being honest with ourselves if we don’t see that disparity. Would that ever happen to you for passing off a fake $20? Or selling loose cigarettes?

Beverly Daniel Tatum, a leading expert on racism and racial identity, describes racism and white privilege as a moving walkway at the airport.

“Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt,” Tatum writes. “Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around … But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt — unless they are actively antiracist — they will find themselves carried along with the others.”

Yes, I’ve certainly found myself carried along at times, despite honest attempts at walking backward.

And that’s white privilege. It’s especially easy to get carried along here, in this valley, with a population that’s nearly 70 percent white, according to census estimates.

Do we really have to talk about this here? Isn’t police violence a thing that only happens in cities? Why is this our problem? 

The short answer: questions like that are the problem itself.

Indifference or apathy gets us nowhere.

No, we’ve got to find more people willing to walk backward. The hundreds who came out Wednesday night to protest, to chant Floyd’s name, to kneel and to lie on the ground in solidarity — including local law enforcement officers — is a great start.

But it’s not enough. We’ve got to do more. 

I’ve heard so many epidemiologists over the last few months bring up how “tricky” COVID-19 is. But, for real, is there a trickier virus than the cultural pandemic of systemic racism? It’s a plague that we can’t rid ourselves of in this country. It feels intractable.

But I found hope in other signs at Wednesday’s rally, particularly one that so many held up: IT’S NOT TOO LATE.

No, it’s not. We can’t stop trying to solve this problem because it feels too big, too impossible.

That something, that anything — I think it starts with a small thing. It has to.

If we’re truly being honest with ourselves, then we need to have honest conversations about race and what racism looks like. And those conversations need to start in our own homes — with our kids, with our parents, with our grandparents, and with our spouses.

Those conversations also need to happen at the workplace, and in the classroom, and among friends.  

We need to be accountable to each other.

And, more than anything, as white people, we need to listen. We need to stop trying to control the conversation because it’s obviously not working.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said more than 50 years ago, in a speech that’s often been cited these past two weeks, “a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”

It’s not too late to start having those conversations. It’s never too late to listen and to work together for change.

That’s something we can all do. White people, especially.

Nate Peterson is the editor of the Vail Daily. Email him at npeterson@vaildaily.com


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