What we carry: The virus of white supremacy

Opinion: Columns

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Josh Parker

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A poem to my white kindred who carry it too:

If I'm feeling unwell,

a white man protected

by thick layers of privilege,

then I know

that I can't know

what Black people are feeling

these days

and all those days

before.

 

But something is off,

and I can speak to that.

Energy is low,

like there's lead in my legs.

Earlier this week

I went for a test,

suspecting I'd been exposed,

and when it came back

negative, that no,

I wasn't carrying coronavirus,

I reconsidered what it was

that I felt …

 

I know that I'm sick

with acute grief and anger

for the police killings

and the systems that have always killed

our Black community,

yes.

And

with something else,

something more chronic,

that has always

been buried in my cells.

 

I've only known

for some years

exactly what it was:

the virus

of white supremacy.

Our virus.

A retrovirus

older than this country.

And I'm a carrier.

 

I write this to my white siblings,

parents, grandparents, and ancestors

who have carried the virus in their bodies, too.

Who have been shaped, no … warped by it,

and who have passed it to me.

 

The virus of white supremacy

has so many insipid symptoms

that we keep invisible and "normal":

the lie of our superiority;

the endless, entitled physical and material privileges;

the worship of the individual over the collective;

the apathy and excuses for the suffering of others;

and the strict code of race-silence we obey …

These, and so many more,

have allowed the virus be passed down,

consciously and unconsciously,

through the generations

nearly unchecked

for over 400 years.

 

Black and Indigenous people

know the virus best,

and have always known it for what it was —

a sickness —

subjected to its violent flares

since the beginning.

They've tried to tell us

over

and over

and over

again.

They've seen our spirits are sick.

They've wanted us to get better.

To do better.

To be better.

But we've refused.

 

Maybe what's most dangerous

is that so many of us feel asymptomatic,

denying the ravages of the virus all around us.

Racism in my neighborhood? No, not here. Maybe there.

Racism in me?! No, no, not me. Maybe them.

The stigma of carrying the virus,

publicly owning it,

is the unspeakable shame

we fear most,

and so we deny it,

busy-body ourselves in other matters,

rationalize the suffering of others,

and withdraw into numbness.

 

Social distancing isn't new for us, no —

we've practiced it around Black people for years

to distance ourselves

from the violent toll

the virus takes

on their community.

From our complicity in it.

 

We can't get better

if we don't know we're sick

and

the virus is as deeply embedded in our bodies

as it is in our systems.

Just as no corner of our life is untouched by white supremacy,

no system in this country —

education, health, "justice," and on and on —

is either.

They're all sick too,

stemming from diseased roots.

We must remember that this 400-year pandemic,

is endemic.

It's ours.

 

Maybe we start by getting quiet.

Quarantine our defensiveness, denial, and doubt.

Lock it away, and not just for two weeks.

The virus wants us reactive, flustered, apathetic, and busy-minded.

It thrives in that mess.

But in the quiet

we can listen, look, remember, and trust

what comes up:

Can you listen to the folks surging to attack the virus?

Can you hear the calls for justice for George, Brionna, Ahmaud,

and millions of others?

Can you see the virus in your life, in every place you look, every choice you've made?

Can you see it in your own weary face, hollow and drained by the fear and the lies?

Can you remember our history

to know that it's always been here?

Can you trust your instincts

to resist the unnatural, callous pull into apathy?

 

These weeks so many white folks

have poured into the streets

and into the feeds.

So many of us sound ready —

all of a sudden, for most —

to take action

and find solutions

and do and do and do,

as if others haven't been ready,

as if there was a quick cure

for this sickness.

 

True, some medications might mask the symptoms:

good intentions

or the right book

or the right words

or protests

or posts

or poems.

But no,

these alone

won't make us better …

 

And we won't take right action

if we only situate the problem out there

with the "racists" and the "corrupt institutions."

Some of us place the blame for suffering

on Black people themselves;

the most wretched way of removing ourselves.

Others of us depend on Black suffering

to fuel our purpose

and give our lives meaning

as fixers,

as saviors.

No,

all this feeds the insatiable virus

and buries it deeper within …

 

Doing and taking action

will not only be ineffective,

but harmful,

without the shifts from within

to guide them.

If we can't see that Black liberation

also means our liberation;

that Black humanity

also means our humanity —

that our fates are intertwined and have been for so many years —

then we act from the wrong place.

 

And even as more of us see the symptoms,

there's still no easy cure.

The virus is hardy, cloaked, deeply embedded

and will continue looting Blacks

of their lives and livelihoods,

and slowly seeping the humanity from our spirits.

We'll still pass the virus on to our children,

a fear that catches in my throat.

 

So, what if we slowed down

to speed up, white friends?

Understood there's no bypass to absolve us;

that each of us must fight the virus

of white supremacy,

and we can begin with the sickness

in our hearts, minds, bodies,

and the symptoms in our lives.

This is where "the work"

of systems change starts,

of spirit change.

Then we may know how to listen

to Black and Indigenous leaders,

to our own humanity calling,

and action will become clear.

Let it begin here, or begin again,

now,

no matter who or where you are.

And yes, it will take time,

so there's no time to lose.

 

My white kindred, in our work together, let's:

Invite all, no exemptions;

Invite compassion, for self and others;

Resist denial and defensiveness when it comes;

Resist shame from paralyzing us;

Continue opening our minds, hearts, wallets, everything;

Continue feeling without judgment;

Reflect on our relationships with the Black people in our lives;

Reflect on what we think to be true about them;

Break the cycle of forgetting and apathy;

Break the unspoken contracts of white silence with each other;

Trust in the process of inner work;

Trust in Black leadership to guide us in the outer work;

Fuck up inevitably;

Fuck it and keep going.

 

And finally,

let's refuse the comforting call

when the virus tries to lure us back

into forgetting this moment —

because it will.

 

Josh Parker is a white, privileged son of Oak Park (OPRF '99) and longtime educator, now working in the Department of Racial Equity Advancement in Seattle Public Schools. This poem was originally published on Medium.com on 6/20/20. 

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