I want to tell you a story. And I promise. This is entirely true.

D’Shawn was a young man growing up in a poor neighborhood in Peoria, Illinois. His father was a factory worker. His mother stayed at home with him and his two older brothers and baby sister. Their neighborhood was tight knit, filled with other families from the factory, and very dedicated to their local church, at which both D’Shawn’s mother and father volunteered.

Then, D’Shawn’s father got sick. For two years, he fought leukemia, sometimes being hospitalized for over two months at a time, losing work, losing pay, seeing his family’s meager savings being used exclusively for medical expenses.

When D’Shawn was 12 years old, his dad died. D’Shawn’s oldest brother was just finishing up his degree program at a technical college, and his next oldest brother was getting ready to graduate from high school. D’Shawn’s baby sister was only five years old. D’Shawn’s mother fought with the administrators at the factory, arguing for an increase in her husband’s pension, asking them to extend and expand the company insurance to cover her and her children. These were both programs that had been in place when D’Shawn’s father passed, but he was forced to quit his factory job before these policies came into effect. The administration was sympathetic to the family’s story, but corporate policy was corporate policy.

After over 20 years, D’Shawn’s mother had to start looking for work.

Luckily, their church rallied around the family, offering childcare, food, and quietly leaving little gifts for the family such as shoes and school supplies (gifts that D’Shawn’s mother would certainly have been too proud to accept if offered openly). D’Shawn’s mother was determined that her children would attend college, and would finish. She knew that it was one of her husband’s last wishes: that his children succeed, be educated, have opportunities that he never had. D’Shawn’s mother threw herself into finding work. She started as a part-time employee at an elementary school, and at night took correspondence courses to earn her teaching certificate. She needed to see her older boys educated, her baby girl happy.

Sadly, in many ways, D’Shawn was left to fend for himself.

He started to drink. He tried drugs (mostly marijuana). He would sneak his way into bars, and took up gambling to make some extra money. A smart kid, his grades dropped as he started skipping school.

Then, one day, he was picked up by the police. He was driving his friend’s car, going way too fast, and it was obvious that he had been drinking.

He was thirteen years old.

This is a true story.

But the boy’s name wasn’t D’Shawn.

It was Roger.

And it was my father.

My father who was released later that day into the custody of his very disappointed and angry mother.

My father who was arrested for drunk driving at 13, but who has never had a criminal record.

My father who was punished for his juvenile stupidity as all children should be—grounded, watched carefully and continually by his stern mother, forced to perform chores and volunteer at the church.

My father who then went on to earn his master’s degree in English, primarily studying classic literature and dramaturgy (50 years later, he still has large sections of Macbeth and Hamlet memorized).

My father who dropped out of his PhD program after spending a semester teaching children about literature in a recently desegregated high school in the south.

My father who saw his own lost self reflected back at him in the faces of the black students who had already been deemed “lost causes.”

My father who decided to dedicate himself to teaching, to reaching, to helping those students, those children, while they still had the chance. While they were still young enough to be turned around, supported, upheld, guided.

My father who believes to this day that there’s no such thing as a bad kid. Just bad circumstances.

 

And that’s why I’m a racist.

Because I know that, had my father been “D’Shawn” instead of “Roger,” I wouldn’t have spent chilly fall days attending plays at the local theater, or making family road trips to national parks. I wouldn’t have grown up in Michigan’s north woods, but probably in Peoria, not too far from dad’s old neighborhood.

And I’ve said nothing.

Because I have seen the incredible poverty in which my father grew up as more of an interesting historical artifact of his childhood rather than a defining characteristic of his personality, a reflection of his or his family’s moral compass, work ethic, or worth. But I know that “D’Shawn” would have been vulnerable to all of those assumptions. And more.

And I’ve said nothing.

Because I’m eternally grateful for the white privilege that was extended my father when he was a confused, grieving, frightened young boy. The privilege that made other people, important people, people of authority, people with power, look at my father and acknowledge that he had potential. Because, as much as I academically, ethically, and personally abhor the white privilege that gave my father “potential” when it could have given him “criminality,” I also secretly love it.

And I’ve said nothing.

I’m a racist because, as a white woman, just about every single aspect of my public life has been made easier by my whiteness. By the racist system under which America operates today. I’ve made jokes—jokes—about my “cloak of invisibility” that renders me unseen to police officers, airport officials, security guards. I’ve said several times that I’d make an excellent thief because, as I’ve said, “Nobody suspects the little white girl.”

I’ve made jokes about this.

I’ve laughed about it.

As though incarceration were funny.

Because I’ve never had to consider how fundamentally unfunny, unamusing, and unfair the prison system is. The prison system that incarcerates 20 black men to every 1 white man. Even while whites outnumber blacks in arrests (especially in drug charges).

I have the freedom to blend in. I have the privilege to feel comfortable. Everywhere.

And I’ve said nothing.

And that’s why I’m racist.

Because being complicit to a system is tantamount to supporting it.

Being complicit to a system that you know, statistically, logically, morally, ethically, academically, scientifically, is wrong is unjust is bullshit is tantamount to criminality.

My father is not a criminal.

D’Shawn wouldn’t have been either.

It’s me.

Because I keep doing what I know is wrong. I know that my life benefits me and those around me, while it hurts others. That’s what criminals do. They do bad things to other people in order to satisfy a need, a desire, a drive of their own. It’s the ultimate in selfishness. And it’s me.

I am not a Good Samaritan.

I would walk by D’Shawn. I would avert my eyes. Focus on the ground. Look straight ahead. Gaze anywhere else but at his broken body. His broken spirit. His broken community. Our broken country.

But I’d run to my father.

Because, deep down, if I admit it honestly, I believe that my father’s life is more important. Is more valuable. Is more worthy of salvation.

And I’m so sorry, daddy.

I’ve said nothing.

I’ve been quiet.

And I’m sorry.

You raised me better than that, daddy. You saw your own second chances, and observed with empathy the need for second, third, fourth chances in the children around you. I never had to encounter my own second chances. That was my privilege. Because of you. Because of your protection. Your love. Your realized potential.

I don’t want to be quiet anymore.

I want to pay for my crimes.

I really do.

But.

How?

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