When Toni Morrison says a book is required reading, you read it. Or at least I do. So I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates on a round-trip plane ride between Anchorage and Juneau.
I felt so odd reading this. Almost like an intruder violating someone's privacy, peering into a world I was not a part of, would never be a part of, and would never understand. Accessing an intimate 150 page letter--written by a Black Man to his teenage son--about the perils and pride of living in a Black Body in America felt wrong to me somehow, and at the same time, completely necessary.
Certain parts of the letter, Ta-Nehisi Coates' words to his son, moved me profoundly though they were not for me. I took out a pen and underlined them:
In America, the injury is not in being born with darker skin, with fuller lips, with a broader nose, but in everything that happens after . . . . They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people . . . . The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.
And in reading those words back to myself--Ta-Nehisi Coates' words to his only child, who is the embodiment of all of his dreams of parenthood just as my son is the embodiment of mine--I began to think that maybe there's a message here in this book for me after all.
I will never know what it is to navigate the world every day in a Black Body in a society that collectively treats Black Bodies as less-than, as disposable. I will never know that fierce, palpable fear for my white-skinned son, and that is the essence of white privilege. The closest I come to relating to that fear is five minutes a day, when I walk a darkened stairway to a secluded parking garage and I know my body is vulnerable. But that's it. It's not the same, not even close.
The only thing I can do is look directly into the blinding, harsh light of white privilege, acknowledge it is real, take responsibility for it, and confront my ownership of it and complicity in it. To cultivate empathy and a sense of obligation. To read, educate myself, and listen without judgment, without defensiveness or futile "guilt," without dismissiveness, with a sense of ongoing responsibility that does not end at page 152, and--above all--with the absolute benefit of credibility given to the person whose experience is being reflected back at me.
It isn't much. It's nothing really. But maybe it's a start.