They say, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” I look down and wonder, “How can I do that without any shoes?”
So to them, I ask, when did you first know that you were white? And when did you know that because you are white, that translates into privilege? When did you know that your whiteness gives you leverage? So far, no one has been able to answer my questions.
This society trains and permits and encourages discrimination. It’s home based and community based, and it’s inherent to American systems. How do we get that out? I don’t know. Sometimes I worry that nothing’s going to change.
One powerful tool we have is to vote. Every one of us needs to register to vote, because if you don’t vote, you lose your right to complain. The younger generation is paramount. For too long, we have allowed others to assess our community, to decide our strengths and weaknesses. We have never done our own assessment, and that should be part of our focus now. We need to learn to own what is ours.
Life has been difficult. We had to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and are taking the brunt of it. Now comes the killing of George Floyd and too many others. It’s overwhelming, but I see our community as resilient, hopeful, and forgiving. I am optimistic that we will use those traits as strengths to bring about better education, greater food justice, better health care. I avoid asking for help from white people anymore, because they don’t really see us. I used to point the finger at them, but whenever I did, four would be pointed back at me.
But if I were going to say anything to them, or to non-Black people of color, I would just ask more questions. Have you ever been in a store where someone is following you around to make sure you don’t steal anything? Have you ever spoken up — or would you speak up — if you saw something like that? Are you a member of a congregation? What role does your religion or your beliefs play in how you treat other people? Do you love your neighbors?
Julius Kolawole, 73, is president of the African Alliance in Providence.