This past weekend I took the opportunity to attend an anti-racism conference in Washington D.C.

A life-changing experience that I’ll be unpacking for weeks and months to come.

One of the key messages for me: Do NOT look away.

A quick side note: I do NOT talk to my ancestors. Most of them have resisted and many have actively worked against my movement away from the religion and culture of my childhood.

They don’t like me talking magick. They don’t like me questioning their choices. And they certainly don’t like me doing this work around breaking free from white supremacy.

Not because any of them (that I know of) were clan members or haters of Black people…

But because they didn’t believe there was a problem.

*I* was making the problem.

(A sentiment echoed by many of my living relatives.)

So imagine my surprise when Dr. Lynne Maureen Hurdle, the creator of On The Matter of Race, opens her event with an invitation for the ancestors to join us and MY PEOPLE try to walk into the room.

“Nope!” I shout inside my head. “This is not your space. I am glad you are here, but YOU have not been invited. This is for HER ancestors and we will NOT take over the room.”

I make them wait outside while I wrestle with the overwhelm of them having shown up at all.

And then Dr. Lynne extends the invitation to us… allows the white participants to invite OUR people into the room as well.

I almost cry from their joy.

They are here to learn.
They are here to understand.
They are here to say they’re sorry.

And I am speechless… undone by the realization that maybe I don’t have to carry this undoing of whiteness alone.

Later that day we hear from the head of the Harriet Tubman museum. She teaches us the history of this incredible, courageous woman and leader of the Underground Railroad. She tells stories; she sings the spirituals, the “code songs” of the road to freedom.

And my ancestors yearn to reply. To witness the enslaved escaping to their freedom in Wade in the Water and to sing their apology for not doing better at the time.

“Stay out of the water,” I tell them. “You can stand on the riverbanks. But don’t you dare get in the water in an attempt to soothe your soul. You haven’t earned it.”

(We do that sometimes as white people. In our effort to ease the guilt and shame of our collective, we tend to ignore first, defend second, and, finally accepting the role of our collective whiteness and ourselves, we insert ourselves into the story. But we are not the main characters here.

It’s not that I don’t want my ancestors to feel sorrow or to apologize. I simply don’t want them to believe that wading in the water… that finally empathizing with the horror and plight of the early Africans on this continent… means they can center the experience and the history on themselves. It is not for them to step into the water and hide their guilt behind empathy. It is for them to stand on the shores and to feel the full weight of their choices. We are strong enough to do that. We are strong enough to be accountable.)

Two days later we are walking from our hotel to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

It’s a 15-minute silent walk. I am thinking of the enslaved making their run to freedom. Thinking of how every sound must have brought the terror of being captured and taken back south. I’m hearing Wade in the Water and I see my ancestors lining the sides of this walk.

So many are generations distant from me. And I wonder why I don’t see closer family members among their ranks.

So I reach out.

“Grandpa, why don’t you think you have to do this work?” (My grandfather passed away decades ago. He and I had had conversations about his perspective of the Civil Rights Movement before he died.)

“Because I don’t hate Black people,” he replies.

I remember his take on the Freedom Riders. He thought they were just stirring up trouble. He’d never thought about WHY.

So I reply, “But you never saw them either.”

The energy of his spirit shifts to surprise and realization. He accepts what I have said.

And that’s when the words hit me, “Do not look away.”

We’ve spent so many generations as white people looking away.

Claiming innocence and ignorance.

We didn’t know.
We didn’t see.
It wasn’t us.

But we never really looked, did we?

We didn’t ask more questions.

We didn’t search for answers.

We can claim it’s because we didn’t know, but I think it’s because we didn’t WANT to know.

(At least, that is true for me. I felt the dissonance. But I never pushed through the explanations to see truth on the other side. Neither did the white people around me.

Think about it… We don’t WANT to know the $5 t-shirt we bought was probably built on the backs of child labor. Or that our support of capitalism and consumerism is directly contributing to the oppression of Indigenous peoples locally and globally.

Or, bringing it back to anti-racism work, we don’t WANT to know that our founding fathers raped their enslaved women. Or that slavery wasn’t ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. Or that northern towns burned down Black neighborhoods. Or that Black people were lynched by “good white folks” who look and sound like us. Or that we suspend Black children from school three times more often than their white counterparts and incarcerate Black adults five times more often than white people who have committed the same crime. We don’t want to know that the impact of Black hate (that started before slavery and continues into today) has left us with a culture of anti-blackness towards people even while we embrace and take from Black culture.)

So every step through the museum…

Every heartbreaking, horrific history…

I refuse to look away.

When I learn that white people KNEW the barbaric nature of the Atlantic slave trade and chose slavery anyway (BECAUSE OF PROFIT), I refuse to look away.

When I run my fingers along the walls that document the endless slave ships with their numbers of enslaved (marked as “cargo”), I refuse to look away.

When I see the image of an auctioneer holding a Black baby upside down by its leg while another group of white men tear the mother away, I refuse to look away.

But it gets harder the closer in time the atrocities are to me.

As the docent talks about the horrors of lynching, my eyes scanning row after row after row of those who’d been murdered, my body physically turns away.

I have to force myself to turn back. To look. To not close my eyes.

As I read about the women who were murdered for trying to protect their partners from angry mobs (one being 8 months pregnant), I step away, my body begging us to run.

I return to the placard and let the tears fall, willing myself to hold the pain of that atrocity and the realization that this continues today. (Breanna Taylor. Atatiana Jefferson.)

A Black man steps next to me and holds me as I cry; his willingness to comfort my pain even as he navigates his own is a gift. (We of the white collective are not entitled to this comfort or holding. We must learn to hold ourselves.)

I hope he feels me holding him in return.

Around the next corner, the docent explains how Black war veterans returning from World War II with honors from foreign nations were murdered in their respective hometowns by angry mobs. My body turns again, this time grief mingles with rage.

But I hear in my mind, “Don’t look away.”

So I hold myself and I look at their faces and I promise them I will look.

And then Emmett Till.

Fourteen years old.

His life stolen and body desecrated based on the false accusation of a white woman.

The room swims the moment I step in.

The energy is suffocating.

I can feel myself wanting to numb, but I do not look away.

Neither do my ancestors.

We finish the historical side of the museum and my heart is a mix of heaviness mingled with weird glimmers of hope.

I don’t know how to metabolize that morning. It’s still working its way through my mind, body and soul.

But what I do know is that we, as the collective white people in this American nation, MUST stop looking away.

We must stop giving the old things new names and pretending they are different, new, and somehow unknowable.

There is history here, if we will see it.

There are lived experiences teaching us truth, if we will hear them.

There are grievances and grief and pain and trauma to be witnessed and healed, if we will choose in.

And no matter how heavy that feels for us, we cannot… we absolutely cannot… look away.

For that’s what got us here to begin with.

Governments, shippers, traders, sailors, enslavers, and even common folk—men and women— benefiting from the dehumanization of Black people…

All of us looking away.

So I will look.

And I will do my part to undo the culture that the white people before me have left (whether direct relations or not).

Because that is what it will take… ALL of us leaning in. ALL of us doing the work to UNDO the system and culture of racism.

I’ve inherited this mess.

And I will NOT look away.

Reflections of Racism is my uncomfortable look in the mirror to identify the roots of racism and white supremacy still active in my life. I don’t have all the answers. I’m not standing as a voice for anyone but me. I’m simply sharing my inner monologue in hopes that my failures, faults, missteps, and mistakes can help someone else see, challenge, and change the white supremacist ideologies influencing their world too.

White supremacy isn’t a system I chose; it was one I was born into. But you better believe I’m gonna do everything in my power to choose out, burn it down, and build something better in the ashes.