Lies Coming to Light
When I imagine the kind of human community I want to live in, I go to the forest in my mind.
In the forest, there is no analogue for racism. No exclusion of certain plants from the web of connection, nurture, and support because of their physical characteristics. That would be counter to the natural order. Racism and race were invented by humans of European descent. The use of trees as murder weapons, as in past and recent lynchings, is a particularly cruel, grotesque and unnatural practice.
The automatic, often unconscious negative feelings and thoughts that white people have about people of color are based on lies. Lies originally made up to justify theft of land, labor, lives; lies that now serve to ensure continuation of structures and policies that make theft systemic. We’ve been conned. But, like Trump supporters who refuse to believe overwhelming evidence that he’s a crook, we resist giving up our attachment to the lies, in ways overt and subtle.
It’s astonishing and painful to contemplate the extent of suffering – the sheer number of deaths, families torn apart, unnecessary illnesses and injuries, the amount of housing, property and wealth lost – that has been necessary to wake white people up to the reality of systemic racism. It proves how strong the lies are and how deep our indoctrination and complicity has been. Now large numbers of us begin to listen, to see, to stand up and speak out, to take action. I have had more conversations with other white people about racism in the last month than I’ve had in years.
This process of waking up, standing up, speaking out, and taking action is the work of a lifetime. In a briefing a week ago, Governor Cuomo of New York, addressing anti-racist protesters, wrote, “You don’t need to protest, you won. You accomplished your goal. Society says you’re right, the police need systemic reform.” This statement might have seemed progressive a month ago. Now we see that we’re just getting started with the changes we need to make. Everything this country is founded on needs systemic change.
In her essay “The Idea of America,” published as part of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst… Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals… Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.”
To unravel the lies and take action to change the structures they protect and perpetuate, white people need to develop capacity. We need information about historical truths that have been withheld from us. We need compassion for and connection to others from whom we have separated ourselves. We need to listen rather than talk, to follow rather than lead. We need compassion for ourselves and connection to the strengths and gifts of our ancestors, however flawed they might have been. We need stamina for the long haul. The road to justice isn’t paved yet. It’s rough going.
Trees store carbon. They also store history. Some of the old-growth trees in Seattle’s Seward Park were alive before the first European explorers landed on the Pacific Northwest coast and long before white settlers took the land from the Native tribes who had called it home for thousands of years. Many old-growth trees in Washington State – including the one in the photo above – were already growing tall before the first slaves were stolen from Africa and brought to the colony of Virginia 401 years ago.
If we want to learn how to live in community and share resources so that everyone can thrive, if we want to reduce stress in these tumultuous times, if we want to boost our immune systems in the midst of a pandemic, we can go into the forest. Indigenous peoples know this. Our long-ago, forest-based European ancestors knew this.
White people are accustomed to thinking that humans are the most advanced species. Given the evidence, that’s debatable. We’ve been too proud to think of trees as our teachers. That, too, needs to change.