IT IS A privilege to be surprised.

I’m sure many watched, surprised and horrified, as the events unfolded in Charlottesville 10 days ago. It can be shocking to see white supremacists — re-branded as the so-called “alt-right” in order to put familiar faces, polo shirts and khaki pants on a chilling and vile worldview — marching through a typically quiet college town with torches in hand, chanting racial epithets and rallying cries long-attributed to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. To see so many emboldened, feeling free to walk out into the light without hoods or cloaks, without fear of judgment or ridicule, was startling. And seeing the violence employed by these angry white people result in the death of one brave woman protesting them surprised many.

But to my black and brown friends, and others on the margins, the events in Charlottesville were nothing new. It was just another example of racism, another voice espousing ideals of white superiority, but perhaps in a more overt manner than the ways in which people of color experience micro-aggressions and ignorance daily. Marginalized people do not have the luxury to be surprised by white nationalists finding a louder voice in 2017 because they always are awake to racial inequality, on top of which the structure of this country was built.

It is my experience that for a lot of white people, myself included, systemic oppression has not always been obvious because our lives are not being hindered by it; in fact, we benefit from it. What it’s like to be black and brown in America is likely not a conversation had by many white families at the dinner table. As a result, it might not be a topic about which we are very thoughtful, and although most white people probably do not view themselves as racist or bigoted, we also might not be actively seeking to right wrongs or correct injustices.

And sadly, it often takes extreme acts of violence in the name of hate, and for that shock to set in, for white people to question the true role of racial inequity in this country and realize it is woven through nearly every facet of our society — from a rigged criminal justice system to wage disparity.

The event that made it impossible for me to continue to be a passive actor in the propping up of systemic oppression was the death of Michael Brown — one of the many black, unarmed individuals killed by a police officer.


He was shot and killed on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, just 20 minutes north of Saint Louis University, where I went to college.

I was living on campus that summer, but by the time tensions were nearing to boiling over, I was gone on a semester abroad in Madrid.

I watched, an ocean away, as protesters flooded the streets night after night demanding justice. I watched, feeling hollow, when a grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot Michael six times. And I watched, via a livestream, as protesters occupied my university and asked for the diversity that the administration boasted in brochures and on billboards to be truly represented in the demographics of our school.

It was strange: I could watch the community I love hurting and broken, but I was on a different continent. And I hoped that if I had been there, I would have done what was right and stood arm in arm with the demonstrators on campus.

By the time I was back in St. Louis the following January, I could see that things were different. The pain had not been healed and there is still so much work to be done, but there was a feeling that our city had been forever altered by the experience, and that, for good reason, things would never be the same. Michael Brown became a household name and Ferguson was no longer just a place, but an event. Black Lives Matter posters were hung up in restaurants and shops and stuck in front yards. On campus, conversations about race and equity were being held in public forums and students of color shared their experiences of attending a private Catholic and predominately white university.

A memory from those first few months back at school resurfaces in my mind now and then, and with it another crack in my heart: I was at my job, working as an after-care instructor at a St. Louis grade school, watching as the kids ran around the playground.


A group of girls jumped rope on the black top, singing, “Cinderella dressed in yella …” Pre-schoolers worked in their make-believe bakeshop, making cakes and cookies out of mulch, dirt and rocks. A football sailed overhead.

But right in front of me, a boy — 9 years old, scrawny and black — extended both arms straight up in the air, palms flat, and cried out, “Don’t shoot!”

It wasn’t his words or his actions that shook me; it was the look in his eyes, and his steely visage — as though he was preparing for a day that it might be his life unjustly threatened.

I think about that boy and his hands in the air and I wonder, what can we do? White people, how can we check our privilege and change things?

For starters, we can physically show up. Like the counter-protesters in Charlottesville and just this past weekend in Boston, white people can show solidarity at protests and rallies as a display that the majority rejects the repugnant ideology of white supremacy. It was beautiful to see a sea of people in Boston Common stand against hate and violence, and heartening to know there were Mainers among them.

We also can financially support organizations fighting our corrupt system; we can educate ourselves on racial injustice, engage in uncomfortable dialogue and ask difficult questions when we struggle to understand; and most importantly, we have to be vocal every day in calling out racism.


It is not enough to post on our social media pages with a quote from Martin Luther King when extreme events take place and then call it a day. It is not sufficient to say, “This is not us,” or, “They do not represent America,” because in a way this kind of violence is American terrorism, and by saying it isn’t who we are is an attempt to absolve ourselves of the sins of white supremacy. Those words might make us feel better, and might be meant to reassure others that we do not sympathize with Nazis, but it isn’t doing anything to help.

In order to root out xenophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, transphobia, homophobia, bigotry toward immigrants and racism, we need to identify it and correct it when we see it — especially when it’s being projected by our co-workers, family members, classmates and friends.

It’s easy to call out racism when you see its perpetrators donning swastikas, hoisting Confederate flags and chanting “Jews will not replace us” in the streets illuminated by eerie torch light, seemingly belonging to another era in time. To condemn that display of hatred is the least any of us can do.

But calling out the people we know, and sometimes the people we love, when they advocate hate, those situations are the most challenging and the most crucial.

So, white people, don’t be surprised by racism. Speak out against it — because it is on us to end it.

Emily Higginbotham, originally from Illinois, is a copy editor at the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmilyHigg. Or reach her by email: [email protected]

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