I don’t always have the right thing to say or put it in the most elegant manner, but not saying anything is no longer an option.
I have a somewhat unique background in that I was raised in a red state in a small town with conservative values and attended a southern Baptist church my whole life. This was my world and context — the house I grew up in was a less than 10 minute walk from my church, my elementary school, middle school and college. A girl who sat by me alphabetically in Kindergarten sat near me at my high school (and college) graduation as well.
Then I moved to Washington, D.C., where I was a fish out of water. Not so much because I was from a small town, but mostly because I was a Christian from Kentucky, who was also a devoted Democrat — and a progressive one at that. Some people were actually skeptical of me and my commitment to the party just because of where I came from.
Georgetown wasn’t a big town, but it managed to have clear (invisible, but nevertheless present) social structures and queues that guided decisions and actions. If you didn’t follow those queues, you might get gossiped about, uninvited, prayed for, or perhaps worst of all, have your heart blessed.
One of those rules was to not talk politics; it’s unladylike and unpleasant conversation, and how people vote is ultimately a private matter. You respect people and their beliefs and treat them kindly no matter what they believe, even if it’s different than you. It was one of the reasons why “To Kill a Mockingbird” has always been one of my favorite books. Atticus is the epitome of this southern dynamic to do the right thing, respectfully. Show your values, argue your case, but allow people to hold their own without shaming them. He pulls it off in a way that many southerners strive for, but never reach.
I tried that approach for a long time. I really did. I tried leading up to 2016, I tried even after my heart was broken in the election that year. I tried to after Kaepernick wasn’t signed. I tried to after Charlottesville. And then I couldn’t try anything. I couldn’t find the words or patience anymore to make some concede that one part of a social media post was ill-worded. Some of my more progressive friends were actually mildly irritated with me trying to kindly argue with people. They said people who held such diametrically opposed views didn’t deserve it, and they honestly thought it was a little insulting that I was being patient and respectful with the opposing point of view.
So, I largely stopped saying anything. I stepped into my echo chamber of like-minded people and chose mostly to not engage, it was not worth my time or energy, and trying to sculpt a meticulous argument just to get someone to agree that they might have been misguided only to post something equally atrocious the next week was exhausting. I mostly shook my head and let it go.
A few months ago, when I was in New York, I saw the play adaptation of my favorite book on Broadway. It was Aaron Sorkin’s take on “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and he supposedly made some minor alterations to make it more appropriate for today’s audiences. It was a beautiful production, but I was shocked at how different Atticus’s character was, and Jem and Calpurnia.
Jem was constantly nagging at Atticus to do more, to be more angry. He lamented that these men that were trying to harm Tom were not worthy of respect and decency. Calpurnia was different too. She wasn’t completely grateful for everything Atticus did. She was actually angry with him a good part of the play.
Why? Because he was teaching his children that just because the Ewells and other families saw the world differently, they were still good people and deserved to be respected, even though their values were putting her people’s lives at stake. Atticus was changed too. I called him “spicy” because he actually had a physical fight in the play with Bob Ewell (what? Book Atticus would never.) The change in the play is that Atticus is eventually spurred to put down his good manners and courtesy because this is not a disagreement of semantics, a man’s life (and his own children) are on the line. Ultimately, Atticus apologizes to Calpurnia for ever trying to teach the children that they should respect that type of rhetoric.
At first I wasn’t thrilled with the changes in the play, because frankly it stood starkly in opposition to the way I was raised and the approach I had deemed aspirational in relating to people with differing opinions. However, the more I reflected on it, the more I realized this adaptation was and is appropriate for the times. It’s not enough to try to be an example of what’s right the way Atticus is, you have to ardently defend and protect what is right and call out what is wrong when you see it.
Why? First off, it’s a little arrogant for any white person to think they’re living their life as the example of how to interact with people of color. We’re all biased and we all fall short, and the sooner we recognize that trying to live a life you aren’t actively racist isn’t enough, the sooner we’ll be able to make substantive change.
Second, not calling it out is a mild form of letting it be socially acceptable one second, one hour, one day longer than it ever should have been. It’s uncomfortable to confront people and call them out, and it’s against our social norms, but it’s not an argument of semantics, people’s lives and families are on the line. White discomfort and social graces do not matter more than black lives. A crushed ego is not worth more than a crushed windpipe.
I’m sorry if that’s stark to read, I’m sorry if that’s hard to swallow, but it’s the reality in America today. I understand if you, like me, need some time to reflect on that and come to terms with that, but it’s not going to stop me from trying to step up and call you out if you slip up while you’re still processing it. I’m sure we all think it’s hard to see, I’m sure we’re all tired, we’re all angry, we’re all frustrated. I know I am — but I also know that all the emotions I’m feeling are amplified about ten times (if not more) for people of color. And the grossest part about it is that people of color are not in as easy of a place to speak out about it and have it fairly absorbed.
Calling racism out when and where you see it and accepting that you have probably done racist things in your life is admittedly a small start. Frankly it’s the least you can do right now. I am committing to educating myself and actively doing more to help my brothers and sisters where I can be of the most service, but like I said at the beginning, I’m starting by speaking, because silence is no longer an option.
It’s time to do what’s right. I’m just sorry it took me this long to get it.
Hannah Osborne is from Georgetown and is a data director for the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, DC.