BY TINAMARIE STOLZ | June 24, 2020
As a white person, I will never be entirely “woke” about anti-Black racism. No matter what I do, I will never have the lived experience of being Black in the United States. But I am entirely responsible for an active awakening that leads to continuous action.
My service year with Christ the King Service Corps in Detroit transformed my understanding of race. My community mates and a Black mother and son awoke me from several layers of white privilege. I witnessed a tiny glimpse into the reality of being Black in America, and it changed me.
I entered the year knowing racism to be existent, horrific, and problematic, but I didn’t understand how it pervaded systemically. And to be honest, I didn’t believe it profoundly infiltrated the police force, laws, or justice system; it was 2014 after all! To me, there was slavery, Civil Rights, and then racist individuals.
My community mates, Andy, Amy, and Denise, discussed anti-Black racism frequently and passionately. Andy is white and worked as a community organizer with Moses, a multi-faith, diverse, grassroots organization. Denise is Latina and worked as a community organizer with Moses as well. Amy is Black and taught third grade at the parish school. Three races, one message.
They talked about police brutality without a 1960s photo and said it still happened. They explained laws could be racist without explicitly racist language, and that the criminal justice system upholds those racist laws. They spoke about slavery morphing into Jim Crow Laws, and then into the intentional mass incarceration of Black bodies. But I didn’t understand. They even brought me to a Black Lives Matter protest. I did not fully participate. I simply walked around and took it all in. Yet, my community mates continued to teach me and push me to wake up, like Jesus waking the sleeping girl in Mark 5:41—
He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”).
They took me by the hand and kept calling out, Tinamarie, I say to you, get up. In doing so, they awoke me to the possibility that maybe the criminal justice system, including police brutality, was worse than I initially thought. Perhaps laws could be sneakily racist. Maybe there were more than a few bad apples, and don’t a few bad apples spoil the bunch anyway? Then Mrs. Hendrickson and Matthew came into the picture.
I met Mrs. Hendrickson at my placement site. I’ll always remember the first day I met her and her family—an immediate connection. She spoke with Sister Vincent Louise, another volunteer, while the rest of us made popcorn and toasted pop tarts in the kitchen. We played trivia and talked about school and shows on the Disney Channel. When Mrs. Hendrickson rounded them up, we groaned in unison, “Do we have to go?”
A few months later, Mrs. Hendrickson needed new pants for her 15-year-old son, Matthew, who hit a significant growth spurt. I placed my hand on his shoulder and explained he was officially a living string bean (to which he smiled and rolled his eyes). I went to the back and pulled out our only four options.
He tried them on in the restroom, while his mother and I chatted. I remember cracking up about her most recent stories about her youngest’s terrible twos.
Henry opened the door. The first pair were still too short. So were the next two.
The door swung open again; I looked at him, “They’re a bit too big.”
But it’s all we had.
“I think the fourth one is the best option,” I stated casually, reaching for a bag to put them in. Then the tone of the room changed.
It went from friendly to upset, from fun to tense.
She pulled up his pants, examining them intensely, “Do you have a belt?” she asked, her eyes wide, “He needs a belt.” she commanded with panic.
Jarred by her change in demeanor, I took a beat.
“I don’t want the police to think he’s something he’s not. I don’t need him in any trouble.”
She was afraid. She was terrified. She was protecting her baby boy: fear and injustice, their lived reality. 400+ years of systemic Black oppression hung in the room and manifested in the present moment. Oppression lived where I stood.
And it shattered. A deep layer of my privileged white lense demolished right there on the carpet. They knew what was happening. Everything my community mates spoke about clicked.
Tinamarie, I say to you, get up!
My eyes filled. Matthew looked out the window.
“Oh,” my heart said out my mouth, “So, that’s what it’s like being a Black mom in America.” She nodded.
It took me 22 years to understand that I don’t understand. I needed to have a mom look at me in the eyes, and courageously show her hurt to believe what Black people have been saying about the criminal justice system and police brutality for generations. Isn’t that sick that that’s what I needed to wake up? White privilege at its finest. My ignorance, silence, and disbelief helped create their reality.
I remember going home and sharing what happened with my community mates. There was no “I told you so.” Instead, they took me by the hand and led me to Black authors, artists, and an uncensored U.S. history. I listened differently and learned. I believed Trayvon Martin’s mom. I see even “good” cops and I know many uphold an unjust system. I recognize that everyone has implicit bias, and it must be seriously examined and uprooted, especially for those who want to teach children, serve, or carry a gun.
It’s terrible how many times I let myself go back to sleep simply because I can. I’m recounting them right now.
Working toward racial justice means one big thing for me; I have to stay awake and keep awakening. Plus, I have the responsibility to keep non-Black people awake too. I can’t unfollow or push them away when I feel anger or frustration. Instead, I must be like my community mates, like Mrs. Hendrickson, Matthew, and Jesus. I must take them by the hand and keep saying, get up. I need to be creative, direct, and consistent in the context that I inhabit.
It also means as new policies arise, I will follow Black leadership. My Congressional representatives will be hearing from me. I will take advantage of the resources around me for further education.
What does it mean for you, as Jesus continues to cry out: White America, I say to you, get up!
Tinamarie Stolz is an adjunct theology professor and campus minister at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. She holds a master’s degree in theological studies from the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio.