January 2018: An Open Letter to the President

Dear Mr. President,

I write today to share with you my dismay about the rhetoric coming out of the White House around race and country of origin. In response to your insistence that you are not a racist, I want to share with you a bit about my journey to understand the idea of racism, and the ways in which I participate in racism even though I – like most people – abhor the thought of myself as a racist.

When I was a sophomore in high school, several of my fellow students attended an annual gathering called the People of Color Conference, hosted by the National Association of Independent Schools. Upon their return, they stood at the front of the auditorium and shared some of their stories for the whole school. Sadly, I cannot recall what they said; the details have been overshadowed by my memory of the tense mood. I felt viscerally indignant, and such frustration seemed to unite the audience. A special conference for “people of color”?!? How on earth can it possibly help us to separate us from one another? I was baffled, too, by the call for “role models of color.” Why should skin color matter? I wondered. What was so impossible about having role models who didn’t look like us?

In 2007 I married and subsequently had two children, developments which changed me from a well-meaning white person (Of course I wasn’t racist! I have always believed that all people were created equal!) to a member of a biracial family. Although I obviously remain white, I now navigate the world for and with my children, who are biracial, and alongside my spouse, a person of color and an immigrant. These years have altered my understanding of racial oppression in this country. I have heard one of my black students say that for her growing up, because the people she had always seen in power were white, “success was colored white.” I have listened to one of my daughters, at age four, wish for lighter skin and hair, “because it’s more beautiful,” and to my other daughter wish to be white because “all the bad kids at school are brown,” and I realized to my horror that by the time they left preschool, my children had already internalized a pigmentocracy. I have learned about discriminatory housing laws and predatory lending schemes that perpetuate and exacerbate the racial wealth gap, not only in the south, but also in my hometown of Minneapolis; about the fact that a black man has the same chance of being hired as an equally-qualified white man with a prison record; about the black-owned businesses in Asheville, North Carolina that earn an average of 10% of the profits of white-owned businesses. (Certainly, the U.S.’s relationship with other countries often plays out these same dynamics write large, designing systems that benefit it while fleecing the less powerful. But this is perhaps a topic for a different letter.)

And so I have come to understand that whether I personally harbor racist feelings or not is, in fact, entirely irrelevant to a discussion about racism in our country. I am participating in a system that benefits me, as a white person, over others. If I am not actively speaking out and working against it, if I am content to allow this system to continue, what does it matter whether I am personally racist or not?

Nothing is more to the point than your famous campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” with its overt implication that our country was better in some unspecified past – a past inextricably linked with more restricted rights. If you cannot see that the allusion drips with racism, then you are sorely mistaken to believe you are not part of the problem.

Then again, I’m not naïve. I understand that your references and statements play well. And I cannot know what is in your heart, that perhaps you feel a swell of goodwill toward people of all races and creeds. But I felt compelled to say my piece anyway: even such feelings of goodwill cannot cancel out complicity with a system that so clearly buoys some at the expense of others. I thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely,

Erin Connors
Asheville, North Carolina

cc: Representative Mark Meadows
Senator Richard Burr
Senator Thom Tillis
Asheville Citizen-Times

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