Although the majority of young people in my parenting classes find it unfathomable that an old guy like me would watch the television show, “South Park,” I will confess that it is one of my guilty pleasures. I believe that I’ve watched every episode and quite frequently, my son and I will spend a few minutes on the phone regaling each other with particularly amusing anecdotes relative to the cutting-edge satire and humor that embodies this adult cartoon show.
I was thinking about a particular episode this week as the racial tension in America spilled out into the streets in the form of peaceful protests, violent protests and rioting. In the aforementioned episode the imaginary town of Beaverton, Colorado was situated right below a huge beaver dam. Eric Cartman and Stan “borrowed” a speed boat and accidentally broke the dam which released the pent-up waters, flooding the town below and reeking lots of devastation.
As occurs with any disaster, shock is followed by finger pointing, and the residents of South Park are well-known for their wacky judgements. They blamed climate change and terrorists and the tension in the town threatened the safety and well-being of the community. Finally Stan stood up in front of the town and declared, “I broke the dam.” Silence ensued.
Moments later, one of the town fathers said, “I broke the dam.” Then another, “I broke the dam,” and another. Within just minutes the entire town had accepted responsibility for breaking the dam. It was epic, because it suggested that in many ways, each of us contributes to the welfare or demise of our communities.
As I sit here pondering how best to broach the subject of racial inequity and social injustice, I am painfully aware that I am perhaps the least qualified person to weigh in on this important topic. I was raised in a variety of small, white communities my entire life. Until I went to college, I had never had a friend who wasn’t also white.
As a young Christian, I thought I understood what racism was, and on more than one occasion in high school I penned articles and poems decrying racism. To me “racism” was something other people did to discriminate against those of different colors. I was different. I didn’t hate, I would never point to someone’s color and suggest that they were anything but a child of God. No, racism in my world, was what some southern rednecks did to keep a disenfranchised minority disenfranchised.
As a way of “listening and learning” the first club I joined in college was the Black Culture Organization. I’m truly surprised they even let me in the door in 1970, but I think they took pity on the doe-eyed blond boy from Podunksville and decided I wouldn’t be that much of a problem. I did listen and learn and developed a number of close friendships.
Those friendships, however, didn’t survive graduation. I went home to small town, white America and my friends all ended up in major metropolitan areas. We drifted apart and it has been years since I heard from any of them, nor have I bothered to reach out.
The hubris with which I deluded myself went so far as to suggest that I was “post-racial.” My enlightenment complete, I convinced myself that I wasn’t part of a bigger problem. For example, when the term “white privilege” was first introduced, I assumed it applied to anyone other than me. After all, I grew up really poor as a young child. We didn’t have much. I didn’t play sports in high school because I had to work every night after school to pay for college and graduate school. I “earned” my way to success, and it had nothing to do with being white.
Perhaps the greatest sin anyone of us can ever commit is the “sin of wrong belief” and to the extent that I somehow thought I had secured the “American Dream” of “striving fulfilled” predicated solely upon hard work and talent, I became guilty of that sin. In truth, I broke the dam.
Never in my life have I been stopped for DWB (Driving While Black) but many of the young men and women of color in my parenting classes have been. I’ve never had my grocery sack checked for a receipt upon exiting local stores, but a number of the young men and women of color with whom I’m familiar have had this occur on a regular basis.
I’ve never been walking somewhere and had local law enforcement request I provide some proof that I “belonged” where I was walking, but I know folk of color who have had this humiliating experience. Right here in my hometown. Right here in River City.
It seems like the tapestry that is America is unraveling at the moment, but in truth, we are facing a time of choice and decision. Are we going to continue pretending like systemic racism isn’t prevalent in our communities? Are we going to continue to pretend like 400 years of racial hatred and oppression doesn’t matter? Are we still going to utter than worn-out canard, that “Hey, I don’t have slaves and I don’t know any who did?”
It is the moment to decide. You and I; we broke the dam. Every last one of us. It won’t be easy to rebuild a society that strives for the better angels of racial equity and justice, but it is imperative that we try. Brick by brick. Decision by decision. Until that damn dam is complete.
Westfall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.