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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Stumbling toward wokeness After George Floyd’s death, she wanted to be anti-racist. But what would that mean, exactly?

Stumbling toward wokeness

“After George Floyd’s death, she wanted to be anti-racist. But what would that mean, exactly?

TULSA — The text messages were flying in to Christine Tell’s cellphone. They were coming from a group of friends who taught with her at a preschool inside the Methodist chapel near the green fields of the University of Tulsa.

“A woman on our FB post is claiming we are a whites only school,” one wrote about the interaction on Facebook. “Someone tell me what I’m missing.”

When Tell looked at the post, she knew exactly what was missing: photos of black and brown students. All of the smiling children featured on the school’s post were white, which the teachers insisted was a coincidence.

“So far from the truth,” one responded, noting some of the children in the post were Hispanic.

“This pisses me off,” said another.

“Dumb,” said a third.

Tell tried to figure out the right way to contribute to the conversation. Ever since she watched a video of a police officer digging his knee into the neck of George Floyd, she had pledged to become a better white person.

Even though she lived hundreds of miles from the street corner in Minneapolis where police pinned Floyd to the ground, Tell felt complicit in his death. She had convicted herself — and white people just like her — of a lack of concern about racism in America, shaping a country in which black men could be killed in such a disturbing and public way.

“I always thought I was the type of person who would do the right thing, and this summer I realized it was not true,” Tell, a 36-year-old mother of two, said later in an interview. “I was walking around oblivious to the concerns of the black community.

“No, not oblivious. It was like I could see their problems, but I couldn’t see the problems.”

She wanted to be an anti-racist, although she was still trying to figure out what that meant. It was a messy process, stumbling toward wokeness, in which she would learn the limits and frustrations of trying to dismantle structural racism.

Tell was among the throngs of white people across the country reexamining their role in America’s racial dilemma. Books about anti-racism have been flying off the shelves and the Black Lives Matter protest movement had gained newfound support in all crevices and corners of the country. Social justice groups were seeing waves of new white supporters, who, while awash in feelings of anger, guilt and shame, were eager to find some semblance of activism and absolution.

TOP: Protesters gather in Veterans Park on June 20 in response to President Trump's rally in Tulsa. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: A protester holds a sign during a demonstration in downtown Tulsa as Trump holds a rally in the city. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Protesters march through the streets of downtown Tulsa. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

“They all want to know what they should do,” said David Harland of Aware Tulsa. It is part of a rapidly expanding national network of organizations called Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, formed to help white people learn how to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Harland gives this advice: Amplify the concerns of black voices, because this time is not about you. Educate yourself on the history of systemic racism. Most of all, have awkward, delicate conversations about race with friends and family.

“White anger is not the same thing as black anger,” Harland said. “It does not come from the same place. It resolves itself in a different way.”

In the text exchange, Karen Cody, the school’s executive director, at first, became defensive at the stranger’s accusation.

“This year we were very white heavy but I don't control who enrolls,” Cody wrote to the group. “I don't get my feelings hurt EVER. But this hurt my feelings."

The angry texts continued. Tell tried to figure out how to shift the conversation from their feelings. This was an opportunity to have the awkward conversation about diversity. She didn’t want to ruin her chance.

“I always thought I was the type of person who would do the right thing, and this summer I realized it was not true,” said Tell, who has pledged to become a better white person ever since she watched a video of police officer digging his knee into the neck of George Floyd. (Nick Oxford/For The Washington Post)

Her friends called her Chrissy, but she was nervous about being a “Karen” — Internet-speak for a privileged, self-righteous white woman.

“Even though I thought racism was the dumbest thing ever, I keep thinking about how racism lived in me,” Tell said. “I don't know how it became so ingrained."

She had made racist jokes to her friends and mocked black women’s hairstyles. She remembered the times she locked her car doors when she saw a black person pass, and when she imagined her English professor, a black woman, as a criminal when she saw her put on a hoodie.

Tell remembered a time when she ignored the racist rant of an in-law who spat epithets while watching a basketball game. Instead of questioning his words, she was more concerned about who might hear him because the front door was open.

She joined a local political organization in 2017, in search of camaraderie with other Democrats in a state in which Trump won 65 percent of the vote. She wanted to talk about the new president threatening women’s rights. Others kept talking about race.

Through the group, she learned about the Tulsa race massacre, which was not often discussed in the segregated part of the city where she lived. She became aware of the coded-language of using “North Tulsa” to mean the black neighborhoods. She learned about the highway system that segregated the two sides, the lack of grocery stores on the black side, and the 12-year difference in life expectancy between the communities.

Groups gather June 19 in front of the Black Wall Street mural during Tulsa's celebration of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post) 

Tell had seen those issues as someone else’s problem.

Floyd’s death snapped her out of it. She couldn’t get past his cries for his mother, the seeming nonchalance of the officer ignoring pleas for mercy.

She could no longer ignore the demands of black people taking to the streets again to assert their lives’ value and the seemingly glacial pace at which the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were being investigated. She took faith in the anti-racist evangelism she encountered in memes and videos streaming on social media during this time of pandemic-imposed isolation. “If you ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the holocaust or the civil rights movement; YOU’RE DOING IT RIGHT NOW,” read one meme.

“I’d have been the Northern white woman that didn’t agree with Jim Crow but didn’t even try to do anything until I saw little girls getting blown up at a church or Emmett Till’s mother at his funeral,” Tell said. She considered it “a shocking and disappointing revelation about myself. It completely shifted my lens.”

Tell wanted to reach out to her black friends, but she realized she didn’t have any close ones. And recalling a tweet from writer Ijeoma Oluo about the emotional toll this moment can have on African Americans, she felt now wasn’t the time to make one. “Don’t make us swim through your tears while we fight,” the tweet said.

Tell was nervous about joining protesters on the street — she didn’t want to risk exposure to the coronavirus. But she watched Ava DuVernay’s film on mass incarceration, “13th,” and purchased the audiobook version of Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility.” She listened to podcasts and took in more memes.

On May 30, for the first time, she posted “Black Lives Matter” on her Facebook page. And then, for the first time, she argued with her cousin, Matt Willis, who figured Tell was falling for a liberal attempt to exploit racial tensions to unseat the president.

“So do white and brown lives,” Willis responded. “All lives matter.”

Protesters and police face off in the streets of downtown Tulsa during the Trump rally in June. (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)

Facebook friends seized on the comment, leading to a heated back-and-forth about police brutality and defunding the police.

Eventually Willis deleted his comment and stopped following his cousin on Facebook.

“Somehow because I say all lives matter, they think I'm a racist,” Willis said in an interview. “It will take a lot to get people to see your point of view nowadays. Emotions are too hot right now."

Still, Tell had hoped the conversation would resonate with him one day, even if it did not right now.

“Doing this is exhausting,” Tell said. “But that’s a stupid thing to think because black people have to deal with this everyday. That’s exhausting.”

“Even though I thought racism was the dumbest thing ever, I keep thinking about how racism lived in me,” Tell said. “I don't know how it became so ingrained.” (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post) 

A few days after she posted her Black Lives Matter message to her Facebook page, Tell saw a friend post a frightening statement on social media: “I am very scared!”

The friend was horrified to see a picture of her husband, a white police officer, listed in a Facebook group called Oklahoma Bad Cops.

A bad cop? Tell figured there must be a misunderstanding. She sifted though the comments and discovered the officer’s indiscretion: He had clicked the laughing emoji on an illustration of a car running over protesters.

“All Lives Splatter,” the image read.

Tell agreed the message was in poor taste. But was it worth his being publicly shamed? She wanted to try a new strategy of being the bridge between both sides.

“I know this man,'' Tell commented on Oklahoma Bad Cops. “He’s a good man with a beautiful family you’ve frightened … If you’re just recklessly calling people bad cops, you are being dangerously irresponsible and bringing violence on people that don’t deserve it.”

“Respectability doesn't deter racism,” one person responded.

Said another: “black people deal with the same fear and worry about police officers harming their family every day.”

“You are the epitome of the all lives matter movement,” wrote a third. “Quit arguing for racism.”

A protester holds a sign in Veterans Park in Tulsa. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post) 

Now it was Tell who was offended. She didn’t want to be mistaken for a “Karen.” She tried to get them to understand her perspective, admitting that she had been preoccupied with jobs and raising children before the novel coronavirus, and was still “learning and gaining perspectives and changing.” She believed the officer, too, was “capable of self-reflection.”

A text message popped up on her phone. It was from the officer.

“Thank you for coming to my defense,” he wrote, but his words stung.

Tell didn’t want to be in a position where she was defending police officers mocking protesters. But she didn’t want to feel as though white people couldn’t get a second chance. She had tried to meet two sides in the middle, and ended up being compromised on both ends.

Finally, Tell concluded the people on the side who called her out were right. She had done what all the lessons had instructed her not to do — center the conversations around the feelings of white people.

“The threat to my friend’s family was perceived,” she said. “But as an officer, he was actually threatening them.”

Instead of trying to get the officer to join her on the journey, this time Tell decided it was better to just move on.

Christine Tell reacts after being back in her classroom for the first time in months at University United Methodist Preschool in Tulsa. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post) 

Her best chance to influence her white friends was at her preschool.

The woman whose comments started all their angst over the diversity of the school wasn’t affiliated with the school. Anahi Franco, an immigrant from Mexico and mother of a 3-year-old, stumbled on the photo while looking at different preschools in the area.

“When you see a school that looks like that, you can’t let it pass,” Franco, a 36-year-old Grand Canyon University psychology graduate student focusing on diversity issues, said in an interview. “You have to challenge it.”

In the text exchange, Tell tried to get her colleagues to understand Franco’s perspective. “I wonder if there are ways to make us more appealing to a diverse crowd,” Tell wrote.

“Chrissy, I’ve wondered as well,” Cody, the executive director, replied. “I truly have.”

Weeks later, Tell and Cody got together to discuss diversity. They were joined at their preschool by another good friend and teacher named Katie Colombin.

The three women felt the pictures didn’t actually show how diverse the school was — of the 45 students enrolled in the school this year, at least nine had one parent of color, according to their tally.

Cody had chosen the pictures because they were the children of parents who worked at the school. It was easier to get permission for them. She then posted new photos of children with darker skin, but she knew those changes were insufficient. Only three of the school’s students were African American.

“How many black baby dolls do we have?” she asked. “We need to get some black baby dolls.”

“Oh, I didn’t think about that,” said Colombin, the other teacher. “We have none. But that wasn’t intentional. Ninety-nine percent of those toys are donated.”

TOP: “I think part of our responsibility as white people is to reflect back on our own experiences and what ways we have unconsciously chosen the white baby doll,” Tell said. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Katie Colombin, a teacher at University United Methodist Preschool in Tulsa. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Karen Cody, executive director of University United Methodist Preschool. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)

Tell suggested the fact that all the toys were the same race by happenstance was an idea worth thinking about.

“I think part of our responsibility as white people is to reflect back on our own experiences and what ways we have unconsciously chosen the white baby doll,” Tell said.

Cody told the other teachers that the Floyd video moved her to want to do her part to bring unity to this country. Cody said she had spent her adult life trying not to pay attention to skin color, because she didn’t want anyone to be judged by their race.

And now, she could not stop paying attention to a person’s skin color — and the injustice it might bring.

“When I’m driving down the street and there’s a black man walking down the street, bam, I look and go, ‘Oh, wow,’” Cody said. “I say, ‘Okay, he might be next.’”

So she wanted to do more than get more diverse baby dolls.

“I seriously thought about going to North Tulsa and knocking on doors and saying, ‘Hey, I would really love for your child to come to preschool here and we’ll give you a full scholarship for it,’” she said.

“But is that offensive?” asked Colombin, a 37-year-old mother of four. “Because you’re only reaching to the other side and the only reason you’re offering a scholarship is skin color. Is that offensive?”

“I don't know,” Cody said.

“Now's not the time,” Tell said.

Colombin, the other teacher, was nervous about coming up with ideas to help the black community that came from a group of white women who had few black friends in their lives and who didn’t actively think about race until this summer.

“You could lose your job,” Colombin said. “You don’t want to be viewed that way when you’re trying to help.”

Colombin agreed that she needed to teach her children to be kind and stand up when people seemed cruel to others — especially minorities.

But now, it seemed that friends like Tell were asking her to do uncomfortable things, things that might be taken the wrong way. They were using these terms that seemed to have just become popular: White privilege. Implicit bias. Structural racism.

“Growing up, racism was never explained to us that way,” Colombin said. “It was never this system. It was more of a prejudice.”

She paused.

“That probably also is why it’s hard, as a white person, to know how to help or speak up or be an advocate for the black community,” Colombin said.

“But it’s our job [to speak out],” Tell said. “It’s our job to hear what’s being said to us and take the time to read a book or watch a movie that’s recommended. And to try to put our experience aside and really try to understand.”

“I’ve done that,” Colombin said. “I watched ‘Just Mercy’ and the movie about Harriet Tubman. I watched it with my children. But how does that make life better for anyone in the black community? How does my not watching a movie keep them down?”

Katie Colombin, left, Karen Cody, center, and Christine Tell have a conversation about racism in Tulsa on June 26. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post) 

Tell had not fully worked out the answer to the question. She hoped conversations with white people would help change votes and change minds. But, sometimes she asked herself, how could she be sure?

She couldn’t be certain because she wasn’t certain of anything. In a month, she had realized pervasive racism in the school system and in the prison system, in her family and friends, in herself. The tectonics of what made it great to be an American seemed to be shifting, and she had no idea what it meant for the future.

A few days later, it was Independence Day. Tell told her two children that being an American was great because they lived in a place where citizens were allowed to speak out against injustice, a land that was still striving to be free. Patriotism was embedded in protest.

Her family walked to their driveway, and she handed sparklers to her kids. She struck up a Spotify playlist called “Patriotic Music,” and soon played the Aaron Lewis song, “Country Boy.” At the end, the gritty groove faded into a spoken-word monologue set to the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

“I love my country, I love my guns, I love my family, I love the way it is now,” the final lyrics went. “And anybody that tries to change it has to come through me,” he said. “That should be all of our attitudes, 'cause this is America.”

Tell shook her head. This was not her America. She called out to her husband and yelled: “Turn it off.”

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