Waiheke, Aotearoa New Zealand

June 7, 2020

Racism.

pre-s. If you'd like to watch this week's letter, it's here.

I've struggled all week with this letter, and it's still not right. It's just Sunday. And I have to press send.

For me, this past week has been an all-consuming, pressurized infusion of emotions. As someone who was born and lived most of my adult life in the US, I've felt hope and outrage and grief and energy; movement. As someone who doesn't live there anymore, I felt powerless and distant, disconnected and out-of-position.

I've listened to friends about their experiences. Talked about what we can personally do to take on racism in our communities and our relationships.

Looked hard in the mirror. The things I'm doing right. The life's work I still have left to go.

I've wrestled with what to share with all of you. Most of you - about 70% - aren't from the US. You've seen the news stories, of course, but in most of your communities COVID-19 is still the major story. Here in New Zealand, it's that we've gotten rid of COVID-19, and are trying to figure out how to handle massive unemployment and the collapse of the tourism that underpins so many of our industries.

I look in the mirror and see my face, skin staring back. Know how that's tilted the scales all through my life and travels.

I think about all the different perspectives this group shares. About trying to connect to people who still think, "All lives matter" (if this is you, as a personal favor to me, please read this piece I wrote a few years back, watch this comedian, and write back if you want to talk.) About connecting to folks who experience a different world than I do, elevating those stories and getting myself out of the way. About those of you for whom June 4th, Tiananmen Square, was the most salient and difficult part of the week.

I've learned over the years of writing these letters that the best thing I can do is to stick to my experiences.

So here are mine.

I grew up in the US to an all-white family on a collection of Air Force bases. Diversity wasn't a big feature of my life growing up - we lived in pretty white places - and though at times my friend group had some smatterings of different skin colors, there wasn't a lot of cultural diversity.

When I was in my early 20's, I remember a long conversation with my girlfriend at the time about how the US didn't really have a culture. She - an anthropologist with a wider set of world experiences, insisted I was wrong - there was definitely a white american culture, I just didn't see it. Today, I cringe remembering that. We went to Peru that summer, working on an anthropological research team, and it was my first time leaving the country - and my culture. I was never quite the same after that.

Fast forward a decade and I'd started these travels.

Nothing in my life has taught me about privilege, power, white american culture, and all the insidious ways racism hides like travel. I've been so lucky to encounter so many patient people, willing to help me unpack my own stories, and start to make better ones.

Along the way, I learned to stop using "you should" and start using "I should".

And this is the "I" I've got in this moment. I'm from a country built on the backs of black slaves. People who look like me have benefited for generations from systemic, intentional inequity, baked into the system. Life is way, way easier as a white person, and even more so as a white male.

The system in America is broken, and it needs fixed. People who look like me need to step up and fix it. Racism in America is a white problem, and white people just like me need to swallow hard, look themselves in the mirror, and get to work.

And I just slipped into "you" again. Because even though I'm staring at a US passport on the shelf in front of me, much of that work is out of reach for me. I don't live in the states. I don't have a city council or congressperson I can call, write, advocate to for better policies, a fairer budget. I can't show up at protests or help out folks who do.

It's been six years since I lived in the US, and for the first time, I'm really feeling the disconnect. All of my information on what things feel like there is second hand. It's a place that's woven so deeply into the fabric of who I am that it'll never completely wash out. But it's not where I am now, and I'm not going back.

So I look outside. Out at the Hauraki gulf, rain clouds pressing eastward across the water, in bunches.

I'm reminded of the Māori waka that first sailed in through that exact water, landing on Aotea, that island, right there.

Of the history here, one that's played out so different and so similarly from the one I grew up with. Of the same outcomes here as in the states. Full prisons. Empty homes.

Of trying to find my roots here, and the voice that will come with them. Knowing I have a lot more listening left before it'll be right for me to talk.

And I look back, find myself still at this keyboard, writing to you.

With words, all I've really got at this moment in my life to affect change. And a request.

No matter where you are, there is racism in your own community.

Please find it. Name it. Fight it. It's going to take all of us. Together.

-Steven

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