Imagine asking a fish, “What do you think about these waters you live in?” If he could respond, I think he would say, “What’s water?”
In the news recently, we saw a racist photo of the governor of Virginia. At first, he came out and apologized, saying that that’s not who he is. Then he came back and said maybe it wasn’t him—and started talking about ways he can rectify what happened.
Around the same time, a story came out about actor Liam Neeson sharing a tragic event in his life. When it happened, he left the house so infuriated that, in his words, he was looking for the first black person he could find and kill.
A natural first response is to sort of adjudicate what happened—and of course, knee-jerk reactions are completely understandable. It’s a very jolting statement. They are very jolting images. And I’m pairing these two stories together for a reason. (We’ll get to that later.)
The responses I see are very natural.
“You need to make this right.”
“Should he step down?”
“Should he not step down?”
“How can he prove that he’s not who he says he is? Make us understand. Help us square this circle.”
These images and statements are also very triggering. I have family that left certain parts of the country because of the kind of rage Liam Neeson expressed, or because there was no safe haven when their governor participated in such acts.
How do you talk about tough things—about various hot buttons or hot takes when it’s all so triggering and when nobody even hears what each other is saying—and still keep people at the table? I don’t have an answer, but I’m going to try.
Back to the fish motif.
Fish don’t consider the water because that’s just the world they’re in. And when you’re just in it, you don’t think about it, unless it becomes toxic. Then you start to notice it.
I’m not so concerned specifically about the governor of Virginia or Liam Neeson. I’m more interested in the water we swim in. And the water we’re in is called white supremacy. I know that’s a triggering word, but I need you to think about this for a second.
Throw a rock anywhere in the American narrative of history and culture, and you will hit upon white supremacy. There was a time when even the Irish weren’t welcome here. When the Constitution talked about all men being created equal, it meant white men over the age of 25. In the Declaration of Independence, our native brothers and sisters were referred to as “savages.”
That idea came from the Doctrine of Discovery, which said if you wage war with indigenous people, those murders don’t count—they’re not murders because they’re not necessarily “image-bearers.”
How else can you get your brain around the subjugation of an entire people as your workforce and call them chattel? That’s the Three-Fifths Compromise. The idea that Africans aren’t necessarily humans.
This is just the waters we’re in.
Pick any social revolution in our culture, whether it’s women’s suffrage or the civil rights or the abolition of slavery. This is us, trying to get our land to understand that we are equal, or should be equal, in the sight of the law. Why is that something we have to fight for?
That’s just the waters we’re in.
Someone once asked, “How come the African-American community never reached economic success and independence?” Well, we tried—in Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was set on fire.
When my dad came home from the Vietnam War with the GI Bill, he attempted to buy a house— but there was a thing called redlining. It hindered black families from moving into certain parts of the neighborhood. This was my own father, not that long ago. Even in towns that we were allowed to live in, we were denied home loans, because that community didn’t want black people. They didn’t want black families.
Why would you not want black families in your neighborhood? Well, because of the idea that black families tear down property values. We didn’t choose the hood. This stuff happened.
When I was in fifth grade, a young man told me he thought black people were made by God smearing them with feces. And I’m supposed to just take this as a joke. When my parents took it to the principle, he said, “Well, that’s just kids being kids.”
Which made me understand: “Oh, I’m not safe here. Bullying toward me doesn’t matter.”
The Me Too movement is our queens of our culture trying to tell us there’s something in the water that’s not right. There’s something you’re not noticing. We are swimming in the same ocean, and there’s something you’re not seeing about this water.
At some point, we have to stop and say, “Maybe there is something wrong with the water.”
Inside these oceans are icebergs. If you know anything about an iceberg, you know that what’s above the water pales in comparison to the size of what’s underneath.
All of us can agree when we see things on top of the water—somebody donned in a Klan’s uniform, somebody taking a picture in blackface—that’s a problem. But what’s hard for us to understand is how a person got to that moment.
How did things get there? Every time someone said, “It’s just a joke.” Different side comments, different moments, microaggressions. If the water is toxic to you, then it’s not hard for you to realize that what you’re seeing is, in fact, just the tip of the iceberg. There’s more happening here.
There’s something in the water.
I’m not so concerned with lopping off the top of the iceberg. I’m more concerned about the toxicity of the water.
This is why I believe things like Liam Neeson’s statements and these pictures of Ralph Northam are part of the same ocean—even the governor’s admission that he also dressed up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest and donning a little bit of shoe polish to darken his face. I get it. You and your buddies thought it was fun. But it’s proof of a toxic ocean for someone to think that that was OK.
So as people who want to love anyway, I think it’s our job not be headhunters so much, not to play whack-a-mole every time someone steps out of line. That’s not my interest. My interest is the toxicity of the water.
Let’s start considering the things we put in waters. Let’s start considering how we can train our gills to discern when we’re taking in toxic thoughts, toxic understandings of each other. The water needs to start tasting funny to us—because when the water starts tasting funny, that’s when change happens.
We need to consider the waters we swim in. Maybe it’s not toxic to me, but it’s toxic to my neighbor. And let me push you further: if it’s toxic to my neighbor, it’s probably toxic to me, too.
Let’s breathe better water.