This man sat with them for over an hour, listening to a bible study, watching a prayer meeting. Then he stood up, said, “I am here to kill black people,” and opened fire.
He left the church unscathed, but nine innocent people died, others were injured, a five year old girl played dead to survive, and a survivor was given a chilling message:
The survivor, who is elderly, who spoke with Johnson and her 5-year-old granddaughter are two of the three people who survived the shooting. According to Johnson, when the gunman saw the elderly woman was alive, he asked her, "Did I shoot you?"
When the elderly woman said "No," the gunman said, "Good, because I need someone to survive," and said he was going to shoot himself, the survivor told Johnson. "And you'll be the only survivor."
We’ve opened some serious dialogues on race and racism in our nation in the past few years. Important, serious dialogues. And Wednesday night added a tragic underscoring to those dialogues.
In the aftermath, as the suspect’s name was released, and people dug up pictures and history of him, as his manifesto was discovered, we looked and we said, “This man is a racist.”
There was very little argument with that point. A vast majority of people agree. His own words proclaim it, his own pictures feature it. The consensus seems pretty secure—and pretty reasonable, in light of the evidence.
Since that Wednesday night, we’ve had people come forward and say, “I knew him.” Lots of people have said the usual—quiet, unassuming, kind of weird. But some of it is downright chilling. An interview with a friend from high school said something like, “He used to make racist jokes, but I never thought anything of it.”
And in that interview, I saw a glimmer. It took me a while to poke it, to touch it, to reflect on it, before I realized what that glimmer was—a mirror.
Hello. My name is Kayla Sue, and I am a racist.
No, I’ve never said the “n-word”. I don’t think I’m better than people of color. I don’t think they are somehow inferior to me, because of the tone of their skin. I don’t hate anyone that I can think of.
I don’t own anything featuring the confederate flag, clothing or otherwise. I don’t make racist jokes, and when I hear them, I cringe. I don’t cross the street, lock my car doors, or clutch my purse tighter if I see a person of color.
I find the ideas of slavery and segregation and so many other civil rights abuses endured by people of color to be absolutely morally reprehensible and despicable. Repugnant might even be the descriptor I'd choose.
And yet, there it is still—my racism.
It’s insidious. It’s manifested itself in a thousand different ways over the years, ways that I can look back and see.
Mostly, it has been there in my every day life, even as I’ve tried to live out my progressive values, values I consider enlightened. It was there when someone would make a racist joke, and I would be uncomfortable, but say nothing. It was there when someone would speak a mistruth, and I would not disagree, because I didn’t want to cause conflict.
It was there in the number of times that I comforted myself—“I’m not a racist! That guy is a racist! Look at him!” I created a caricature and failed to acknowledge the reality. That racists don’t look like I think they should look. They look like me.
The failure to acknowledge and realize that racism isn’t a joke. The failure to realize the absolute privilege that is being able to view racism as just a source of discomfort, as a source of inconvenience, instead of a life-altering, potentially spirit-crushing, potentially life-threatening phenomenon that I can help disrupt and dismantle.
I failed to view racism with the same disgust in my daily life that I felt when I considered it intellectually. And that is racism. That is my racism.
How many times have I confronted a situation like this murderer’s friend relates? How many times have I failed to speak up and say, “I am not okay with this because this is not okay. This is wrong.”? How many opportunities have I missed to disrupt the system that causes so much oppression and death and despair?
I looked in the mirror in that comment and it brought me to my very privileged knees.
Nine people died last Wednesday night. Nine people died because a man made a decision to kill them, but they also died because so many people are like me. They died because so many people made the decision to look the other way, because so many people made the decision to say nothing, to keep the peace, to avoid conflict. They died because so many racists don’t acknowledge and try to dismantle their own racism first. They died because so many good-meaning, well-intentioned people cloak their racism in progressive goals and enlightened values but fail to address it head on.
They are victims of a vicious and horrible man—but also of people like me.
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Rev. Daniel Simmons
Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor
These are the names of the people whose lives were cut short by a man, by a monster, last Wednesday night. These are his victims.
But they are also victims of a system that has been perpetuated for centuries. They are the victims of a system that I have claimed not to support while at the same time I have failed to actively destroy every time I recognized an opportunity to do so.
They are my victims too.
And all I can say is that I am sorry. I am so sorry that I didn’t listen sooner, that I didn’t see sooner, that I allowed myself to be blinded by my own privilege. I am so sorry for my racism. Most of all, I am so sorry that it took this, that it took so much destruction and pain and loss, something so tragic and so terrible, for me to look at it, confront it, and realize what it meant. I am so sorry that it took this to realize that if I am committed to dismantling this system, to having a nation where there is truly liberty and justice for all, I have to be committed with my every waking breath. I am so sorry.
My name is Kayla Sue. I am a racist. I am sorry. I know that that is not enough. I will change, but I still don't know that it will ever be enough.