06/23/2015 05:49 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2016

A Letter to My Niece About Race


"AJ is taking the Charleston shooting hard. She is feeling overwhelmed and helpless. She said 'I'm tired of people dying, and there is nothing I can do about it.'"

Your mom wants me to say something that will relieve you of this despair. I wish I could.

Would it make you feel better to know that such slaughter is not a new or surprising thing? I didn't think so.

The horror of realizing that this kind of hatred, this kind of unspeakable violence, is not an aberration, but in fact THE WAY OF THE WORLD, that horror is a part of growing up. Because we failed you. You are realizing that the generations ahead of you, all of us, bear the guilt that we have not done better. Everyone who is truly awake experiences that horror sooner or later... that we still live in a country in which unspeakable acts are not only still happening, but happening at an alarming frequency.

We haven't stopped men from raping girls. We haven't contained our love affair with guns, even when kindergartners are slaughtered like sheep. We haven't even stopped our own police from killing black people. That is our shame.

Too many of us (white people) think that racism was about slavery and separate water fountains, so we can cross it off the list of problems to solve. Very few people know about redlining and how we systematically stripped the wealth from black families. Very few people understand the school-to-prison pipeline and how black children as young as 4 years old are suspended and put on the "bad kid" track for behavior that is indulged in white children. Very few people understand how the drug war has been waged largely against black people, turning up to 1/3 of Black men into criminals while pot and cocaine use in white communities is largely ignored.

We don't use the "n-word" or say blatantly racist things, so we feel smug in treating the fears of black people as overblown.

I know you know all this. I know it makes you feel angry and frustrated and helpless. And yet. And yet. I don't want you to give up on us, not on Americans. We are crucially flawed as a people, but as individuals... individuals can disarm you with their capacity for kindness and forgiveness. We become inured to the casual cruelty of everyday life, but a human can take your breath away with their quickness to come to the aid of someone they don't know. They just need to SEE it.

This you can do, in the spaces in our communities where black voices are not heard: preach and teach. Tell stories. Provide data. Listen. Then tell more stories, provide the data again, listen. Repeat until you achieve the desired result.

And so, have all your feelings. As much as I want you never to suffer, I would not take away the feeling of despair that now threatens to overwhelm you -- because you need to KNOW. You need to know that this capacity for cruelty and for apathy in the face of cruelty is as human and common as the capacity for kindness. And though I never want you to be overwhelmed by it, I also never want you to be jaded by it. Know that every act of kindness and every act of defiance, every act of aggressive compassion that pushes for change, is important. Not because it achieves change, but because it takes a stand against the evil. Your fearless love and its refusal to accept the murder of innocents, even if it doesn't change the heart of the world, will save your soul.

You were wrong, you know. To believe that there is nothing you can do about it. You can, and you will. You have already started. You have started by allowing into your heart the notion that people with less privilege than you not only deserve equal dignity, but do not get it unless you insist. You have started by listening and learning, and speaking from a place of love. You have started with knowing with an unwavering belief that God is God, and if you can help even one person move in the direction of grace, you have won.

This is not a battle that can be won this year or next. Some day, we will recognize that not everyone who wants an arsenal of guns should have them. Some day, we will learn that the color of our skin does not separate us into tribes. Even then, there will be more to be done to acknowledge the base truth that we are all family.

Maybe you will be lucky, and at some moment in your life, you will find that you are in the right place at the right time to push that arc of history back toward justice.

In my heart, I know that you will.