Please accept my deepest sympathy on the loss of your daughter, Heather.
She came into my consciousness out of that unfortunate white supremacists protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 12, which led to her untimely death. As the story unfolded in the media, the pain in my heart just grew at the thought of what it must mean for you to be so suddenly deprived of your child. I, who do not know her, have experienced such sorrow. I cannot imagine you, her mother, who have had her in your life for 32 years, only to lose her in the vibrance of womanhood.
The pain I felt was born partly out of the kinship of motherhood–the certain knowledge that you had dreams of a long, happy and fulfilling life for her as mostly all mothers have for their children. It was also because of who she was. In her attempt to counter hate, I saw in her reflections of my own daughters— young women with a highly-developed sense of wrong and right; respect for all people regardless of who they are; the courage and commitment to follow up their beliefs with actions when she felt it necessary, including being allies to marginalized communities in our struggles for basic respect.
The last year has been extremely uncomfortable for minorities, as you can imagine. For someone like me, with multiple marginalized identities —a black woman immigrant—it has been many times more so. I am always aware that in the imagined world of the white supremacists, who caused Heather’s death, there is no room for people like me–not even a basic acknowledgement of my humanity.
The disrespect is piercing at times; not because I embrace any sense that I am inferior to anyone because of any aspect of myself that I have no control over, and not out of any acceptance that I do not contribute to the fabric of what makes America special. Rather, it is out of a profound disappointment at the ignorance at the highest levels of this country that has enabled this environment. It is just as maddening that at a time when we should be growing into authentic greatness as a nation—leading from the front in a troubled world and demonstrating the meaning of ethical leadership and moral authority—we are deep into the weeds of stupidity and injustice.
Nearly two decades into the 21st century, too many Americans are still under the illusion that black people are “three fifths of a human being”—three fifths of a white person. This is white supremacy, and it goes beyond Charlottesville—beyond crazed white men in hoods carrying tiki torches. It is in our schools, colleges and universities; in the workplace; in the churches; and in the overarching environment that creates and supports monuments to hatred and oppression in public spaces—like the halls of Congress.
As minorities, we often take it for granted that the battle is ours to fight, and there are millions of us loudly (or quietly) resisting bigotry everywhere we encounter it. But I know that it will never be enough for victims alone to resist. I know that change will come that much faster when those who benefit from this privilege of whiteness understand and reject it as morally bankrupt, and the one great obstacle to growth and lasting peace. Heather knew this is why she was in Charlottesville fighting for all of us.
Thank you for giving Heather to the world, and for the strength and deep sense of moral clarity you have shown in a difficult situation. I am reminded that while we often look to the well-heeled in high offices with big titles for such leadership, change is usually ignited by the wisdom, decency and courage of ordinary people.
I hope that her death will not be in vain–that America, soon enough, will arrive at a new and infinitely better normal where neither young black men nor young white women will feel it necessary to put their lives on the line in defense of what should be the most basic value of a civilized society—respect for all its citizens. I hope that rather than being constantly on edge and forced to defend our humanities, many more of our citizens will be able to channel our creative energy into building a truly great nation, and fighting real existential threats like extreme poverty and climate change.
Please take comfort in the knowledge that your daughter has inspired me to keep on fighting. Her death will be a lasting reminder that the accident of race does not mean black and white people are natural enemies, or that our interests must necessarily be oppositional.
We are all a part of just one humanity.