It’s a Teardown

My grandfather loved to tell me that he was as tall as Abraham Lincoln and wore the same shoe size as George Washington. When I would come to visit, he would turn off the news, and sitting in his favorite armchair in front of the TV, he’d tell me again the story of when he left home to make his way in the world, and his dad simply said, “Be honest.”

He would tell me that when he was promoted from stock boy to cashier, he once rode his bike a mile and a half to return a dime to a customer he had overcharged. Or he might pull down a maroon leather book from the shelves and read me the poem, ‘I Am Old Glory’:

“So long as men love liberty more than life itself, so long as the principles of truth, justice and charity for all remain deeply rooted in human hearts, I shall continue to be the enduring banner of the United States of America,” of the finest country in the world.

Year after year of those sessions, of me sitting there on the living room couch, the one whose arms were always covered with plastic sleeves, while we waited for my grandmother to call “lunch,” I began to wrap that pride around my young body like a flag of bulletproof gems.  

As I got older, it was easy to find appeal in sayings I heard in high school like “Russia sucks,” because enemies were anyone or anything that threatened the superpower status which gave us — me — an inflated sense of self-worth, that lifted me above and away from the dread inside, the fear that I was nothing.

Before my grandfather died, he wrote a letter to his grandchildren and one of the things he said was, “Our freedom and all the good things we enjoy must be defended constantly, every day of our lives. Always remember that a nation can be destroyed from forces within.”


“What do we want?”

“Justice!”

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

“If we don’t get it?”

“Shut it down!”

The kids and I yelled these chants until our voices were hoarse down the streets of Georgetown during a Black Lives Matter march this June. “What are we shutting down?” asked Mark, 12, as we walked by stone houses that looked like Southern mansions, a few with white people standing in front waving.

“The system,” I tell him, but even I can’t picture it — the police, the government, the everything? I don’t know how one shuts it down or what would happen if we did. 

George Floyd’s killing under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer finally shook us into reckoning that something is terribly wrong with our system — it’s rotting from within. What is festering inside our country is a caste system. This I was stunned to read in The New York Times magazine from July 5 that I had folded and saved on top of my stack of half-finished books. 

The formal structure that originally defined caste was abolished with laws and civil rights acts, but the race-based hierarchy still lives on, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson in her profound and elegant article, America’s Enduring Caste System.

“A caste system is … a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits,” Wilkerson writes, “traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste, whose forebears designed it.”

Having caste as our society’s hidden structure puts us, the world’s greatest democracy, the shining beacon of freedom, in company with India and its ancient intractable system and Nazi Germany. Invisibility, says Wilkerson, is what gives caste its power and endurance.

Wilkerson likens a caste system to the hidden structure of a house. “America is an old house,” she says, and it was built 400 years ago on a flawed foundation, a two-tiered hierarchy with those identifying as white at the top and Blacks at the bottom, while immigrants from non-European countries find a place somewhere the middle, and Native Americans are exiled completely.

As anyone who has lived in an old house knows, problems like sagging joists or water leaking into the basement don’t just go away. Sometimes we learn to live with the smell of mold and the slanted floors, and then “the awkward becomes acceptable,” says Wilkerson, “and the unacceptable become merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal.”

A house built on a crooked foundation cannot be fixed with patches and paint. When we focus on racism as the problem, it shape-shifts, it mutates, but the invisible lines remain because, Wilkerson says, the hidden structure has not been exposed and dismantled.


I walk barefoot whenever I can these days. When the soles of my feet make contact with dirt, with bricks, with grass or even cement, I feel solid, right, part of it all.

My daughter Virginia tells me that walking barefoot on the earth is called grounding. There is something about being in touch with the ground that is healing. They say the earth’s subtle electrical charge neutralizes free radicals, acting like one giant antioxidant, and regulates our autonomic nervous system. Keeps our circadian rhythms.  

Houses separate us from nature, from each other.  Houses are meant to shelter us, but when some people are relegated to the basement, it may look like a dwelling from the outside but from the inside, it’s a prison to some. When the people who are kept down try to escape the place of no light, low ceilings, and toxic fumes, they are spotted immediately by their appearance. In a caste based on physical features, no amount of education, resumé heft, or hard work will set you free, because you can’t change the color of your skin.

By the laws of nature, or the universe, or what you might call God, no species is better than another. It’s one big amalgam, one mysterious overflowing swirl of life. In the animal and plant and mineral world, there are no levels of greater or lesser rainbows, adequate or inadequate sunflowers, worthy or unworthy elephants. As a native of India once told anti-slavery leader Charles Sumner, “Caste makes distinctions among creatures where God has made none.” 

When my grandfather said all those wonderful things about America, I felt that I was being conferred a new sparkly costume, simply for the random involuntary act of being born on a certain patch of land. A glowing coat of beauty and power.

I must have been old enough by then to have lost that feeling I had as a child, the sense of unfettered connection with everything and everyone. I had already begun to separate myself out — good or bad, weak or strong, smart or not — judging myself with the standards and expectations that make some people into idols, others into nobodies.

I felt ashamed for my grandfather to know that I wasn’t the American that he admired and always strived to be — magnanimous, noble, fair, and true. So I took that spangled cloak and pretended I was. 

MaxyM/Shutterstock

I don’t know how we can take down piece by piece a structure that contains all of us. I don’t know when we will have the courage to step down, to live without shelter, to join the wild unknown of nature, to get rid of our shoes, our buildings, our foundations.

But it helps to shine an infra-red light onto the structure we live in and ask, How much longer can we stay here before the whole thing falls down?

Healing One Step at a Time

Every time I pass a Black person on the street now, the encounter is charged with meaning. I look in their eyes and I feel myself saying things they cannot hear, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I didn’t look hard enough, I didn’t want to see, It’s too horrible, I don’t know what to do, Please don’t hate me, I’m sorry,” and sometimes they look at me back and all I hear is silence.

Three marches and a vigil, movies about race with my teenage daughter, podcasts, readings, newspaper articles. It took one man dying in a global pandemic for me to open up and see. Slavery did not end — it mutated into different forms. As an Equal Justice Initiative speaker said after a Juneteenth march, “Oppression didn’t end, it just rhymed,” finding other brutally creative expressions — aggression, repression, suppression, dispossession.

Mostly it’s white women who take pictures of my kids and me with our protest signs, but one time riding the Metro, a Black woman asked if she could snap one of the boys, who were holding onto the poles with their “Silence is Violence” and “End Police Brutality” signs. “You’re so cute,” she said as she held them in her phone’s eye, and “Thank you for your support,” and I felt like maybe this is going to work. This is a beginning.

I tell my African-American neighbor when she walks by one evening that I finally understand why she told people not to call the police on the kids loitering around the smoke shop because teens of color are usually targeted, and it becomes a way to round them up. Or why it would make sense to legalize marijuana and sex work because criminalizing them gives more reasons to lock people up when all they’re doing is trying to live, to cope.

Last week we were walking home from the grocery store, and I heard someone yelling. I turned around to see a Black man running towards us, holding something bright blue. He thrust it towards us, and I said, “Oh, thank you!” and to my son, “Mark, you forgot your umbrella!”

The man’s eyes are like those of a 9-year-old boy’s, and I say something trying to figure out what to do next, and he says, “I was panhandling outside the store,” and that was all I needed, so I fish around in my wallet and hand him a 5 dollar bill, and I look into his eyes, trying to erase everything I’d learned before and see him for him, and I say, “Thank you for your time,” and he takes it, looking down and says, “God bless you all,” and I feel dirty, like a Tammany Hall mayor, to live in a world where a grown man can tell you God bless you because you gave him a 5 dollar bill. 

And I feel sick about my privilege, and I think I have to give away everything I own to make it better but even this would never make it right, and then I start to see how many people don’t feel this way, don’t feel this way at all, and in fact, feel the opposite, and I want to hide from this mess, to run away so I won’t be crushed by the massiveness of this hate, this despair, this rage, this disaster.

To be a child again, to go back to when I didn’t see any of this, before I noticed how some people were treated like animals, before I felt the dread, before I knew I was part of it, before I saw how it gouged deep canyons into our society, gorges so tall and steep, so rough and craggy you don’t dare to try to climb out.

But I cannot go back. I cannot curl up into a ball and roll back to a place where everything is smooth and soft. I must not let myself. It will never feel okay to be okay with this. And it’s okay not to feel okay. Humans are not meant to feel constant comfort and ease — we are meant to feel anguish and joy, grief and elation, struggle and triumph. We are not meant to collapse like roly-polies into little balls, winding into little gulleys until the scary guys go away.

Juneteenth March from the National Cathedral to Dupont Circle

“Black Lives Matter, huh?” an African-American man says to 6-year-old Diana, who is holding her hand-made sign as we all wait for the Metro shuttle bus in a patch of grass on Connecticut Avenue. Diana looks at him with her pug nose and brown eyes and nods.

He tells us he was at a Juneteenth march that morning, and I tell him about ours, and I feel weird about it because I feel so white and new, and on the bus, we realize he is good friends with my son’s middle school coach, and that his kids graduated from my daughters’ high school. 

He mentions that he lives near the zoo, but on the other side of Rock Creek Park, which he said divides D.C. from rich and poor, white and Black, good schools and “bad” schools, and I say, I know. He went to the zoo so many times when he was little that he says he doesn’t want to go anymore — he’s all zoo-ed out, and I laugh and it feels good to laugh with him, and he tells us how he hears the lions roaring every morning, and how he wonders “if those bad boys will get out one day,” and I used to be afraid of lions escaping the zoo and jumping through my window too.

One time a few years ago I served jury duty with a group of Black and white people from all different neighborhoods over the city. By the end of the week and a half, we felt like a band of oddball cousins, eating lunch together, sharing boxes of doughnuts, and lending each other Metro cards. We cut each other slack when some of us were late, we knew each other’s quirks — Chelsea was addicted to chapstick, Rebecca packed avocado sandwiches, and Mattie stayed awake with Hot Tamales because she had quit coffee. We weren’t allowed to talk about the case, so we talked about everything else — how yellow dye #5 is made with toxic waste, whether selfies make noses look 30% wider, and why not to drink tequila in tattoo parlors.

I want to be in the room together. Not on opposite sides of the court. American life makes it so easy to separate. Thank you God for jury duty, post offices, public schools, protests, and city buses. Please help me find more ways to sit across a table and laugh about tattoos on butts and lions roaring in the morning. I want to be riding the same bus — not walking past each other on the street, exchanging cash, or looking at one another from opposite sides of the gorge.

My commitment

Seek out people of color to learn from — yoga teachers, writers, academics, film-makers, meditation teachers. Don’t fall into easy grooves, limiting my circles to people who sound like me, think like me, look like me, and grew up with the same advantages as me.  Remember how reaching out a hand feels better than sitting on it. Be brave, be kind, and know that you are capable of holding big terrible beautiful things.

To watch

This week I watched the documentary 13th with my 16-year-old daughter Virginia. I highly recommend this powerful film about how America has come to have 25% of the world’s prisoners even though it only makes up 5% of the global population. The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that slavery is outlawed “except as the punishment for crime.” It’s now showing for free on Netflix and YouTube

And the day came
when the risk it took
to remain tightly closed in the bud
was more painful
than the risk it took to bloom

Alicia Keys, singer & songwriter

Broken Wings, Open Heart

I look at the protest signs tossed on the foyer table after our first march, and I feel ashamed that I carried mine for 3 hours. My children — 12, 9, and 6 years old — easily adopted Black Lives Matter messages, writing in orange crayon, pink highlighter, and smeared pencil “End Police Brutality,” “Silence is Violence,” and “Justice for Breonna Taylor.” But I wanted to say something that felt like it came from me.

“We Are All One Human Family” got rejected by my daughters Virginia, 16, and Sofia, 18, who attend a diverse D.C. public high school. “It’s cliché,” they said, and would be interpreted as wishing away the problem. 

“What about “Compassion”? Condescending, they said, because it sounds like you can do something that others can’t.

“If You’re Not With Us, You’re Against Us,” Virginia suggested, or “To Be Silent is to Be Complicit.” But for me to hold these words up high would be like accusing other White people of the same crimes I have committed my whole life.

The night before the march, I type in my Google search bar, “black lives matters signs for white people.”

The phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability.

President Barack Obama

When Sofia and Virginia were 13 and 15 years old, they went to the Women’s March and the People’s Climate March in 2017, making elaborate posters and dressing in countercultural outfits, make-up, and hairstyles. There were so many marches in D.C. that year that people started saying that protest was the new brunch. But I stayed home, using my responsibilities to the family to shield my disengagement. 

I was afraid if I opened up to massive global problems and terrible pain that I would be swallowed up by emotions and burdens that I couldn’t handle. But I have since learned that it doesn’t work this way — when I open myself up to the suffering of others, it opens a place in me too, a source of strength and wisdom that is both of me and not of me, that can handle big things, that can feel both grief and joy.

In the garage I find a box that had once carried 50 long-stemmed red roses from my husband, and begin dividing it up. “Diana, can you run and get some newspapers?” I ask, shaking up a half-empty can of white spray paint.

Everyone wants a chance with the spray can and then the brush, and we finish painting the cardboard panels 2 hours after the 7pm curfew imposed by the mayor after protests took violent turns on Sunday and Monday. After I get the children in bed, I lean the boards up against the porch columns to dry.

We had talked as a family around the dinner table about George Floyd and the history of racism and agreed to make weekly donations to support good causes. The kids made Black Lives Matter signs and taped them to telephone poles around the neighborhood. But I know that if I let my support stop here, it would feel like a betrayal.

A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.

Malcolm x

We put on our fabric masks and squeeze into a mixed crowd of mostly young people in the plaza before Bloomingdales, below Neiman Marcus, both of which are boarded up, glass bits still sprinkled on the ground. This is the first time in nearly 3 months that we have been with anyone outside of our family. 

Young Black women make speeches about how their great-grandmothers were slaves and sharecroppers, how their parents worry they will get arrested for being out after dark, how people devalue and degrade them every day, and how tired and fed up and frustrated they are. But they are also happy, grateful to see us here, hopeful that maybe something will change this time.

The painted corrugated cardboard didn’t accept markers or Sharpies, so I had colored in my lettering with crayons and pencils. “Racism is making us sick,” is what I had finally settled on for one side of my sign, a rephrasing of the iconic, “Racism is the true pandemic.” On the other side, “Racism is infecting our society.”

Without realizing what was happening, that part of myself that needs to feel propped up started thinking things like, “Maybe I’ve written something so clever people will stop and think, maybe they’ll take photos, maybe one will end up in the media.” But I don’t catch this voice in time, and it weasels its way in and out of my experience of the march.

The crowd spills into the street, and sirens and blue police escort lights flash. Someone way ahead calls, “No Justice!” and a chorus erupts shouting, “No Peace!” As the front of the protest stretches out far from us and becomes a faint rumble, a marcher closer to us screams, “Say his name!” and people yell in response, “George Floyd!” We join in too, and I hold Diana’s hand so we won’t get separated, and I see Mark and Luke holding their signs, looking ahead, walking and yelling, “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!”

Employees from stores and restaurants along the way, some that were looted only days before, are handing out bottles of water from coolers. People come out from their workplaces in scrubs and aprons, taking pictures and watching, and sometimes I can’t yell because my throat gets swollen and scratchy and I don’t know why but I feel sad and happy and lost and found all at once.

Black Lives Matter March, June 4, 2020, National Cathedral

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is a heart-opening pose in yoga called broken wing. You bend one arm up behind your back and then you lie on top of it with your chest toward the sky.

I always thought that I was supposed to fly — to be strong, proud, high above. I tried to build myself up so I felt big and nothing too upsetting could enter. But I didn’t realize that closing my heart to the world also closed it to my deepest self, which is part of the world and therefore in contact with all that is truly wise, creative, and powerful.

If I am to remain in touch with my deep self and my strength, I now know that I must keep sorrow in my left hand. Feeling where my wing has been broken opens my heart to myself and others. We are meant to be compassionate. This is our true and most powerful nature.

Live to the point of tears.

Albert Camus

“But I saw mostly white people,” Diana says, as we begin the 2-mile walk back home. Black people were leading the protest and occasionally among the crowd, but this was a march purposely organized in a White affluent neighborhood because it’s those “who benefit from systemic oppression,” as it said on the announcement, that need the message the most. 

I want to be the young women and men of color saying eloquent and courageous things, talking truth loudly, being heard and seen. How does this make sense when everything they are saying is about how hard it is to grow up Black in America, how humiliating and demeaning and discouraging?

But they are shining through now with their strength, their truth, their vulnerability. I feel guilty and soft. What have I overcome? My life has been one of comfort and privilege, made difficult only by how I have sabotaged myself.

We have vowed to do more than this 2-hour march, these chants, these 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence for George Floyd’s killing, but I know it will be hard to do what they are asking: talk to other White people, have difficult conversations, be pro-active, be vocal.

Will people not want to be around me if I do? Focusing on the suffering of people of color invariably leads me back to how I have been complicit and the shame about how I have paid for my peace. But this thinking brings the question to me and my small self again. Allowing my fear of exclusion to shape my behavior is precisely what makes it possible for some people to avoid exclusion and others to endure it.

A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.

Brené Brown

Back home with empty smoothie cups and aching feet, we toss our signs on the foyer table. On top of the earnest, unquestioning signs of my children is mine: I wish I could erase it. Why did I have to feel so unique?

My sign had became another way of crafting an image of myself. And from a position of simply looking out through my eyes, I had swerved around like a movie camera, trying to imagine how other people would see me. 

And for a night, I think I have done the protest wrong. 

But I don’t want this to be my last protest because I have collapsed into self-recrimination. What if I really am needed here? What good are my rigid standards then if they prevent me from helping, however imperfectly?

People always talk about how not failing means you’re not trying hard enough. But how can you welcome failure when you’ve equated success with acceptance, and failure with banishment?

Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.

Nelson Mandela

Two days later, on Saturday, I go to another protest, this time with Virginia at the Lincoln Memorial, and I make a new sign. On one side, a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. — “A Riot is the Language of the Unheard” — and the other, “Black Lives Matter.” 

I feel a little less self-conscious, a little more part of it, a little more sobered about how difficult this work is going to be. 

My biases are so ingrained. I will have to dismantle over and over again my assumptions about people of color. I will have to retrain my mind. I will need to devote time to learning, listening, reading, following new voices, and acting.

Racism is like a virus and it has infected our society. As babies we are born into a world where it is already running rampant. It is not our fault, but as we grow and open our eyes, it will be harder and harder to allow some wings to be broken and others to be left alone to fly.