Please welcome today’s guest writer, Alicia (De Jong) Bradshaw. Alicia graduated in 2017 with majors in geography and English writing. She now lives in Tacoma, Washington, where she works as an analyst for the local transit agency. When she’s not thinking about public transportation, she’s usually tinkering with an art project or weeding in the garden.
Dear T –
When I caught a glance of the post on the Facebook group—a picture of a whiteboard in the KE apartments on Calvin’s campus where the word “ALL” was scribbled over the word “Black” in “Black Lives Matter”—I cringed, but I didn’t think twice…until you texted to ask if I had seen it.
I opened the post again. This time, I really saw it: through your eyes and skin. I watched briefly as waves of reactions, comments, and arguments rolled in. It reminded me of a moment at a recent peaceful protest. I was marching beside two Black children no older than five and seven Someone had handed them megaphones, and they were leading the crowd in a chant: “Whose lives matter?” Suddenly, a white woman broke into the crowd and began angrily screaming, “ALL LIVES MATTER.” …So I called you, and all I could think to say was: “I’m sorry.”
Initially, I meant: “I’m sorry that the value of your life is somehow controversial.”
But you know what? I have a lot more to apologize to you for.
In November 2015, during my junior year at Calvin, two Calvin students drew a swastika and wrote “white power” in the snow on a car. President Le Roy made a public apology and asked students, faculty, and staff to stand in solidarity against racism. This response was far from enough. A key indicator of that should have been the reactions from many white students, including a friend of mine who remarked: “I don’t see why we need to make such a big deal about it.”
I’m sorry because my reaction, as your white sister, was to occasionally respond to those comments. A year later, I wrote an essay about it for class. In retrospect, I should and could have done so much more while I was a student at Calvin.
I could and should have attended more events and conversations that I was invited into, like during Unlearn Week. But I didn’t. I thought I was somehow exempt—because I grew up in other countries or have Jewish blood or have a sister who looks different than me. I realize now that attending was for you as much as it was for me. I just needed to show up and listen: such a simple sign of support. I’m sorry, because I wasn’t there for you.
I am guilty of going through four years at Calvin without actively engaging in what you experience all the time, just because of your skin. I’m sorry that when you do bravely share about your experiences at Calvin—from the strange looks to the subtle, yet piercing comments—this is often met with rebuttals like:
“That’s not what they meant.”
“No one looks at you like that.”
“Well, run for student senate!”
First of all, regardless of anyone’s intentions, the fact that you find yourself questioning these interactions is significant. Each story adds to the picture of a deep and pervasive issue that is far too easy for white people, like me, to ignore or deny. I’m sorry for the times I’ve made excuses for people instead of acknowledging how these interactions make you feel.
Secondly, you shouldn’t have to run for a leadership position in order for your voice to be acknowledged or represented. The responsibility of listening and working to address racism is a burden that should weigh heavily on leaders and decision-makers—particularly those who are white. And white people, like me, should always be working to hold these leaders accountable. You, as a college student, should have the same freedom as your older, white sisters to focus on your education, if that’s where you need to devote your energy right now. I’m sorry if that doesn’t always feel like an option.
I know my apologies don’t change anything. But I hope that others can learn from my faults.
You know what happened with the woman at the peaceful protest? Strangers in the march stepped out, linked arms, and formed a barrier between her and the passing crowd. As the children beside me continued to lead their chant, those strangers responded to their calls, but this time even louder: “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” I hope that white students at Calvin—and white people everywhere—can learn to be those strangers who will step out and challenge the words and actions that stifle and degrade their siblings. I hope that you find people like that at Calvin.
Racism didn’t start with whiteboard commentaries or swastikas in the snow, and it won’t end with a bandaid statement or essay. It has been built over generations, and it will take generations of action to dismantle. Your work in undoing it is also my work. Your experience matters to me.