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  • whitney smith

Breathe


It's been a week ya'll, and I hardly know where to begin. I'll start with hoping that you are safe where you are, and holding it together with some humor and empathy for yourself and others where you can. What can I say, it's just been a terrible week in the US on so many different fronts. 100,000 people dead from covid in just a few months. It's approximately the same number of people who live in my town (Vallejo, CA), and that's how I get my head around that number. But it's also an abstraction, a number that big, and I'm not sure humans are good at processing the impact of 100,000 dead people who would otherwise be living their lives if not for the virus. And that's when leadership comes in. A good leader can help articulate what that means for our country, can help us process the grief we feel and be a conduit for expressing that grief on our behalf. Leaders help us rally our feeling of sadness, helplessness, anguish, anger, and channel it into something that may help uplift us, bring us together as a people. You know, give us hope that we will find a way forward. Remember when Barack Obama sang Amazing Grace at the memorial for the children shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School? That's the moment. That's channeling the heartbreak of a nation. Our current president can only bring himself to tweet out condolences using the most trite and hackneyed language available when expressing sympathy. Basically, he sent a Hallmark card to the country, and it hurts. I have never been under any illusion that he truly cares about anyone but himself, but there seems to be no bottom to his antipathy and pure contempt for people, and we are all being dragged into a dark place because this person is so fundamentally broken. We have no choice to look elsewhere for leadership in this moment, any bright spot at all.

Meanwhile, as every bit of force is applied to "getting back to normal" one must take note that "normal" in this country means resuming with ugly racial incidents. Not that there was a pause there, only a pause in viral moments. The connective tissue between Ahmaud Aubrey, Amy Cooper, and George Floyd is always the same: marshaling the deadly power of systemic racism against black and brown people. What was so disturbing about the Amy Cooper incident was her fluent understanding of that system, "I'm going to call the police and tell them an African American man is threatening my life," she said. She knows that's pushing a button with the police, a button that can easily end with Chris Cooper face down in the dirt, a knee pressing on his neck until he stops breathing. That easy manipulation of the system mirrored the action of the Minneapolis police officer who casually sat with his full weight on George Floyd's neck, and the men in Georgia who corner a man in a residential neighborhood and take him out. All of them understand the system, and they have no fear of any consequence for their criminal behavior. But they are all being held to account this time, to differing degrees, and for that I am glad, but not even close to being satisfied that we are doing enough to address the root problem. It is the smallest of down payments toward change.


Like many cities across the US, Vallejo came alive with protests last night. My husband and I happened to be leaving downtown just as people came flooding in. My studio is downtown, and an appealing target with its 12 foot windows, but I was way more concerned about what could happen between the police and the protesters. The City of Vallejo paid out almost 7 million dollars in a mere 5 years in civil cases stemming from police shootings and brutality, and the police force is widely derided for its incompetence and poor tactics in dealing with the community. I was afraid of what would happen to people if windows started getting broken. (By the way, downtown was fully intact this morning.)

The protests happening against the backdrop of the pandemic just feels surreal, and there is no container to hold it safely. The rage is flowing across the country, and it feels at once necessary and out of control. Again, our president utterly fails the test of leadership in this moment, and revels in stoking the righteous rage of citizens rather than taking the moment in hand to do just the next right thing. He is not capable and that is frightening. I worry at how much more will tear, and what it will take to repair it.

I have thought intensely about the problem of racism in this country for years. I didn't realize my own contribution to the problem until I moved to Oakland in 1996, and had to reckon with my uneasiness with being in spaces that included lots of black people. Until that time, I always lived in communities that were either fully segregated or had so few people of color that they were an anomaly. I fell back on the belief that hating racism was enough to make me not a racist. Recognizing that my discomfort came from a belief that black people were inherently threatening was the first step I took at dismantling the beliefs that are ingrained in almost anyone who grows up in a country with a deep and systemic racism problem. It is active and ongoing work, and I feel it's one solid concrete thing I can do to undermine the system. I encourage anyone who feels discomfort around race to start an investigation into that disquiet. There is no shame in owning our racism and working to break it down. Here are a couple of resources to start exploring:

Understanding and dismantling racism: A booklist for white readers Baratunde Thurston on living while black. White Supremacy Culture: A list of characteristics of white supremacy culture which show up in our organizations. (This is really great for people who work in offices or large organizations.) * It all starts with the kids: Talk to your children about race. * Trevor Noah explains looting.



© 2019 whitney smith pottery

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