Guest opinion: Notes on self-examination
By Terri Mork Speirs | Director of community relations, Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center
In our backyard, a majestic oak tree soars to the sky. It is estimated to be up to 150 years old.
For me, the tree is like a living, breathing historical timeline. I imagine how this tree may have been planted just a few years after the last-known cross-Atlantic slave ship landed in the U.S. I am awed to think this tree is rooted in an epic precipice of the 1870s — the end of a 400-year-old economic system based on human trafficking, and the beginning of a 150-year-old resistance to that end.
The life span of this tree grounds me in reflection of the not-so-distant past of U.S. racism, and the oh-so-current presence of U.S. racism.
Like many others following the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in south Minneapolis, a neighborhood I know fairly well, I have engaged in a process of self-examination to understand and clarify my values. As a 50-something white woman, I am discovering my privilege by learning about racism through education — through books, movies, art, discussion.
And I am also discovering that Black people and people of color learn about racism through experience — through humiliation, horror and generational trauma.
As I reflect, some of my white family and friends have asked me: “Why do you differentiate between white and Black people?” Well-meaning, they say, “We’re all the same.”
Well-meaning, I used to think that too. I sought to be colorblind to skin tone as my way to be a strong, fair leader and a good person. However, I’ve learned “colorblind” is a trap. Sure, our humanness and mortality are the same. Our bones, blood and tissue are the same. But our lives are vastly different simply due to melanin. I am learning what Black people and people of color have known for years, decades and even centuries.
The truths I’m learning are absolutely based on skin color.
I am also learning I’m not good at succinctly answering the colorblind question. And, I am learning that those who ask may not want my response anyway.
As a white woman, I am confronted with my lifelong biases and influences. Long-held values and messages wave dangerously like tree branches in a storm. I’ve found it necessary to ground myself by turning inward toward self-examine with purpose — to ask myself these questions: Who are the teachers? What do I need to know? Where will I find resources? When should I speak up? How will I act?
Many may ask why self-examine now? It’s a valid question. The historical timeline I see in my backyard tree reminds me that racism is not new, but deeply embedded in the core of our nation. I have no good answer to “why now?,” but I‘ve adapted a proverb that helps me: The best time to plant a tree is 150 years ago. The second-best time is today.
Maybe I can help create a better future.
Terri Mork Speirs is the director of community relations at the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center, a nonprofit provider of mental health counseling and education. In her previous positions she served providers of foster care, domestic violence services, food security, disaster relief, health care, girls’ education, fair trade tours, and agricultural development. At age 48 she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles with a focus on creative nonfiction. She and her family live in Des Moines with one beagle, two cats and six chickens.