I should start by saying I'm sorry. I'm sorry it took 10 years to wake up. I'm sorry it took 10 years to speak up. I'm sorry I thought this was not "my" fight or "none of my business."
I'm a 48-year-old white man who grew up as a military brat and was lucky to experience different cultures as I grew up. I've never used the phrase, "I'm not racist, but..." but I might as well have. I've always known it wasn't possible to understand what it was to be anything other than myself, so I tried to understand the world from the perspective of others. It was naive of me to think I could study people, culture and even psychology to understand the world without actually asking people what it was like to be them, to live their life and their experiences of it.
When the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I felt alienated and somewhat pushed away by what I perceived as resistance from the black community to white people who wanted to help. I've been too blind to see the things I should have done without having to be asked. Sometimes it's hard to understand the frustration of others because it may not be as obvious to you as it is to them.
In my attempt to think critically before jumping to conclusions I consciously chose to remain neutral while over 10 years of black bodies piled up at the feet of law enforcement around the country. Choosing not to take sides as I evaluated each incident, thinking things like "Michael Brown didn't deserve to die, but he didn't do himself any favors." Of course I wasn't trying to blame the victim, but I realize now that it was my own unseen biases (read "I'm not racist") that had me trying to nuance my way out of taking sides (and responsibility), even after the injustice of Darren Wilson's acquittal. I watched through the lens of my television screen, as though peering into another world that had nothing to do with me, the surreal stories of other people, and checked my emotions at the door.
Something changed for me this time. As four generations of my family prepared to join the May 31 vehicle procession protest organized by the Springfield chapter of Black Lives Matter, I found myself experiencing different emotions – sadness, empathy, confusion and then anger. It began to dawn on me that as a white man my silence made me complicit in the history of violence against black people in this country. Then I saw a quote on a T-shirt at the protest that said, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor" (Desmond Tutu). I sat with that for a minute, and it landed on me like a ton of bricks.
Then I remembered something I had read years ago written by Martin Niemöller, a German pastor, in 1946: "They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."
Let's be clear, as a white man I have no fear of Them coming for me, but it is now evident that I have a responsibility to speak up for others. Not to speak "for" others as a white savior, but to raise my voice with theirs and amplify their message, their pain, their anger. I struggled for a time to find a way to be an ally without being condescending and patronizing. It's frustrating to want to help and not know how, but with a little help I am learning what it means to be an ally. It's time for white people to shut up and listen. Ask your friends of color what you can do, then listen, because sometimes people just need to know they have been heard, and you just might learn something about yourself along the way.
Cory Meyer is a son, brother, husband, ally, and father of two young girls who need to see the importance of standing up and speaking out against injustice in their world. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, home of Breonna Taylor, he now calls Springfield home.