Innocence is the Crime

The Subway_George TookerSometimes I wonder, if I had been alive during the Civil Rights movement, who would I have been? Would I have marched on Washington? Would I have traveled to protests? Or would have simply watched on TV and read transcripts of MLK’s speeches printed in the newspaper?

I fear that I would have sat by, agreeing with the movement, but going about my life, the weight of day-to-day living overwhelming all else. This seems most likely (especially since I can count the number of protests I’ve attended on any issue on one hand), and I am not proud of this. I am not proud that I have done nothing to protest the many police shootings of unarmed black men and women. I have not even done superficial things to show my solidarity and belief in the fundamental validity and value of the movement, like tweeting #BlackLivesMatter or changing my Facebook icon.

I understand that by sitting by, I am playing a part to maintain the status quo. Listening to a news piece about another police shooting or reading about the fear that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes just walking down the street as a black boy in Baltimore, I feel the sadness build up a pressure behind my eyes and nose, a tightening in my throat. But it’s a moment of sadness before I walk back out into the world with my light skin, facing few of the fears that Coates describes, and armed with a trust that people, police and society will protect a privileged white woman like me.

This privilege is not an excuse; it is not enough to be sad about the world we live in without taking action to change it. In the book “The Fire Next Time,” written as a letter to his nephew, James Baldwin wrote:

…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

Similarly, comedian Chris Rock talks about how racism is a white person problem.  “You know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children,” Rock said. “There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”

Whereas Rock says little about how to be a nicer white person, 18-year-old activist Kadijah Means lists a few rules for white people, including:

Focus less on color blindness, because honestly, you’re not going to get a gold star for that. Be more color competent.”

I want to be more color competent; that is my intent in writing this — not to suggest that I have any of the answers on how to do this, but simply to mark for the record that I am trying. I know that it means, for a start, that I need to pay more attention. It means listening, seeking out more black voices in my newstream, imagining being in other people’s shoes.  

It means finding the ways of getting involved that are meaningful to me. It will likely not be through Facebook icons or Tweets. It means trying to participate in what might be our generation’s civil rights movement, even when the effectiveness of tactics is not totally clear and the movement is not really defined nor guaranteed of any success.

It will certainly be through speaking up. I try to speak up at work about needing a more diverse board and staff. I will try to speak up in others defense, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, when I hear something that seems racist, however small. It means being careful about what I say; I am sure that I too have said things that have been hurtful or offensive. That this wasn’t my intent does not protect me.

It means feeling the deep, deep sadness that comes from being a part of this world. This sadness is what holds me accountable and makes me aware of my role. It keeps me, I hope, on the path toward being a nicer, more color competent white person, no longer innocent to the crime I’m taking part in.



Editor’s note: We have few minority voices on Small Answers, a void that we are acutely aware of and trying to address. If you are a writer of color who would like to contribute as essay to Small Answers, please email us at, please!


Image: George Tooker, “The Subway” (1950)


  1. Hana Marritz

    thanks for your very thoughtful and empathetic observations, Steph. Sometimes activism takes place in quiet ways that don’t make the papers.

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