For those who harbor hate, admitting powerlessness is the first...

For those who harbor hate, admitting powerlessness is the first step to changing your ways. Seeking help from others comes next. Credit: Getty Images/AMR Image

Leaning on our cars in the parking lot of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Joe and I waited for our children to return from an admissions tour. The conversation quickly got personal.

“I’m a prejudiced Sicilian,” Joe confided. “But I don’t want my kids to be and I don’t want to be, either. But I don’t know what to do about it.”

As owner of a lawn service in our overwhelmingly white corner of Long Island, Joe would not have faced many consequences for saying this out loud. But he was not the first white person in our town to talk to me in a playground or parking lot about the discomfort they felt when speaking to Blacks.

I always listened, but I had no answer.

Fourteen years later, I am one of millions of Americans now confronting the cruel reality that once led a friend of mine to tell her Black son to stop wrestling with my white son.

It was before George Floyd, but she knew. What if someone misunderstood and called the police, thinking her son was harming mine?

So now I am remembering my conversation with Joe in the Virginia parking lot and wondering what I might have said to him back then.

Coimbra Sirica, who lives in Northport, is a science writer...

Coimbra Sirica, who lives in Northport, is a science writer and communications consultant for non-profits. Credit: Coimbra Sirica

What if he had told me he was drinking too much, and his life had become unmanageable.

With that frame in mind, I could have said racism is a spiritual disease. It is not something you think your way out of. But he knew that already.

I could have said that admitting powerlessness is the first step. That there is hope, and that others could show him the way.

What if 14 years ago I had been able to say to Joe, “Come to a meeting with me tonight. Find a higher power. Make amends to those you have harmed, all of them. Practice these principles in all your affairs; stand up to injustice wherever you see it. And choose to see it.”

And as I write these words, I know I would have to tell him my own story, starting with my failure to question racist policies that are baked into almost every system in our society. I would tell him I have done too little to fight such inequities. I also would tell him about the joys of friendships earned by persevering and breaking through the reserve of Black people. I have been blessed.

My family is from Baltimore and from upstate New York, one side sent here by famine and the other on the Mayflower, but certainly plagued for generations with this brain disease that tells so many whites that this racist world is not our fault and nothing can be done to make things better. But the Black lives around us know the truth.

Sitting here, in my suburban Long Island home, the protests seem far away and my mind starts to tell me I am powerless and that nothing’s going to change.

But I keep thinking about the man who had the courage to open up to me in a parking lot 14 years ago. And my friend who worries when her Black son leaves the house, even if just to the grocery store.

And I know I need to pick up the phone to ask whether Joe still wants to talk.

Coimbra Sirica, who lives in Northport, is a science writer and communications consultant for nonprofits. 


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