My Birthday Wish: For White People to Truly Understand What It Is to Be Black in America

when will white people understand what it means to be black in America, racism in America, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, collective guilt over slavery, #CrimingWhileWhite, #BlackLivesMatterIt’s my birthday tomorrow.

BFD. The world is struggling to right it’s moral compass and I’m not sure we are going to make it. Yeah, I know, gloom and doom, but this is the reality we live in.

Am I to set aside my concern for my fellow citizens, should I label them scumbags as Charles Barkley did to distance himself from the concerns of the economically disadvantaged and disenfranchised of St. Louis?

Should I pretend everything is okay and go out and celebrate my birthday? I mean, isn’t the thinking that I deserve it. It’s my birthday and I work hard? Let’s celebrate.

Except that other people work hard. And, still other people want to work. Some white folks don’t want to hire them. Or house them. Or acknowledge they could use a hand. Certain folks cling to the idea others are inherently bad because they are black. And then say, those people, they will never amount to anything.

I’m supposed to ignore all of that? I’m supposed to go out for my nice dinner and be happy because my family is doing alright? The kids are settled where they will be for a while, we are in a coasting phase. While that really does feel good, I’m very aware if they had black skin I’d be scared to death.

Some people say I should ignore all of this. That I’m too serious. That I’m making too much of killings and shootings and caring too much. While I agree the best support for sanity and good mental health is a capacity to compartmentalize, the time for compartmentalizing has come to an end.

It is time for us to wake up.

But what does that really mean? I think some white people, me included some years ago, think it must mean giving something up? Well, yeah, but maybe not as much as you think. It might mean I have to take my turn in line for an apartment. It might mean I don’t get the spot in the Master’s program. It might mean I’m mixed in with others, and I become a person of color. Not separate from color.

Waking up definitely means voting for laws that are fair and equitable to every human.

Waking up definitely means being educated about the issues, being aware of the difficulties. To gain a better understanding of how someone with a different skin color gets through the day just like all the white dads I know. Here’s a story that’s a good place to start gaining that understanding about a black dad who worries about his kids.

Maybe waking up means simply acknowledging inside your heart that everything you learned about history was not correct.

Does being white in America make you feel guilty or have shame? I do. How could I not? How could you not?

I remember traveling in Europe and staying in a youth hostel on the Italian Riviera. Several of us partied together and became quite raucous. The travelers came from Australia, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States. A recently married couple from Philadelphia went swimming in the little harbor in the dark after enough alcohol to not be thinking straight and she lost her wedding band. We were all white.

But prior to that, while we were still sober, a guy from Germany who had hiked the mountains from his home town to this hostel on the Mediterranean sat with us and we talked about guilt. He spoke of the guilt and shame carried by his parents for the concentration camps and the persecution of Jews. They had been children during that time. They still felt and carried the guilt and shame.

We talked about how it didn’t matter that his parents didn’t talk about it, his generation grew up with this shame complex passed on and he would likely pass it on to his children. Not because anyone was still behaving the way the Nazis behaved, but because what the Nazis did was commit horrific moral transgressions on fellow humans. And their fellow citizens stood by and did nothing. Their behavior left a stain, a stain that can never go away.

I wish whites in the United States would wake up and acknowledge — we did this. Our ancestors committed horrific moral transgressions on our fellow humans. There is no way we can out-talk, out-walk, out-rationalize, or out-fight the facts. White people did this. We killed the indigenous people so there was space for ourselves. We kept slaves. We still keep slaves.

It wasn’t that long ago that the internment camps were closed on our U.S. soil. My skin crawls thinking of that. How would you go on? How would you keep getting up in the morning?

In the current arguments over who is right and wrong and who pulled which trigger, the conversation and rhetoric are meaningless. Michael Brown died a long time ago. We killed him and others, and continue to do so, with our policies and laws and incarceration and fear. We have created a culture of fear such that the only solution we see is to get more guns and bigger tanks and more ammo.

The shame of what our ancestors did is not going to go away and we can never tip toe quietly enough around this issue to not awaken the baby.

Happy birthday to me. What is happiness when others around you aren’t given a seat at the table? I’ll be happy when every white person I know and care about reads one article or one blog post related to living as a black person in this country. I’ll be happy when we talk about it. I’ll be happy when we acknowledge we have white privilege. I’ll be happy when we use it for good.

Kim Cottrell is a Feldenkrais® practitioner, educator, and former speech pathologist. Kim blogs at and contributes regularly to Walk About Magazine. She has run from just as many traumas as she has faced but one day she was inspired to lay down her anger and rage and forgive her father.

To schedule an interview with Kim, she can be reached at

Image via Depositphotos

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