As the news from Charlottesville was breaking last weekend, I have to admit I didn’t pay much attention at first.
As the white nationalists burned torches and yelled “White Lives Matter” on the Lawn I walked to class every day for four years, I was busy packing for a work trip to Colorado.
As the protesters and counter-protesters violently clashed on the grounds of the school I used to call home, I was hiking in the Rockies.
Of course, I saw snippets of what was happening on Twitter, and noticed other alums sharing news stories on Facebook. But I felt guilty. The contrast between the peaceful, natural beauty I was seeing in real life and the destruction I was seeing on my screen was almost too much to handle.
But by Monday, it was impossible to look away. The racist supremacists fighting cops and peaceful counter-protesters; the deaths of innocent victims; the shameful reaction from the President. My heart broke as I spent hours catching up on what was happening.
On Thursday, I was back in my apartment in Atlanta — a town not immune to its own racial tensions. Midtown Atlanta, where I live, is an area especially affected by the city’s economic disparities.
Take a walk through Piedmont Park, for example. Look up, and you’ll see shiny, brand-new, high-rise apartment buildings towering above the trees. Look down, and you’ll see homeless folks napping on park benches and in the grass. The disparity of privilege is glaring, but it’s another thing that’s easy to overlook — to see, but not act upon.
Last November, I had watched from my apartment balcony as protesters marched down 10th street here in Midtown, shouting “Not my president.” I sympathized with them. Yet I couldn’t imagine actually joining them on the streets in my newly adopted city. Seeing, but not acting.
I’ve also overheard racist remarks here in Atlanta — racism I had forgotten still existed down South after living in New York City for 6 years. But I didn’t speak up against it. Again, seeing, but not acting.
Today, I feel differently. Today, I’m done sitting back and watching from a distance.
It’s not so much about Charlottesville. It could have been any town, although having this happen in my college town definitely hit home. Either way, I just can’t keep quiet anymore.
So, the question becomes: What can I do? What can I do to help those who feel attacked and disenfranchised? What can I, a white woman and a writer, possibly do to make this world even a little bit better?
Of course, plenty of people on the internet have answers.
Sara Benincasa, a writer I follow, posted this article on Medium, which lists an incredible number of local nonprofits that are helping in the Charlottesville area. If you wish to donate, definitely check it out.
She also put into words how it feels to write about this topic from a position of privilege:
I wrote it because I know I have a lot of white followers who are figuring this stuff out privately, and it might help to see somebody else awkwardly try to figure it out publicly. It’s not eloquent and I’m sure I make some mistakes, but it’s an honest attempt to talk about stuff we’re often taught to sweep under the rug.
I second that.
A fellow UVA alum also posted this piece which brings up some really important points, like this:
People in positions of power, whether their arena is politics, the media, the capital markets, or elsewhere, need to intentionally change the system — not just complain about the problem and give lip service around the margins.
What about those of us who lack the extra funds to donate or who maybe aren’t exactly in a position of power? One thing I, as a writer, can do: Post this article. Yep, it feels slightly self-indulgent and not at all impactful, but it’s one tool I have at my disposal right now.
But I can’t stop there. That’s not good enough anymore.
Earlier today, sitting in my apartment, staring at computer, it all caught up to me. I was completely overwhelmed by how helpless — and selfish — I felt in the face of all this horror. I let myself cry for the first time this week. Then, picking myself up, I drove to Trader Joe’s. I rolled the windows down, let the warm sun beat on my skin. I reminded myself I was safe. I also asked the universe to allow me to help in some way — to point me in a direction where I can find a little sense of purpose in this world.
On my way back home, I was given a tiny, small opportunity to do just that. As I waited at a red light near my apartment, I saw a man with a bunch of bags, standing next to a bus stop. I glanced at him, and we made eye contact. He smiled and waved. I did the same. Nice, I thought, a little bit of humanity in this messed-up world.
Then I watched as he slowly and subtly unfolded a piece of cardboard. It read: “Homeless. Jesus loves you.”
I averted my eyes.
It was a gut reaction. But as I drove off, I felt ashamed. I thought about the groceries I’d just bought; the air-conditioned apartment I was heading toward; the clean clothes I’d just washed and folded on my bed.
I thought about Charlottesville, and the vile hatred and racism on display in a place that should symbolize so many other positive things.
After I parked my car in my garage, I quickly walked back to where I’d seen that man, that man who had smiled and waved at me and humbly asked for help. He was still there, so I handed him some money from my wallet.
“Thank you,” he said. “God bless you.”
I know. This tiny, small act is basically nothing in the grand scheme of things. But I’m glad I did it. I came back to my apartment, still feeling down and depressed, but I also had a little sense of hope.
How can we show that we oppose the hatred on display in Charlottesville?
With words, of course.
With social media posts, sure.
And with actions, absolutely. That’s what I feel is lacking from our responses as a whole.
What if we all committed to just one small act of kindness, every day? What if every other UVA alum turns this horrible week on its head by showing that we’re willing to help others, no matter their race or religion or socioeconomic status? What if we do all things (or at the least, one thing every day) with love, and not hate?
Smile at someone on the street. Help someone with their groceries. Go out of your way to make someone else’s day a little better.
Of course, this may take an extra five minutes of your time — and requires slightly more effort than posting a picture on Instagram. But I for one am going to try my hardest to give what I can to others. I may not have thousands of dollars to give away to charity; I may not even be bold enough to write about politics for my job. But I can make a difference in the community around me, starting with tiny, small acts of kindness like today.
And the more I think about it, the more I believe that taking small steps like that can have a big effect. In this day and age, every little thing can help. It has to.
Whether you went to UVA or not, we can all show that the racist extremists in Charlottesville won’t win. We can all show that love is stronger than hate. We can all show solidarity with others, no matter how different they are from us. And we should.