I only got one C in college, and to say I was indignant about it at the time would be a massive understatement. I was having a lot of fun just picking classes that worked for my schedule, which was full up of doing as little as possible. The first semester of my sophomore year, I opted to take Dr. Charles McKinney’s “History of the Civil Rights Movement,” a 200-level class that attracted me mostly because it was at 11:30, and that gave me a late start to my day on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I can remember signing up for it and thinking I probably wouldn’t learn that much, because I had taken AP U.S. History in high school, and had a lot of domestic and international travel under my belt. That was better than good enough, right? After all, that kind of curriculum had gotten me to a school like Rhodes College, a high-achieving liberal arts college — and an almost entirely white one in the majority Black city of Memphis, Tennessee.

Looking at the syllabus on the first day of class, I noticed what looked like a hell of a lot of reading. More reading than I had ever done for any class, in any subject, to this point in my education. I came to college thinking I’d be the kind of English major who Sparknoted all the summer reading and spent most of my time daydreaming, or the International Relations major who assumed that the incredibly shallow cultural knowledge I’d gotten from traveling the world’s five-star hotels from a young age would be enough to secure me a degree (FYI, I chose the latter).

I bought the books Dr. McKinney assigned, showed up to class when I felt like it, and mumbled some participatory words every now and then to project the sense that I at least knew what we were talking about that day. Most often, I didn’t, because I hardly ever read the assignments.

lorraine motel in memphis, tennessee
The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination and now home to the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo by Simon Ray.

The times that I did feel obligated to read, I was disgusted, but for all the wrong reasons. We read, read, and then read even more detailed accounts of the violence perpetrated on Black lives, from the early days of this country right through to the time when my grandparents were growing up. Every chapter talked about a lynching, a rape, a bombing, a torture. From the time Black people were slaves right up to the time they were using separate drinking fountains, it seemed to me that we were covering every single terrifying instance of grotesque horror ever realized upon a Black body, and all for little more than the shock value.

At a very basic level, I could not understand why I needed to know these specific people’s names, especially when so many of their stories started and began the same. I can remember thinking along the lines of, “I thought this class was about the movements… The marches, the solidarity, the great speeches, the triumphs of collective spirit.”

I “already knew” the violence was systemic, the oppression was institutionalized, and the history was appalling to say the least. I “already knew” there was still work to be done. But more than anything, I desperately wanted to cling to the narrative that a bunch of Black and white people had come together, sang some songs, marched on the capital, and gotten the job done. Racism would still persist, and I would see it every day, but it was just a vestige of bygone eras that would expire on their own, eventually. Somehow.

diners under a festival tent

For whatever reason, I didn’t have the self-awareness to question why I was so uncomfortable reading all those accounts. I was starting to understand that I had white privilege, but thought about it as the privilege not to be racially profiled by a cop or killed while I was on a run — that was an easy pill to swallow, and I couldn’t believe people had a hard time accepting the reality of those disparities.

In a sense, I was already taking my victory lap.

I got a C in Dr. McKinney’s class because I didn’t complete a single one of the online journal entries we were supposed to write about how the readings made us feel, and my final research paper was just a re-hashed version of a paper I’d already submitted for that same class, about jazz musicians. I have since become viscerally ashamed about how I handled that semester, but over the years that shame has shifted from being about the grade and the fact that I should’ve worked harder; now, I’m ashamed that I got off so easy for missing the point entirely.

In recent months I’ve been especially pleased at times to see certain people on my social feeds, who I thought would never in their lifetimes feel the need to acknowledge problems of racism in such a public manner, post Black squares or take some other gesture to express solidarity — and maybe even a willingness to educate themselves on racial injustice and white supremacy in America. That said, as our nation’s racial reckoning rumbles onwards, a lot of those gestures are starting to feel like they were just another round of early victory laps.

Every single day, I feel the temptation to take another victory lap as I see things happen that I never thought would happen: actual legislation and ordinances passed to defund police, confederate statues in my hometown of Nashville being taken down, places being renamed. The only thing that stops me is also seeing the faces of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery every single day — reading their names, hearing their stories. I was angry about Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, but I never thought I could do anything because the big, nefarious “racism” would just stick around until it got tired and left, like the last unwanted guest at a party.

Looking at our country’s botched reopening in the “wake” of the pandemic, I don’t think I have to write here preaching about the dangers of early victory laps… I hope the comparison is tangible enough.

robed man walking through plantsSo that was how things worked for me as a white man in a vacuous America, where I had the luxury of believing that isolated incidents, no matter how numerous, were an evil of the moment, a tragedy or three that happened to “people” but did not happen to a person. What’s worse, evidence to the contrary was right before my eyes, and by looking only at the “bigger picture,” I ended up missing what was immediately in front of me.

Having grown up in several different countries and traveled extensively, I think I just assumed that I was a perceptive person, maybe more so than others who hadn’t been to the places I had. That very dangerous assumption actually looked something like this: I thought some other countries were “worse” than the U.S., i.e. more racist — like that matters. I thought that because I had been exposed to extreme poverty in my travels, I was more knowledgable about how it looked, and would recognize it if I ever saw it at home — ignoring that I lived in a system designed to shelter me, and people like me, from having to face poverty and understand its consequences in a community. At Rhodes College, that almost all-white school in a majority Black city, we lived behind a giant wrought iron gate that spanned the entire circumference of our campus.

That gate is, to this day, just as misconceived as I was about my racist perspective. And if there was any doubt about the kind of thinking that went into that gate, just reference some of our president’s recent tweets on the “suburban lifestyle.” Whatever distance or barrier that white America tries to between us and our racism, it will never be enough. History is showing us that, as I sit here and write this.

Racism is the water we drink, but it’s not about the separate drinking fountains — it’s about Flint, Michigan, who are still without clean water.

Racism is the money we spend, when banks lend to 1 Black homeowner for every 64 white homeowners, or our tourism dollars go to businesses run by and catering to people who look like us. Racism is the words we use, right down to the subtlest inflection of a syllable and the temperature in every room that gives us the air we breath while we think of people not as people, but brand them thugs or criminals. I think it’s incredibly telling that people who spout “all lives matter” are the same who talk about looting as if it should warrant a death sentence, when it likely already has for the child laborers being exploited around the world to stitch the shirts on our backs.

We’re about to enter Black Business Month in August. Passion Passport will be updating our website weekly with new interviews, recommendations, roundups, and general content to the end of furthering racial equity in the travel space. Personally, I’m proud to work for a company committed to constantly learning and improving, but I know there’s a lot of work left to do. In fact, it will never end. I hope all of our readers join us in intentionally directing our money to Black businesses in August, and hold us accountable for the content we do (or do not) share.