Channeling guilt into action: Why I am taking the #PMSpledge

In this new C.O.R.P. series, PMS members describe what motivates them to take the #PMSPledge

By Sarah Arnquist

With unprecedented unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation ravaged in protests over the murders of yet more Black men by white police officers, the overwhelming feeling I have is guilt.

The barrage of solidarity statements streaming through my social media channel gives me mixed feelings. Reading about the large companies and hedge funds making statements about #blacklivesmatter made me sort of angry. Issuing a public statement while not promoting changes to policies that perpetuate the inequality that bred the current violence feels hollow at best and hypocritical at worst. (I have a crush on whoever started the "This you?" Twitter meme.)

When I became a mother five years ago, I experienced a rush of love greater than anything I had previously felt. This love compels me to protect my children and give them opportunities to live happy, fulfilled lives. While my children are the most precious thing in my life, the love I feel for them is no more special than another mother’s. It is as commonplace as discussion about the weather forecast. Regardless of the language spoken or longitudinal coordinate, people love their children and talk about the weather.

We all make decisions about where to live, where to send our children to school, who to vote for, the taxes we are willing to pay, and the programs we support. Often we justify our decisions because we tell ourselves it is what’s best for our children. But if we’re being honest those decisions often come at the expense of others. Actions in our daily lives that on the surface have nothing to do with racism can undermine any words of solidarity we might express.

What if you couldn’t re-post about #blacklivesmatter if you live in a state with no income tax unless you supported a graduated income tax to fund Medicaid expansion and universal preschool?

What if you couldn’t tweet #blacklivesmatter unless you supported pooling all property taxes in a state to create more equitable funding for education?

What if CEOs couldn’t express their solidarity for racial justice unless they supported revoking the corporate tax cuts to fund programs that provide opportunities for Black men being released from jail or prison after decades of mass incarceration?

Twenty-three years ago, on the day of my Korean-American adopted sister’s high school graduation she was called to the school office mid-morning and handed an envelope. Inside, was a letter describing how being part of a mixed-race family made her a product of sin. This was not the first letter my sister or family had received from Elroy Stock, a racial purist who wrote tens of thousands of letters over decades to Minnesotans denouncing any form of inter-racial mixing.

Stock was from my hometown of Hoffman, a village of about 600 people on the Minnesota prairie. He began terrorizing my family and thousands of others with his unsigned hate letters in the 1980s. He also donated $500,000 to build a new Lutheran church in my hometown. When my mother learned Stock was behind the letters she implored the church members, her own family and people she had known all her life, to give back the money. This made her extremely unpopular. Numerous men told my dad to silence her and threatened not to shop at our local business. When the church voted to take the money, my family left the congregation. My mother’s courageous response to stand up for my sister against nearly everyone in the only community she had ever known cost her dearly.

This story is nothing compared to the anguish felt by the families of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor or the daily acts of racism experienced by Black Americans. But thousands of acts of courage, however small they seem, and a willingness to embrace the uncomfortable are what create meaningful change.

I am thinking a lot about Brian Stevenson’s important lessons about the “power of proximity” and embracing the uncomfortable. My daily life is extremely comfortable. I am not proximate to people’s pain and suffering. Thus, I admit that writing this feels sickeningly self-righteous, as though I’m putting myself on a pedestal above other privileged white people who feel bad right now. I am as guilty as the next San Francisco liberal of rationalizing my hedonistic choices.

Wallowing in my own guilt and doing nothing, however, would be the most self-absorbed choice I can make. Instead, I aim to be aware of how my daily decisions either perpetuate or dismantle inequality. I look to my mother’s example for inspiration, and I ask my community to hold me accountable. I am taking the #PMSPLEDGE to work for the next five months to elect representatives who will advance platforms that enable more Black and Brown mothers to fulfill their dreams of giving their beloved children lives filled with opportunity.

I have set a goal to complete my card of activities before November. This post marks my first task, and let me tell you, it feels uncomfortable.

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