September 11, 2001. My oldest son was a newborn — two months to the day. I was holding him in my arms and my husband was going to work. As he jumped on the train toward New York City I reminded him, “You know what today is? It’s Aidan’s two month birthday!” Two hours later we learned what that day would actually be remembered for. I thought the photo was a promo for a new movie when I signed into my computer and saw AOL’s home screen. But it was real. Horribly real.
We’ve lived for seventeen years in that same suburban neighborhood thirty minutes north of NYC. That baby is a senior in high school and he has four younger siblings. Life has gone on and it’s been beautiful and hard and surprising and exhausting and everything that life is supposed to be. But I will always remember that day. The blue sky and the warm sun. The images on the TV and the eery knowledge that if my husband had been working downtown instead of in midtown, he could have easily been in one of those buildings. That I could have unknowingly said good-bye for the last time when I dropped him at the train that morning. More than anything I remember September 11, 2001, as the day I lost that sense of safety I had known my entire life. My assumption that someone — God, my parents, the church, the police, the government — someone was watching out for me and was going to keep me safe.
September 11, 2018. I am reading Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. For me this book is part of a conversion process. A process that began a number of years ago. I, along with a lot of other humble and good white people, am on a journey of transformation. Being SLOWLY “transformed by the renewing of my mind,” as the apostle Paul would say. Because, you see, I’ve been raised in a world that has told me untrue stories. About history, about race, about people. And the more I listen, the more open I am to hearing others describe their reality, the more my mind is transformed, converted, to a new way of thinking.
And I’ve learned something about this sense of safety I lost on 9/11/01. I’ve come to realize that many people in my country never had that sense of safety in the first place. On the one hand, safety is always an illusion — we’re never as physically safe as we tell ourselves we are because there are a lot of sharp edges in this broken world. But for some of us, the United States has been a place of protection. And for others it has not. More and more I’ve tried to imagine, truly imagine, moving through this world with dark skin. No matter how many dear African American friends I have treasured through my life, I haven’t spent much time imagining what it feels like to live in their skin. Of course, in so many ways our experiences are similar — we’re all people with bodies and families and feelings and things to do. But there’s something different about moving through this country — a country with a devastating history of state-sanctioned racism that continues to this day — with dark skin.
The sense of safety that I lost on 9/11 was a privileged safety. It was a sense of safety that I took for granted. A sense of safety that I assumed was enjoyed by all of my friends and neighbors. But I was wrong. This country has been a safer place for some of us that it has been for others. So as I remember that feeling — the feeling of being in danger, of being unfairly targeted and lumped into a category and unable to protect myself — I can learn. And by the grace of God grow a few more inches this lifelong conversion toward compassion and justice.