Columnist Chelsea Kline: ‘Healing the world’ starts at the roots

  • A protester yells Sunday, in Santa Monica, Calif., during unrest and protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. AP

Published: 6/1/2020 2:42:30 PM

My littlest child loves the trees, and invites me to quietly walk in the forest nearly every day, now that we have time for such things in our new normal. We’ve explored many of the luscious green trails all over western Massachusetts.

Recently, we learned about an invasive plant called knotweed and my child was transformed from mellow hiker to tireless activist. Knotweed can grow incredibly fast, is extremely destructive to trails and forests by exacerbating flooding, and releases chemicals that hinders the growth of native plants.

“We have an opportunity to heal the world, and now that we know about this, it’s our duty,” he shouted emphatically as he yanked the plants up, exposing intricately tangled networks of dirt-clotted roots.

I was slower than my child to adjust to a new awareness in the woods. Where we had previously seen only plants, we were suddenly aware of the harmful knotweed, and we saw it practically everywhere. A small shift in our awareness completely changed our relationship to the woods, and our role in healing it.

On the morning after the long-overdue arrest of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers, my son invited me on another knotweed mission along the river.

Here I was, a white woman with the privilege of having a peaceful hike, relatively free from harassment (I am a woman, after all), fear, or attack. Yet, so many people of color in our nation experience a vastly different truth every single day. It can feel overwhelming for people with white privilege to realize that we have a role in perpetuating these atrocities, but we must.

In a cloud of grief over these ongoing glaring and painful inequalities, I crouched at the edge of a sprawling expanse of weeds and began methodically pulling them up. An unsuspecting dog owner strolled by, and my son eagerly struck up a conversation about why she should abandon her plans for the day and join us in saving the trail from a knotweed takeover.

At first, she didn’t see what he was talking about, then she didn’t agree that it was so bad, but when she noticed the endless stalks along the edge of the river, decided it was futile. While I certainly don’t begrudge any dog walker the right to decline the invitation of a self-proclaimed “Kindergarten Earth Protector Warrior” wearing a homemade mask and Spiderman T-shirt, I realized some parallels between her response and the role of white people in the horrific ongoing murders and attacks on people of color.

First, many don’t see it, of course there’s denial or dismissal, and often the problems feel overwhelming, and that is used as an excuse to give up or disengage.

Invasive plants, just like racism, can be easily overlooked, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, or you’ve never experienced it yourself. The size of the plants can vary from tiny blossoms to towering hefty stalks, just like the spectrum of racist actions from celebrating Columbus Day to calling the police on people of color, or much worse. Once you begin to see the ongoing pain and destruction, it can be overwhelming, and much easier to simply walk away and place the blame elsewhere;

“I didn’t bring those invasives to the trail!”

“I never owned slaves. It’s not my fault!”

“Why can’t people just pull themselves up by their bootstraps!?”

White readers: I challenge you to see the racist rot woven throughout our systems, and once you start to notice, to keep learning, examining and pushing. Notice how you and others benefit from these systems based on exploitation, inequality, colonialism, hate and greed. The more you notice it, the more you will see.

This is an uncomfortable and sometimes painful personal examination of one’s own life, where successes and achievements may be uncovered as privilege, and perhaps shame, biases, and underlying harmful assumptions may surface. Keep going. Talk to other white people about this process, share what you are learning and encourage others to do the same. As the writer and educator Rachel Elizabeth Cargle said, “To show up you must come forward boldly with three things. KNOWLEDGE + (radical) EMPATHY + (radical) ACTION”

Just like working to eliminate invasive plants, it all starts with paying attention and being open to learning. It’s on white people to dig deeper, conduct internal investigations, and start seeing our country through fresh, empathetic eyes. It’s the responsibility of white people to actually listen to the black communities, center the voices, stories, and experiences of people of color, and to shut down injustices right as they occur. Only then can we begin to pull up these tangled, filthy systems by the roots and begin the process of healing, repairing, rebalancing.

Good intentions are hollow, and as we have now arrived at this long overdue pivotal tipping point in our nation’s history, the only choices are to be complicit or actively anti-racist. Yes, the work is hard, painful, and at times overwhelming, but we must choose wisely, because as my kindergartner said, “We have an opportunity to heal the world, and now that we know, it’s our duty.”

Chelsea Kline is a social justice advocate in western Massachusetts and a mother of three. She writes a monthly column for the Gazette.
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