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Opinion: If racism seems familiar, we need new eyes

When we are surrounded by something, we often become desensitized to it. Americans who struggle to see racism need a new perspective

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A statue of Robert E. Lee on a horse stands on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va.

The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, was removed on Sept. 8, 2021 and was the last standing confederate monument there.

Steve Helber, Associated Press

Our family lived in the South, and I fell in love with it.

The architecture, the green, the friendliness, the weather, the men’s apparel (need I mention bow ties, boat shoes and seersucker?). And an air so heavy with moisture it wraps you like a blanket. For a woman from the desert, it was heaven. 

The home we rented during our four years in Richmond, Virginia, was six blocks west of one of the most beautiful tree- and mansion-lined streets I’ve ever seen — Monument Avenue

The avenue was aptly named for the large statues set atop huge and gorgeous marble platforms, with men regally mounted on horses or standing on powerful legs with outstretched arms. 

The faces of these elevated men were unrecognizable to me, a Westerner, as were most of the names. I had to look them up. 

Contrary to my expectations of the familiar “Washingtons” and “Lincolns” of the era — these men were heroes of the Confederate States of America.

I remember being weirded out. The contradiction between the beauty of the statues and the avenue, and these men’s attempt to protect the institution and practice of enslaving humans, did not have a natural resting place in my mind. 

Still, Monument Avenue became the corridor of my life in Richmond. It was the route I drove to visit my husband, who was working more than 100 hours a week at the hospital downtown.

It’s shady sidewalks were the path along which I pushed a large blue double-stroller, filled with small children, on morning runs. 

I loved that street. I was forever willing to drive or walk an extra few minutes if it meant I could be on Monument Avenue

And as time passed, I became more and more accustomed to the grand men of the confederacy hovering over me. 

In my years in Richmond, I remember wondering how other people in a city with a population made up of 46% African heritage (Black), 45% Anglo heritage (white) felt about those statues. 

I never asked. 

Despite many of my husband’s co-residents and co-workers being Black, as well as many of his patients, I didn’t ask. Despite my life being filled with young moms and neighbors who were Richmond natives, all white, I never asked. 

I wish I had.

I understand now that I was an “outsider” looking in at Richmond — that the shock I felt at first seeing those statues, gradually faded. I understand that there is something miraculous about being on the outside, like you can see the flaws and the beauty of something that insiders take for granted — or become too-used-to to notice

It took me moving, getting out of the hustle of tiny children, out of the city with the hovering statues and putting the effort in to reading about law and history and individuals’ stories to realize that policies can change, but I, as a person, must change as well to make a concrete difference. Especially in regards to racism.

I have observed and been a part of many conversations about race since June 2020, after the infamous murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that finally alerted so many of us to the fact that there is work to be done. 

These conversations have been with an incredibly wide range of people from every heritage and persuasion — extremely conservative to extremely liberal, loving to angry, hopeful to despairing. 

It has been a necessary time of torment over the social construction of race. I view this unrest as positive movement toward finishing work that most of us wish had been done centuries ago.

Juneteenth, the day marked to celebrate the emancipation of enslaved people in America, was this month. It is a day when the words in our beloved Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” became truer. 

It is truly something worth celebrating.

And I pray that our generation is the one that can see “racism” as an “outsider.” 

Emily Bell McCormick is the founder and president of The Policy Project / Utah Period Project, a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen communities by implementing healthy policy. McCormick, a Utah native, and her husband live in Salt Lake City with their five children.