Dr. Apu Seyenkulo lives and works in Charlotte, North Carolina – living a busy and fulfilling life as a physical therapist entrepreneur and creative. But as a Black woman, these last weeks have been rough, and like so many under duress – like George Floyd – she reaches out for her mom and she answers. Yet her mother – Rev. Linda Seyenkulo – is not only an ocean away in Liberia, working as a missionary in tandem with her husband the Rev. Jensen Seyenkulo, Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, she is also white. How do this mother and daughter care for one another and their mutual fear with such difference and distance between them? Read and learn and share.
Francisco Herrera, PhD student and Interim Blog Editor
Apu Seyenkulo, daughter:
We live in a world…
We live in a world where I can’t sleep because I am traumatized by fear. Fearful that my brother, sister, boyfriend and/or friends will walk out of the house and not return.
As my brother was driving home the other night, we were on the phone catching up; talking through the Bluetooth, driving less than 6 blocks home and doing nothing wrong. Through the phone I hear my brother say “Oh my gosh”… I go silent. I hear a police car’s siren/horn “Whoop, Whoop” sounding like its inside of my brother car. The fear… the anxiety… the terror that flowed through my body is indescribable. Followed by silence. Silence you could cut with a knife. Hearing my brother’s breath accompanied with “they are gone”… I could have dropped me to my knees in relief.
The awkward silence that followed was filled with me thanking God that he wasn’t murdered for driving home while black.
We live in a world where it is exhausting to check social media or watch the news. We are afraid we will see another black person killed, yanked out the car or sprayed with tear gas. We are afraid to hear the words of our leaders, hoping they are not supporting the injustice that has been endured for…forever.
We live in a world where we are to go to work, attend Zoom meetings and discuss upcoming celebrations like we are not affected by the trauma in the world right now. We are expected to focus on our daily tasks; acting as if we are in a headspace that is the same as our white counterparts.
We are not okay. We are tired of not being heard. We are tired of being referred to as “thugs”. We are tired of being scared to drive. We are tired of being afraid of the people that should be protecting us. We are tired of a broken system. We are tired of acting like everything is okay. We are tired…
I hate violence. I hate people getting hurt. I want people to be empowered to change this broken system.
Regardless, there is one thing that needs to be understood…
Black Lives Matter. This IS a thing… the world we live in needs to act like it.
Linda Johnson Seyenkulo, mother:
We live in a world…. My daughter and I, same world, different experiences. She wrote the previous piece. She is biracial. My husband, son, and other daughter are people of color.
I am white . My reality is different than theirs. They are flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, and so my reality changes. When my daughter writes “…traumatized by fear. Fearful that my brother, sister, boyfriend and/or friends will walk out of the house and not return” I feel that fear in my gut.
Anti-racism training taught me the power racism has over us: power over people of color; power to privilege white people; power over all of us to destroy us. I define racism as race prejudice plus the misuse of systemic power.
Apu’s experience is racism’s power over people of color. She spoke her experience eloquently. In her description racism makes people of color daily be discounted, anxious, fearful for safety and fearful of death. It is the air she, our family, and friends breathe.
For most white people this is racism we understand: it affects people of color and many of us feel we are not a part of it.
White friends read her writing; they were moved. As a white person, I can read what she wrote, feel moved, sad, or guilty. Then I can move back to my life without changing. I can decide what she wrote is not true because it’s not my experience. Racism affects us white people collectively in those ways.
But Apu is my child, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone as is her brother.
Because of them, their father, their sister, her boyfriend and colleagues/friends of color, I know my privilege and my participation in the systems they suffer from.
Knowing this does not make me better than other white people. I do not understand all about racist privilege. What it means is I continue to learn how racism affects me and my privilege.
As a white person racist privilege forms me. Here are ways it works for me: (Repeat the refrain after each sentence.)
It is assumed I am intelligent until I prove differently.
Refrain: “It’s just how it is…because I am white.”
If I do something wrong, no one attributes it to me being white. Refrain:
In my denomination, I can be a pastor to any ethnic group; no one asks how long I’ve been Lutheran. Refrain:
If I go to the doctor, my condition will be taken seriously. Refrain:
No one follows me around a store when shopping. Refrain:
The police protect me and serve me. Refrain:
If I pass a counterfeit bill, it will likely be assumed it was accidental or I will be arrested and released on my own with a court date: Refrain:
Encounters with police are respectful. I may be charged but I can expect to come out alive. Refrain:
I can hear about George Floyd’s death and my first response could be “not all police officers are bad.” (they are not but the first issue is that a man is dead.) Refrain:
I can choose to not preach on racial issues because it’s uncomfortable. Refrain:
The list of racism privileges for white people is long, much longer and deeper than what is here.
Much of what I began to learn about racist privilege is because I am white with children and a husband who are people of color. I learned because of them and that is privilege in itself. I also know when I am alone, I am treated differently than when I am with my family. The air I breathe changes.
And this is my shame: sometimes when I am alone as a white person (without my family) it feels like a relief! This. Is. My. Great. Shame.
Being white I can choose to stay in shame and guilt. Many of us would like to do that. It keeps us from losing privilege. To my white brothers and sisters, as a start, I encourage you to take a note from my courageous, gifted daughter: think out loud, on paper.
Start with: how does racism privilege you as a white person?
Read, learn about systemic institutional racism. Get involved with organizations working for institutional anti-racist change. Give money to anti-racist justice organizations. Stop changing the subject. Listen to, believe people of color. Check out non-white literature, media, arts.
And VOTE in ways that will change the system.
For those of you who read Apu’s experience and said, “I don’t know where to start.”
It’s a matter of life and death.
It is our work.
Giving thanks to God for our lives and this world we live in… we are:
Dr. Apu Seyenkulo (far left), Doctor of Physical Therapy, serving as a Pediatric Physical Therapist located in Charlotte, North Carolina. I am an avid physical fitness buff, artist, author, and entrepreneur.
Rev. Linda Johnson Seyenkulo (second from right), ELCA pastor serving in Liberia, West Africa in theological education. I am a reader, singer, writer. I have worked in anti-racism organizing/training for many years. I was Dean of Community at LSTC, 2003-2008.
A shout-out to our family: Bishop Jensen Seyenkulo (middle), Kenata Seyenkulo (far right), and Yongor Linnea Seyenkulo (second from left), who make our lives rich and meaningful—and educational.