People-Symbols

Michelle Ellis
9 min readNov 3, 2020
Photo Credit: White House

It is 2001.

I’m a 17 year old white, female, high school senior comparing ACT scores and grade point averages with my black male friend and classmate.

We are laughing because ours are identical, but he was just accepted to the main campus of Ohio State and I was relegated to the Newark location for delayed transfer.

I’m a little surprised this really happens, but not necessarily mad. I ultimately do not enroll in “almost” college — which I decide Newark is even though I am wrong.

I accept a favor from my family instead, following an alternate career path I wouldn’t trade for a single second.

I’m 23 when I begin interning as a PR assistant at the Union, learning to consider diversity in every aspect of our visual communications.

I’m a 25 year old voter waking up after midnight on November 4th, 2008 as Barack Obama takes the stage. The historic implication moves me to tears.

I am 27, attending One Nation Working Together in front of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on October 2, 2010.

I pass angry white people in the side streets, donning swastikas and selling insidious tee shirts with our President’s face on them. I am shocked, but votes talk and these people don’t represent us. (Thankfully.)

It is Christmas that year and I’m in line at the White House, approaching Barack and Michelle for a photo op. Myself and my granddad, shoulder to shoulder with the modern face of civil rights. I can hardly contain myself.

I’m 29, reaffirming Hope and Change on my 2012 election ballot.

“Virtue signaling” is a term I’m hearing a lot right now. I’ve heard it in talking points both from the Right and the BLM movement.

The Oxford definition is as follows:

the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue

This is the context with which I define my “people-symbols” in this writing. The presumption that I am excused from the suggested biases others seem to be walking around with because of the diversity I experience and genuinely respect on a daily basis.

They are people who signal my subconscious to assume racism is another person’s problem but not mine.

In the months surrounding the re-election of Barack Obama, I get married, track my cycle and become pregnant immediately. We waste no time after learning this process is not easy for some couples.

It is easy for us.

I feel guilty even though no one wants me to. Knowing other people who have been touched by infertility does not help me connect. I do not identify with this brand of misfortune, this is a fact I cannot change.

I learn that sad things stay sad despite my best intentions sometimes, and the best runner up in those cases is to listen with empathy and learn quietly.

I’m the 32-year-old mother of a baby girl when a woman secures the Democratic nomination for president.

Sexism has never been more loudly and publicly debated. Words not even intended for me split me open on some days and I recall the resurgence of the worst kind of racial slurs in the previous decade.

Is this what it felt like to be black during an Obama campaign? Will this archaic behavior be rectified in my daughter’s lifetime?

I’m 33 when a white supremacist opens fire on a black church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine.

33 when registered voters slink behind privacy curtains across the nation and blow my ever-loving mind.

33 when the first bit of wool falls away from my eyes: They didn’t care enough to reject this. Wow.

I remember reading an article after the Women’s March that January, written by a black female journalist. She was questioning what she and the black community could honestly gain with continued support for the “White Women’s March.”

I was irritated. Did the hate on display in this moment not affect us all, I wondered? Why divide us by race? Why now?

I decide I can’t care about everything and figure out how to thrive in a home I no longer recognize.

I’m 34 when Colin Kaepernick incenses the Right by taking a knee.

36 when Ahmaud Arbery is stalked and killed while exercising outside.

A month older when Breonna Taylor is shot in her sleep.

Two more months older when a corrupt officer spends 8:47 minutes asphyxiating George Floyd in broad daylight.

I’m 36 when I post my knowing on the internet:

I do not understand, this is a fact I cannot change, but I have seen and felt our country’s pretend-cares. I know about its lies.

I believe you.

As the streets, social media feeds and talking heads ignite, I think about the home I think live in and repeatedly learn is not real.

I think about the direction my career has taken in two decades since affirmative action touched me personally. A social solution that worked exactly the way it was supposed to, but still couldn’t protect black bodies from this wide, complicated spectrum of discrimination.

As I wonder what I can possibly do, I recall the unfairness of infertility that I couldn’t change for other people in 2012 and beyond. My only option to listen with empathy and learn quietly.

I realize my subconscious figuring on November 4th, 2008 that we had “fixed” racism. My President an eight-year White House person-symbol set out like a trophy for nice white people like me to decide America had done it.

My autographed photo of the Obamas hangs proudly on my office wall to this day, evidence of my proud progressivism and absolute non-racism in my own mind.

I have focused a solid month now on discovering what has been true, albeit avoided, for all 37 years of my life. To finally see this thing I didn’t think I had to look at because it wasn’t my vice.

One month into learning in the place of fixing, with the past lesson that it is the next best thing, I see a project that absolutely is not complete yet. My internal complacence cannot be excused with people-symbols anymore.

Racism, bigotry and sexism lives in spite of elections. It lives in spite of Women’s Marches. It will live in spite of Black Lives Matter protests waged for weeks and months within a 2020 pandemic. This will go on.

Human symbols and votes do not translate as the official starting or ending of these things. Sad things have lasted longer than I wanted them to and what I’m realizing is I have yet to listen with empathy on this subject and learn.

I am freshly 37 when my cousin-in-law asks me to photograph her bi-racial blended family for their wedding announcement.

I oblige, and ask her if I can throw my children in with theirs for a few shots. “Art therapy,” I describe, and she and her fiancé graciously allow it.

I see the purest form of love when I look at them through my camera lens. It is healing to watch them play, but I hesitate to share the images publicly and here’s why:

I have always been proud of my internal acceptance, proud to stand next to people of color and call them my friends, family and colleagues, but these human kids had the purest intentions of all that day: They just wanted to play together.

Were my intentions always that pure? Were they that pure right now?

In the following weeks I get quiet and just read. I follow black voices on social media and download “I’m Still Here” by Austin Channing Brown: Black dignity in a world made for whiteness. My heart makes room for the very first time, to truly familiarize myself with the black person’s experience in this country.

I think about the common interactions described by the author, remembering similar days in my own life, lived from a very different perspective.

What I reckon with in this time is this:

The presence other races in our state houses, workplaces, circles of friends and even families does not dismiss us from what is being shown to us right now. People are not hall passes. Displaying their likenesses in photographs and print materials does not equal being free of racism.

Telling people you have black friends and black family members, that you hired or voted for a black person, or accepted a black student over a white one to attend your college… these do not equal being free of racism.

The proximity of this diversity should not equate to excusing ourselves, it should equate to more intentional understanding. A greater responsibility. Not smaller.

These sad things have stayed sad despite our best intentions. It is high time for us to listen with empathy and learn — even the “nice” white people.

I often think about the statement released by Barack Obama after the 2016 election:

“The path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag, and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back.”

It is true, even if tiring. Change is a verb without a direction. We all have our own motives for it and it goes on all of the time.

Change can be changed back and veered, it isn’t just “finished” one day. It is not a thing to be slept on the way that I have slept on it.

In my own life alone, there has never been an “I did it” without a failure on the horizon. New rock bottoms which prove there is more to be found whether I am ready to find it or not.

Society works the same. Our burning communities is a new rock bottom. It demands our attention whether we are ready to see it or not.

Political parties will happily offer us simplified reasoning in exchange for votes, and they are. But the real strength of our collective relationships requires a much more meaningful commitment. The harmony so many of us claim to want can only be accomplished through exploration on behalf of ourselves and each other. Listening with empathy and learning quietly. Changing ourselves instead of trying to change others.

Love is our instinct, afterall; fear and hate are taught. I don’t have to look any further than these children and their unconditional friendships to see exactly how that works from ages 4, 5 and 6 — compared with the “adults” using their decades of learning like shields and weapons over on Facebook.

I don’t have to look any further than the rules that were laid out for me in the time since I was their age until I’m 37. The different limitations, fears and behavioral strategies that were offered to each of us in order to survive each other. The neighborhoods I was cautioned not to visit vs. the mostly-white communities I’m learning they have been taught to be equally cautious of.

The timeline of my life has sat me next to racial issues, led me down the right side of history with them, walked with me in marches and allowed me to assume I was doing the work. And yet, I come to discover things inside me this last month that prove I haven’t actually scratched the surface.

I’m 37 when I sense the scale to which my racial awareness has been laughable.

37 when I pull hope from my practices in “unlearning” — an activity I am versed in, even if not applied to all of my biases quite yet.

Unlearning, to clear space for new knowing, is a worthy endeavor when we trust that love still exists on the other side. It has been there in 100% of the chances I’ve taken with this action.

I can handle this work, we all can. We can dig past our exemptive art in people-symbols and virtue signaling to truly listen and learn something from this rock bottom moment. We can read, think and re-examine stories of the past and present for the sake of our fellow man and the futures of our children.

While I still see people debating distraction-topics and excusing themselves all around the internet, I also see them doing this work more than I ever have before.

Whatever people-symbols are chosen in this next election I will take that sliver of hope forward with me: Love is still our instinct. We still have the desire to find it on the other side. ♥️

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Michelle Ellis

Mom of two. Graphic Artist and Website Designer. Social media for the labor movement. Writes for fun...and for sanity. michellemariellis.com