CUMMING, Ga. — Zack Arias joined thousands of other Georgians Oct. 20, waiting in line to cast an early ballot. But it caught national attention when he was forced to wait an additional 10 minutes because of his apparel.
Arias was told he couldn’t vote because of the Black Lives Matter T-shirt he was wearing. A Sharon Springs poll worker told him the shirt made a political statement, and he was considered an activist. If Arias wanted to vote, he would have to take off the shirt.
“Black Lives Matter is not a political statement,” Arias said. “It’s a statement about humanity.”
He captured the interaction on cell phone video and noted there was a black couple waiting in line ahead of him.
“I was sitting there thinking, what do they think that someone saying that their lives matter is getting pulled out of line,” Arias said. “I kind of wonder if he would have had the courage to tell a Black person not to wear that shirt.”
Arias said he knew he had a right to vote while wearing the shirt. He was soon addressed by what he called a second, more gracious manager, who checked the polling policies and allowed him in to vote.
The Georgia native, who is White, won’t assume why the first poll worker prevented him from voting. But once the moment went viral, Arias also dealt with criticism from his neighbors.
“I’m just standing up for my rights. Isn’t that what everybody is saying?” Arias said. “But then I stand up for my rights, and one lady on Nextdoor said she was going to contact the county elections office and have my vote undone. Because I wore a T-shirt she disagrees with.”
Arias won’t call Forsyth County a racist place, but he believes bigotry exists. He said there’s also a history, noting the county’s infamous 1987 appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show for excluding Black people from the community.
“I’ve grown up knowing that Forsyth County is a sundown county,” Arias said, meaning you didn’t want to be out after dark if you are a person of color.
He also admits to his own racist behavior in the past.
“I grew up here in the South, and you make ethnic jokes and use ethnic slurs, and get a laugh out of people,” Arias said. “I grew up with family that would say, ‘Well you know, them Black people’ this or that. And, ‘You can’t really trust what a Black person says.’”
Arias said he, like many Whites, took issue with the rise in discussion over “White privilege.”
“I had that very first White, knee-jerk reaction of, ‘I’m not privileged. I’ve worked hard for everything. No one’s giving me anything because I’m White,’” Arias said.
He began doing research online to add his argument to the socio-economic debate. Instead, Arias came across Dixon White on YouTube, who he described as a White redneck who sat in his truck and explained White privilege.
“What hurt at that moment was, I’d heard all of these arguments before, but it took a White man to tell me,” Arias said. “It took a White man for me to understand it and take it to heart.”
Researchers at the University of Dayton School of Law define White privilege as a right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by White persons beyond the common advantage of all others, an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities.
Amid the racial unrest of 2020, the YMCA took the initiative to provide communities with resources for Unlearning Systemic Racism — ymca.net/unlearning. It includes workshops and a Harvard Quiz to analyze where respondents stand on their own anti-racist journey. It also includes discussions with thought leaders like U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. The compiled content also recommends books, such as “How to Be an Antiracist” by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and movies like “Just Mercy”by Destin Daniel Cretton.
In a statement, representatives from the YMCA said the veil of racism is being lifted as community tensions rise in the wake of multiple acts of police violence.
“The Y is an organization focused on addressing the most critical needs of our community and dedicated to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion for all,” the statement reads. “As such, we must begin to address how to undo racism and become ‘anti-racists’ at an individual, organizational and societal level.”
For Arias, the work has already begun to realize his own privilege and understand the difficulties minorities face.
“I want people to see me at the grocery store and say, ‘There’s a White dude that’s not against me. He’s a neighbor that’s got my back,’” Arias said.
He proudly participated in protests with Forsyth County United following the officer-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He’s also committed to raising his children to respect all people, all faiths, genders, and any way someone wants to live.
“We have to bring more compassion and empathy to this world,” Arias said.
At the same time, Arias is creating boundaries with other family members, and not discussing politics. Just like it took another White man to explain racial injustice to him, Arias wants to educate other White people, one conversation at a time.
“I need to keep having conversations with people until they understand Black Lives Matter isn’t a political thing anymore, and it doesn’t trigger people into getting all up in arms about it or getting pulled out of a voting line,” Arias said.
Forsyth County is progressing, he said, and he is confident it will one day be a place where Black people can be comfortable.