“I mean, you’re not going to adjust your own life for other people!” says an older white woman next to me at the coffee shop, sharing with her friends why she felt justified ordering an alcoholic drink at a table with a friend who is a newly recovering alcoholic. “That’s for damn sure,” says another friend.
These words hit me hard after immersing myself in the Ferguson accounts through people on the ground (via Twitter’s real-time feed) and watching a live stream last night, right at the point when a cop threatened to shoot the person holding the camera. I have not watched any mainstream media coverage of Ferguson and I don’t intend to do so. There is no real news there anymore and the sensationalized tone and lack of authenticity from their reporters makes me want to hurl so I avoid it like the plague.
What makes us get so comfortable that we’re unwilling to change for another person’s well-being? Just like I can close my eyes to suffering friends and neighbors, I have the option to ignore Ferguson. Its results do not impact my daily life. My family will not be directly impacted, either.
My life is overflowing with privilege. Everywhere I go I experience a particular line of treatment because I am white. I get an extra dose because I have an advanced college degree. (Of course, privilege funded my education as well.) Top it all off with decent hygiene, respectable clothing, an ability to engage in conversation with strangers, and a healthy body and I get a free ticket past many people’s biases. I experience altered treatment because I’m female, of course, and in Seattle I might get some passive aggressive stares for having children and daring to take them grocery shopping, but that’s about all the bias I face on a regular basis.
The primary issue is not whether Michael Brown robbed the convenience store or not. It also doesn’t matter that he pushed the clerk aside. White people steal and shove all the time and they don’t get shot six times. It’s that clear cut. I am angry and heartbroken about the discrepancy between how a black boy and how a white boy get treated in America. I also have no idea what to do and get frustrated that I’m just sitting in front of my laptop, watching tweets tick by as brave teenagers block stores to prevent looting and peaceful protestors get teargassed.
Just as Ferguson won’t impact me directly, I know I can’t impact racism directly either. It would be far too easy to believe that I may as well stay quiet and do nothing.
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
–Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail
I start by acknowledging my own privilege. I start by examining my own prejudice. I look inward. I acknowledge that sometimes protesting is required. In fact, it almost always is. Change does not come easily.
Since my boys are white, I do not have to worry about them playing with toy guns at Walmart. I will never fear for them walking down the street to a friend’s house. Their little faces don’t encourage suspicion now, but even in their teens I can’t imagine I’ll worry too much about police treating them poorly. I’ll have my concerns for their well-being, no doubt, but it won’t be because of their color. It will be because their brains won’t be fully developed and a not-yet-developed frontal lobe is an impulsive one. My fears will be that they will make one stupid, impulsive decision and pay an enormous price for it (like a car accident). Moms of black children don’t have this luxury. When their kids make the impulsive decisions that ALL teenagers make, they are immediately at significantly greater risk for steep consequences, including jail time and police brutality. I would be crushed by the constant anxiety moms must face each time they let their children of color explore this world. This world that sees them as dangerous. Labels them hooligans, thugs, or animals. Sees a hoodie over a black face as a threat.
I don’t come at this thinking I understand even an ounce of the black experience. I never will. All I can do is educate myself, keep examining my own biases, speak truth into the void, and fight for laws that create justice. There are too many laws that perpetuate the cycle of racism and our nation is paying for it. More importantly, individual people of color are paying for it. They continue to suffer the consequences of centuries of racism and white people are not making it any easier. Frequently, we make it much worse. There is, indeed, a serious case for reparations.
I want to be a better friend than those ladies. If we are ever to move beyond this gross racial divide, a proactive stance is required. I will not stand by passively, holding my drink while an entire race struggles, even if it means the painful examination of my own heart, why I may feel nervous in certain parts of town, or assume something about someone because of how they look. Or if it means sharing my voice, risking making people uncomfortable by challenging their assumptions. It is 2014 in America and we are still (mostly) separate and certainly not equal. I used to get really angry when I’d ask the white adults in my life what they did to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and they’d fumble their response, “Well, I don’t know. I watched the news.” They did nothing.
Ferguson may very well be the beginning of a new civil rights movement that is desperately needed. I will not do nothing. I start with my voice.