Monday, December 15, 2014

Because I didn't know: a few more words on #blacklivesmatter

Hey! I've been gone awhile, sunk underneath papers and theology books and exams. I'm planning to post regularly in December and January, because for some reason writing is what I want to do with my break from school (!?). So stay tuned for awhile if I haven't tired you out yet. For today, I am diving straight in to a topic that may not be fun, but is important, and is what I haven't been able to stop thinking about.

Photo by Fibonacci Blue

I am writing today about Ferguson and Eric Garner and justice. I am writing not because I have great insight; I am writing not to start a war against police officers, most of whom are doing their jobs with great honor and often sacrifice; I am writing not to speak for black people, who I could never speak for. I am writing because to keep silent for me would be to bow out, because we have to be in this all together, because we have to stop throwing stones at each other over fences and we have to break down the fences and we can only do that if we are honest and speak what we believe is true.

Let me start with this: I've never in my life been under the illusion that there was racial equality in this country, or racial harmony.

In seventh grade, my classmates started moving away, across the county line. That was the same year we moved to a majority black middle school; that was around the same time more black people started moving into our neighborhood. By the time I was in high school, my brave father, who was editor of the local paper, decided to do a series of stories about changing demographics and race. People didn't want to talk about it, because race was a thing of the past; this wasn't white flight, it was families in search of better schools. But I could see it, the divisions and the bits of fear and the subtle, creeping lie, unintentional and toxic, that our town was not as good with more of those people.

(I was in seventh grade in 1999. I didn't know that same year, a West-African immigrant would be shot 41 times by police officers in New York, for pulling a wallet out of his pocket. All the officers would return to duty.)

I went to college halfway across the country, and I flew a lot. It was the post-9-11 world and I noticed that I never ever got chosen for a "random" search. To this day, despite having taken probably close to 100 domestic flights, despite having traveled to Israel, Tanzania, and Bangladesh, I have never once gotten stopped by TSA or customs. I look innocent.

(In 2005, the year I packed my bags for Bangladesh and slipped through customs by my innocence with an unlabeled ziploc bag of green tea leaves that could've been anything--that same year an unarmed 25-year-old black man who with his hands up, locked behind his head was shot by police in Oregon. I didn't know).

After college, I taught and coordinated a program for adults to learn to read in DC. Because 20-30% of adults in DC can't read (only slightly higher than the national figure of 14%). We taught two or three hundred students while I was there, and probably two hundred others came through for testing or orientation or workshops who never attended class. And out of all those learners that came through our doors, there was ONE who was white. Many of the students had dyslexia, or other learning disabilities, and a few gotten pregnant or gotten involved with a bad crowd and dropped out. But what about the white kids who had dyslexia or got pregnant or got involved with a bad crowd? Somehow, they still learned to read. Somehow, the system or the community or whatever you want to blame, worked differently for them.

(I didn't know that in 2010, while I was teaching adult literacy, an unarmed, autistic and learning disabled black man would be shot by two police officers in LA for looking suspicious. The officers were ruled justified in shooting him.)

So no, I never thought we lived in a post-racial society. I just didn't know it was this bad.

I didn't know what was going on all those years. I didn't know that within a six-month span in 2014, a 22-year-old man holding an air rifle in Walmart could be shot by police; I didn't know that a 12-year-old boy holding a toy gun in a park could be shot; I didn't know that a 19-year-old could be left in the street for four hours after being shot for being black and 280 pounds. I didn't know that not a single one of these people who killed these young men would be taken to trial, and that juries would say these cops were "justified in their use of force."

Reading these accounts and watching these videos makes me nauseous.

If I were black, I believe it would make me terrified, and outraged.

This was going on the whole time I was growing up, going to school, having enough resources (some passed down from the wealth of my slave-owning heritage) to go to a private college and then volunteer in Africa and in Americorps after college.

I didn't know any of this until August of this year.

And because I didn't know, even though I thought myself sensitive and worldly and well-enough-integrated into black communities to have a clue--I think it's probably time for me to listen.

It is probably not the time for me to debate the ambiguities of legal cases (hundreds of ambiguous cases stop being ambiguous and start being a pattern). It is probably not the time for me to say things about looting (because, as my professor Valerie Cooper points out, don't you see that by talking about looting and vandalism when they are talking about lost lives, it feels to so many that we are equating black lives with property again--and do we really want to go back to that?). It is probably not the time for me to get into the nuances of how difficult it is to be a police officer, and how many police officers are trying so hard (though that human side is important, and there will be a time for that, too).

It is probably time, rather, to listen, to people who know much better than me what it is like to be pulled over for no reason, what is it like to walk down a street at night and have approaching people cross the street for fear of your dark skin, what it is like to wonder if you can figure out a way to keep your black son away from all toy guns everywhere, forever, what it is like to feel so many other things I can't list here because I just don't know.

I'll recommend just a few voices to listen to--black voices, brave voices, voices that are trying to break down walls. I trust you will find them reasonable and helpful and true, if you take a moment to step into their shoes:

Well...we've got a long way to go. But listening is a start.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this, for giving others a voice, for listening, and for your empathy.