It took me quite some time to be able to conceptualize this, so please do not feel bad if you have never understood this before now. Do feel bad if you refuse to acknowledge what I am telling you. I used to get offended when I would hear people say things like “White people _____.” I didn’t like the generalization that all white people felt, or did, or said, whatever was being stated. I didn’t like being lumped into that group. It made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t until a dear friend very angrily told me that this was never about my comfort that I was able to understand what I was doing, despite my good intentions. I was exercising my privilege by taking the locus of the conversation off of the topic at hand and placing it on my discomfort as a white woman being lumped into a category. I was making it about white people. Like it always is. I say this to say, if you as a white person are an exception to the rule, congratulations. But you do not get a cookie or a gold star for being a human. You should not be rewarded for not espousing racist rhetoric, or for having black friends, or for treating people with respect and dignity no matter their race. If you happened to see someone talking about “white people” as a generalization, don’t take it personal. It’s not about you. You don’t get the right to take the conversation away from people and make it about you. By attempting to center a conversation about another racial group around your thoughts and feelings as a white person, you are participating in the erasure of that group and engaging in racism.
Let me bolster this by using an anecdote. When I decided to travel to Ferguson, the thought crossed my mind that there may very well be some people down there who are not thrilled with white people in this moment. There was a chance that I, as a white woman, may not be well received by all; that some people might express distaste toward me as a white person because of the extreme racial tension surrounding the area and the situation. This was not the case in the slightest, but while the possibility occurred to me, I also thought to myself, they would be justified in their anger. Even though I personally was not the perpetuator of this situation, I could understand why some people might look less than favorably upon me, and I would neither be offended nor upset. I do not have the right to dictate to people how the respond to a situation that I have no personal experience with, and where they direct their anger. I also understood that this would NOT constitute racism on their part. But to go there and be upset that people were not nice to me would be both selfish and racist, as it perpetuates the belief that my feelings are more important than theirs, and places my needs before the issue at hand. It would be counterintuitive to go to Missouri to support a community and then be mad at them when I didn’t like how they received me, because it was never about me, and never should have been.
While we are here, I’d like to point out one more thing to my fellow white people: you are doing no one any favors with your “I don’t see color” rhetoric. Colorblindness is racist. It is just as offensive, if not more, than being a bigot, and also, still racist. By telling someone you don’t see race, you are depriving them of their very identity, a thing that ultimately shapes their experience as a human being, and impacts every part of their life on a daily basis. You participate in the erasure of a culture; to deny them their identity and experience as a Black person, or other person of color, is both selfish and stupid. It is also a flat out lie. You do see race. Everyone sees race. You know why? Because we are conditioned to do so from the day we are born until the day we die. Deciding that you are not going to internalize the messages that are given to you regularly regarding certain groups of people does not mean you do not see color, it means that you have the capacity for critical thought and independent judgment. Kudos to you.
I did not go to Ferguson to prove how “down” I am. I went to Ferguson because I could not, in good conscience, sit around and watch a community be terrorized, and stripped of not only their rights, but their humanity, and just think to myself how unfortunate it is. I could not witness the mourning and justifiable outrage of a community be demonized by police and by media, and stand idly by thinking that it could never be my town. Because it could be. Missouri has a deeply entrenched history of racism. It was the last state to abolish slavery, and was also the state where the court decided, in Dred Scott vs. Missouri, that “the black man has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” But although the veins of racism run very deep there, and there is an undeniable thread of systematic racial inequality running through the state’s history; Ferguson, Missouri is the epitome of Anytown, USA. This is as much a Ferguson problem as it is an American problem, and above that, a human problem. But more than that, I could not stand the idea that my silence and complacency in the matter of an 18 year old young man being gunned down by a police officer would serve as a signature on his and other young black men’s death certificates. White people in this country get far too comfortable in their far removed realities, enabling them to believe that these kinds of events occur in a vacuum. Most remain relatively unaffected by these tragedies, because they will never be issues that they have to deal with on a personal level. So instead of speaking up, or acting on issues around racism, they are much more comfortable picking up buckets of ice and dumping them on their heads in the name of ALS, because that has a greater chance of affecting them.
I don’t say this to say that people should not fight the good fight for all types of causes. I have never been one to police what people are charged up about, and what they chose to act upon. However, here is my issue with the inattention that is paid to issues such as that in Ferguson, in relation to causes such as ALS, breast cancer, lupus, heart disease, Autism, colon cancer, etc etc etc. All of these causes, while noble, are linked to things that occur naturally in regard to the human body. These are things that we as human beings do not exert control over in terms of when and why people are affected by them. Racism, on the other hand, is something that people do TO EACH OTHER. We are fundamentally in control of this as human beings, because it is inflicted upon people by other people. It is something that we can readily change, if it is acknowledged and addressed by the people who control it.
Let’s take for example, depression. Depression can affect anyone at any time. I, myself, have suffered from depression. We saw a lot of attention around this issue when Robin Williams, God rest his soul, committed suicide. Now let’s talk about depression and suicide in relation to black men. Black men don’t have the luxury to be depressed, suicidal, or mentally ill. It will cost them their lives, and not by their own hands. Ask Aaron Campbell, who was suicidal after a death in his family. The police were called to do a wellness check on him, and shot him dead. Another example is the recent one of Kajieme Powell, who was clearly struggling with some form of mental illness, and was shot dead by police in St. Louis. In stark contrast, a “brilliant neuroscientist” who was suffering from a mental break shot up a movie theatre, killing several people and injuring 70 others, and was apprehended by police and taken into custody with no gunshot wounds whatsoever. How does this happen? It happens because there is a callous disregard for black life by not only law enforcement officials, but by American society as a whole. Black life is undervalued, and viewed as less than human, not deserving the same liberties and treatment as the lives of whites. I say this to say, that depression and mental illness are righteous causes that need attention. However, overriding that, there is always a pervasive injustice that disallows for black people to benefit from the awareness around any of these things by virtue of them being black. No matter how much awareness we bring to mental illness, it is clear that it does not apply when it comes to black people. This is evident in the numerous cases of police murders including Milton Hall, a mentally ill homeless man who was killed by police over a stolen cup of coffee; Ezelle Ford, who was known to police as suffering from mental illness; and Michelle Cusseaux, who police were to be escorting to a mental health facility.
If you think this is limited to the application of mental illness, you are mistaken. Let’s look at Autism. There has been a tremendous amount of work around Autism awareness. But black boys do not get the luxury of being on the Autism spectrum either, when it comes to dealing with police. That is why Stephon Watts and Steven Eugene Washington both lost their lives to law enforcement officials as well. For black people, being mentally ill or having Autism, among a multitude of other things, will cost them their lives at the hands of law enforcement. This is in turn justified by a system that is built to defend the use of such force no matter the situation or alternative options. We have created a system of laws that protect police from being held accountable for abusing their power and taking the lives of people, and due to the pervasive racism in our country, it is largely black people who ultimately suffer from them. All an officer has to claim is that he feared for his life, and he is protected by the letter of the law, whether his statement is true and justifiable or not. This, in addition to the conditioning that American’s are subject to through our media and other means, is a recipe for genocide on black people. In this country, we are conditioned to believe that black people, particularly males, are inherently violent, criminal, dangerous, and aggressive. Therefore, by virtue of being conditioned and encountering a black person, police (and civilians alike), instinctively become fearful, whether the situation calls for it or not. This line of thinking and the subsequent rhetoric around black life can be traced all the way back to the transatlantic slave trade. It has existed in some form from that time to the present day, we have just learned to polish it, dress it up, and call it something different. We disguise it under the veil of derailment and victim blaming, and hope that no one will notice.
I say all of this to say, my white brothers and sisters (and anyone else who may believe it to be true), I am sorry to burst your bubble, but post-racial America is a MYTH. I know that it feels good to you, because it means you no longer have to talk about the uncomfortable topic of racism, but the truth of the matter is that race is as big an issue as ever. The Civil Rights movement is alive and well in 2014, it just sounds a little different. The 60’s lynch mobs have become militarized police forces that take the lives of black youth and a corrupt justice system that allows them to do so without consequence. Blatant bigotry has become media manipulation, using coded language and messages to continue to instill the same old ideas about Black life. Respectability politics have become the gospel for the middle of the roaders. And if having a Black president meant we were over racism, people wouldn’t have demanded his “papers.” Refusal to acknowledge racism as a major issue in this country, in this world, perpetuates its existence, and makes you a racist yourself. In order to help combat it, the first step is to admit its existence, and then educate yourself on how you unknowingly contribute to and participate in racism.