A few years ago, I wrote about what I believed to be a racist incident on the bus in Staten Island. When I got home, I made a formal complaint with the MTA, I wrote that blog post, I posted some things on Twitter, and I gave further details through several follow-up phone calls with the MTA. But I was deeply ashamed of myself when someone asked me if I said something while it was happening, and I had to admit no, not really, I sort of made an upset face and grumbled a little along with everyone else. My objection was obviously so opaque that a fellow rider mistook me for being complicit in supporting the bus driver’s almost certainly racially-motivated mistreatment. I haven’t forgotten the shame of knowing I should have done more.
Later that summer, Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, and Eric Garner was killed by police a few blocks from where I lived. I saw my neighborhood erupt in protests, and it was the first time I heard “Black Lives Matter” being chanted. I happened to be moving out of Staten Island the weekend of the biggest demonstration, and I had to keep begging my way through barricaded streets with a truck to get between my building and a storage locker I’d rented. I supported the protestors, both in their message and their right to peacefully protest, but I didn’t stop to join them in solidarity because I had too much stuff going on at the time. And back then, I foolishly wasn’t sure if it was “safe,” if I’d be seen as an ally or as part of the problem.
As the number of black Americans who died through extrajudicial executions and lethal force by police escalated, I didn’t know what to say or do. I felt like maybe it was pandering or lip service if I posted hashtags or articles, I worried it would appear to be some kind of self-promotion (on Twitter especially), and I thought I didn’t have anything to say that wouldn’t be insultingly banal and potentially damaging to the message being spread by friends who were better educated on the issues and more directly affected by the systemic racism threatening black lives. It was a feeling of paralysis, where I didn’t know if I should apologize on behalf of white people, start calling out friends who went the #alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter route, write letters to my representatives, or just cover my head with a pillow and cry.
I think a lot of people didn’t know how to respond, and the tone was guarded, if not outright defensive in the early days, when it was still possible to believe these were isolated incidents. I understood that response because I was raised to believe with all my heart in egalitarianism and to stand against racism and other forms of bigotry. I didn’t want to believe it was really happening so brutally. And in my mind, if I wasn’t racist, how could I be part of the problem?
I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me after I got back from India the next summer, when my personal life was imploding, and it became viscerally, painfully real to me. The threats to black lives were not just abstractions of systemic racism, and the violence done against black Americans and other people of color didn’t just start in 2012 when Trayvon Martin was murdered. Coates argued – and I agreed – that the violence is built into the system, and some people are so stuck in the system that they can’t even see the everyday, depersonalizing violence anymore. To continue in the system with complacency is to be complicit in perpetuating the violence.
I realized that not speaking up and not joining in the protest against extrajudicial executions, cover-ups, falsified evidence and reports, and systemic racism while it’s happening is not okay. For as talkative as I am with my friends, I can be shy and tend to clam up in public. I would cling to the WASP prerogative of minding my own business, but I realized that letting people say racist things in front of me on the subway or in my neighborhood gave the message to my neighbors and fellow riders that I agreed and was complicit in the racism. It has not been easy, but I’ve been making myself speak up in the moment instead of just posting the ugly things that were said on Twitter or Facebook (or, let’s be real, tearfully texting them to my mom). I recognize that as a white woman I have undeserved privileges, and I’ve been trying to use them to intervene or deescalate situations in person, or at the very least reintroduce humanity into interactions where someone is being mistreated because of race or perceived religion. I know that’s not anywhere near enough, but I do think it’s important to show people they have an ally and an advocate in me, that I will try my best to help them if they need it, and I will be an honest witness if anything bad happens.
A well-meaning friend suggested to me, when I was particularly upset about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, that dwelling on it wouldn’t change anything, and I should focus on my art and my own life. I have asked myself often, as I imagine a lot of people have in this election cycle, how I might have responded to Hitler’s rise to power and the beginning of the Holocaust. Would I have gone about running my business as usual, meekly trying to stay out of the Nazis’ way and hoping it all blew over? Would I have rebelled, protecting the Jewish members of my community and other persecuted groups and helping them escape, or would I have focused on keeping my own family safe and been afraid to speak out or take risks? If I were alive in 1968, would I have marched for civil rights and equality, or would I have quietly enjoyed a white suburban existence and hoped for the best?
It haunts me to think of the consequences of complacency, so when I was once again reeling from the shootings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, I asked myself these questions again. I came across a quote from Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I couldn’t get that idea out of my head, and I couldn’t stand sitting at home passively wishing things were different. I decided to go to a Black Lives Matter rally and march in Manhattan last week, and as unfoundedly nervous as I was, I reassured myself that my role was to listen, and to show solidarity and support. I abhor the idea of anyone feeling like they are seen as lesser or even hated in our society because of their race, so it was important to me to take a stand for what I believe in.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that the very first sign I saw as I approached the group in Union Square read, “White silence is complicity.”
When I got home that evening I read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham Jail, which I strongly recommend as a relevant and worthwhile read on injustice and the spirit of the Civil Rights movement. In a passage that feels like it could have been written yesterday (save for the anachronistic term “Negro”) Dr. King expressed surprise and disappointment that the group who most let him down were the white moderates:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past 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 his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
He continued to challenge the idea that “law and order” means anything if it is used to reinforce or deny injustice and inequality:
“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
(Seriously, give it a read.)
In recent weeks, I’ve noticed an increasingly ugly backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, and the inherent bias at work is so glaringly obvious it’s nearly blinding. People exculpate their ignorance by saying the media is biased (for example only showing looters in Charlotte, but not the hours of peaceful prayer ceremonies and nonviolent protest before), they cling to absurd alt-right theories that Black Lives Matter is some kind of terrorist organization trying to incite violence (literally the opposite), they lash out at football players and fans who protest by kneeling during the national anthem and claim it is an insult to veterans and the military (ugh – that will be probably become its own post), and they twist and turn through every conversation to reframe the narrative as one where the issue is exaggerated or imagined, and no matter what, it’s certainly not their fault. I’ve been losing a lot of respect for friends and family lately, I’ve been unfriended, I’ve worn my thumbs down texting, and I’m starting to feel exhausted and like there is little hope for substantive change in my lifetime. I am still trying to argue with people that an historically oppressed group of Americans has the right to feel oppressed when just about every week they see a black man extrajudicially executed by police, and they are still trying to justify why it was that man’s fault. Or to be woefully ignorant and interpret critiques of the use of excessive force as condemnation of the police at large, or any of a host of other deflection tactics.
But I keep wanting to ask: What do you have to lose by listening and considering an experience other than your own?
I refuse to live quietly and complacently anymore in a country that would rather let innocent people die or people of color question the value of their lives, than to examine and try to change their inherent biases. I refuse to let fear or self-centeredness rule my decisions, and I will not let injustices go by without comment anymore. Like many white people, I could have the luxury to be passive and pretend these issues don’t affect me, claim I just want to stay out of the fray and mind my own business, but that will never sit right with my conscience because, to quote Dr. King again, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The climb is steeper and more uphill than I thought. So my goals in engaging my friends, family, and self will now start a little simpler.
- Listen with empathy and compassion.
- Think critically, do research, question the media, and examine your biases and those you see in others.
- Acknowledge there is a real problem, and that it’s your problem too.
- Recognize that complacency is complicity, and that if you don’t stand up for what’s right, you are standing on the side of oppression.
- Ask: what can I do to help raise awareness, fight injustice, and make life better?
- Do the work with joy and pride, in a spirit of love and compassion.
I need to believe humanity is capable of improving, and that eventually we’ll all get on the right side of history. But I see it starts one person at a time.