Race [in your] Face

I’ve been avoiding this topic for a long time for many reasons, including, but not limited to: saying the wrong-ass thing, not being as book smart as other race bloggers and writers out there, not feeling like I have memorized enough historical facts, fear of retaliation by those who disagree with my opinions (particularly those of my inner circles) and my physical identity as the whitest kind of blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl there ever was.

So, now that that’s out of the way, I’m going to start writing about race.  A lot, actually.  Because it’s something I think about pretty much every minute of every day.  And if this conversation is one-sided, so be it because we need to just go ahead and have it already.

Bryan Stevenson is my current hero in this conversation.  My fangirl-ness started a couple years back after watching this TED talk.  And then resurfaced after watching this interview on The Daily Show and then turned into full-blown idolatry after attending this event at the Brooklyn Public Library.

What I love about Bryan Stevenson is that he talks about race and racism and the particular form that exists between black and white Americans, in terms of relationship and justice: “We are all responsible for creating societies that are fair and just to one another.  It doesn’t matter who did what.”

…which begs the question, how can we create this  type of society in our own backyard?  What will it take to create fair and just relationships between black and white Americans?

Last week I attended protests against the grand jury’s failure to indict Eric Garner’s killer.  For a second I had hope that justice would prevail.  The facts couldn’t have been clearer–a cop killing an unarmed man by use of an illegal chokehold.  Said man repeating the phrase “I can’t breathe” eleven times while cops thrust him to the ground.  All caught on camera and viewed by millions of people around the world.

But a grand jury decided that none of these details begged for a trial, for a further conversation. That, essentially, it is okay that a man–a husband, a father, a New Yorker, a human–is lying dead in a grave because some cops–some cops who are employed by our city and our tax dollars and whose job is to protect citizens–decided it was okay to use excessive force on a man resisting arrest for selling cigarettes.

I am grieving.  I have cried every day since I heard the verdict.  I am angry and sad and hurt and in disbelief.  And mostly, I am disappointed with my fellow white people.

I am disappointed that so many white folks are choosing to turn a blind eye, to shrug it off, to carry on with their business because What can I really do?  To sit at coffee shops and Broadway shows and on the subway and talk amongst each other about “how inconvenient the traffic situation has been with all of these protests going on. ”  About how hard it’s been to get to said coffee shop or Broadway show under such unpredictable conditions.

You know what else is hard and inconvenient?  Fearing for your life in your own apartment building.  Fearing that, even if you aren’t carrying any weapons, you could be (justifiably) shot by the police because they’re scared of you.  Being the mother of a young black boy and having to teach him to tiptoe around the police because you know that young black boys are guilty until proven innocent and the statistics show that your son fits the bill of those targeted to be pulled over, arrested, to fill our prisons and be slapped with harsh punishments for petty crimes.

I get that, as a white person, it can be difficult to understand that police brutality is real, that cops are not treating people properly, that the violence that happened against Eric Garner and Akai Gurley and Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown is a daily reality for many communities of people with black and brown skin.  I get it.  But this is no excuse.  We need you in this fight, fellow white people.  We need you to pay attention and to educate yourselves and to do what you need to do to take action and to care more than you do now.  Because nothing is going to change without your action.  Black and brown communities will continue to suffer.  Police will continue to abuse their power.  And people–mothers, fathers, children, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, fellow Americans–will continue to die.

So, talk to me, white folks.  What is holding you back?  What are you scared of?  What are you confused by?  What feels embarrassing or hard?  I’ll leave you with some quotes from Bryan Stevenson’s Daily Show interview:

* You think the system works one way but it actually works a very different way.

* Commit your mind to the truth that injustice exists, often in the systems that supposedly exist to eradicate it.

* Commit yourself to learning a different version of American history than the one you were taught.

* The civil rights movement wasn’t a three day event…People were traumatized and humiliated and excluded for decades…There are festering injuries and trauma and suffering…We have never committed ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation of our history.

* We all benefit from freeing ourselves from the presumptions of danger and guilt that we assign to one another.  But to free ourselves from that we’ve got to be honest about how those presumptions get created.  We have a generation of people in this country who were taught they’re better than other people because they’re white.

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