What Did You Say About Race Today?
We’re holding our breath.
At least, I’m holding mine.
As we wait, let us not forget what a verdict actually is in this country: something that has long had little to do with whether justice has been served or truth rendered. Please. Let us not get confused about that.
Let us not find ourselves caught off guard and, thus, unprepared to insist carefully, but repeatedly and loudly to those who don’t yet recognize it, that what is declared “just” and “true” in our courts, with rare exception, has more do with whether one is Black/white, poor/rich, police-officer/unarmed-citizen than with what is just and true.
But let us also not do this. Let us not overly despair or overly celebrate.
If Wilson is not indicted we must not despair to the point of resignation. If he is we must not celebrate as if we’ve hit some turning point on race in this nation.
Both of these responses are wrong.
I want to urge white U.S.-Americans—and I believe there actually are many of us—who were grieved and outraged over Trayvon Martin’s killing and George Zimmerman’s exoneration and who anticipate more grief and outrage once the grand jury verdict comes down to take up the following questions:
What did I say about race today? When did I talk about racism today?
Some of the greatest (resigned) despair risks settling in, in response to #ferguson, among those of us (who felt similar despair after Zimmerman’s exoneration) who live in “white-er” worlds and yet consider ourselves to be justice-minded;
who do see that these most recent horrors are mere evidence of a sustained and deep violence against African American communities that give way the lie about how far we have come;
who live, work, parent, or otherwise dwell far away from the spot on the map that marks the most recent eruption of white racial violence.
We may have the “right” thoughts and perspectives about race and justice. But it is among those of us who feel physically far removed from the places where the demand for resistance is so obvious that Michael Brown’s life and murder is most at risk of becoming just another blip in a depressing news cycle.
That’s one thing whiteness does. It makes some of us more inclined to be resigned.
The more time I spend with white folks, the more I’m clear that the most basic, long-term, hard-to-describe, but urgent, feasible and critical kind of work is required of us. We’re not all going to go to Ferguson in the wake of an exoneration. Nor are we all, for lots of reasons, even going to physically show up at protests in our local contexts that might be planned in solidarity.
But resignation and passivity are not our only other options.
And white people have a lot of other work we need to be doing.
If every white person grieved and outraged by #ferguson made a resolute commitment to talk about race everyday, to talk about racism every day, we would begin (continue?) to participate in generating, longer term groundswell movement toward a different kind of racial culture . This wouldn’t stop police killings of African Americans tomorrow, any more than it would tomorrow create equity in access to quality education, even out the crisis of poverty, or put an end to the devastating rates with which women of color get evicted from their homes.
But, it would be of a piece with the critical, on the ground, at the spot on the map, activist work people have long been and are continuing to do.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t also be finding other ways to support and be part of that work, of course. We should.
But, I continue to be astounded by how many white people who care about these issues feel unable to talk coherently and publicly about race and racism, to take on issues large and small in their own communities (whatever the racial make up of those communities). And if we can’t do that? Well, we may as well keep holding our breath.
Those of us who are white have so much work we need to do to learn to talk about race and racism in accessible ways to and with others in our day-to-day lives.
Why don’t we do this more already? We’re scared. We don’t feel like we know enough. We (let’s be honest) forget.
Instead we hold our breath (and sometimes we forget we’re holding our breath), hoping that on the heels of these larger, more eruptive and overt moments like #ferguson—when the state of our national soul is lying exposed for all the world to see—that (oh, please) something different will become true this time. We do this in our personal lives too. We hold our breath, hoping that person isn’t going to say that thing again this time, that the school system (or someone else in it) will figure out how to do race better this year, that another parent or a different employee will take this ‘_________’ [fill in the blank] on this month.
I’ve learned in yoga that the worst possible thing for your practice is to hold your breath. Holding your breath stops the life-energy from flowing through your body, with your body, sustaining your body as it does difficult work and moves into uncomfortable postures.
It’s only when you breathe that you can be where you are. Not waiting for something else, as if anything other than this moment even exists. Only when you breathe that breath can be in/with/through the discomfort and work, and give life.
We who are white have so much to talk about, act on, read in-order-to understand, learn about, try on, practice, practice, speak up and practice again in order to go beyond being citizens with the “right” intellectual or political understanding (but mostly quiet and resigned) and into movements in our day-to-day life that grow us as people, even as they help change the world.
I’ve been thinking a lot today about what Tanya Steele wrote after Zimmerman walked free.
“We [African Americans] can talk about this until the cows come home. When are we going to have a ‘town hall on racism’ where white people discuss how they will speak to their children to make sure another George Zimmerman does not walk among us?”
When are we going to have a ‘town hall on racism’ that addresses how a jury of women, predominantly white women (and mothers!), don’t identify with a black child?
We have to demand that white people speak up in discussions on racism, not race – racism. While we tell our thousandth story about being accosted, turn and ask a white person, “What are you learning from this? How will you change as a result of hearing this? How has the verdict impacted you and your life going forward? What will you do differently in your life, as a result of this verdict?” Something. The parade of black grief while white folks sit and stare has to cease.
What did you say about race today? When did you talk about racism today?
It’s in moving that we become strong. It’s in moving that we become able to move in more supple and powerful ways.
I need to release my breath today to sustain movement. I urge you to stop holding yours too.