Especially When it Rains
Today a mother buried her teenage son in suburban St. Louis – after three autopsies, a city rocked with anger and protests and a country faced with its own deeply divided past and present. She has waited for 16 long and agonizing days to give her son a decent burial and to give some finality to this chapter in what will be a long and painful road to the unknown. Michael Brown’s mother has asked the people of her community to suspend all protests on the day she buries her son. If I had to guess, I would say it’s because she can’t bear the thought of another young black man being killed today. I think she needs to know that just for today, every mother in her community should enjoy the luxury of seeing their sons walk through the door, safe and whole and alive. That’s what I’d want.
Michael Brown’s mother has not been alone. She has been with her extended family and friends. She has also been in the company of the mothers of other young black men, lost too soon to gun violence – some at the hands of police and some at the hands of self-appointed police. I watched an interview with these mothers and Michael’s mother was asked if she talked to her son sometimes when she’s alone. She looked down, at nothing really, tired tears trailing down her careworn face and she murmured softly, “Yeah, ‘specially when it rains…”
When I find myself particularly troubled with the world, I retreat to my books. They’ve always been such a safe place. When I feel scared or confused or hopeless, I revisit the authors who have always taught me the most. For that reason, I sought my solace in the works and interviews of James Baldwin. I randomly opened to an interview he had given later in his life: “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.”
Ooooohkay. Turn to another page.
“I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, for the very same reason.”
Mr. Baldwin, are you trying to communicate with me from the Great Beyond? Because if you’re trying to tell me something, the message I’m getting is that I can run but I can’t hide, not even in the relative safety of you.
We are a country that can run but can’t hide. It’s time to stop pretending we live in a post-racial society because we have a black President. It’s time to stop pretending we can resolve our differences with empty words and Blue Ribbon Commissions. It’s time to stop pretending we can repeal the legal safeguards put in place a half century ago to level the playing field between the races. We have to stop pretending because although we happen to occupy the same landmass, we sure as hell aren’t all living in the same country.
When I got up this morning, I leaned over the basin to wash my face and when I stood up and stared at my reflection, all I could see was privilege in my white face. Not economic privilege, but a sense of safety, and I say that after having spent two days last week in Ferguson. Yes – I spent two days last week in Ferguson and it was the most terrifying and gratifying experience of my life. I told very few people – my boyfriend and my boss and a couple of friends after the fact. I knew the routine. Left anything of value locked up in a safe place. Had my social security number written on the inside of my forearm with a Sharpie. Tried to follow all the rules that changed by the hour and didn’t do anything that would overtly get me hurt. I’m here to tell you that my white skin bought me some privilege.
I met a young black doctor who was protesting. I saw a police officer with no badge or name tag shove a loaded gun under his chin and tell him to ‘get a job’. I came within the same proximity of the same officer and he said, “Ma’am, move back!” He wasn’t exactly polite about it, but he didn’t point a loaded weapon at me and he didn’t tell me to get a job and he did call me Ma’am. White Privilege. Because I’m terrified of dying, I got really scared when the tear gas started to fly so I started running away sooner than most. While I wasn’t hit with the full blast of it, I can tell you that even a small amount of tear gas from a distance will burn your eyes and your throat and make breathing next to impossible. I was leaning against a chain link fence, choking and nearly blinded when two young black men grabbed me and pulled me into their home. Their kind mother poured milk into my eyes while the kids got me something to drink – everything tastes like chemicals for hours afterward, but you have to do it. They gave me shelter. They let me rest. They fed me. I was and am grateful. That wasn’t a case of White Privilege, but the gift of kindness and humanity on the part of a great family.
The next day, I didn’t carry any signs, just moved along with the crowds and observed mostly. There were too many police officers with no badges and nametags – as in, most of them. I found it unnerving. I met a uniformed officer wearing a badge and name tag and asked why he wasn’t following their lead. He was the first officer I’d seen smile. “I’ve proudly worn this badge for 31 years to serve my community. I don’t take it off for anyone or anything.” That’s how I learned how to tell the good cops from the not so good cops. No officer removes his/her nametag and badge because they plan to conduct themselves in a wholly helpful and lawful manner. Period.
I witnessed people being arrested. They were all people of color. I noticed something disturbing about it beyond the obvious that whites were doing the same thing and were not arrested: no matter how compliant the person was, the moment an officer put his hands on them, police started shouting “STOP RESISTING! STOP RESISTING!” No matter how much the citizen tried to tell them they were being completely compliant, the police continued to scream at them to shut up and stop resisting. Nearly everyone who was arrested was told they would be cited for resisting arrest.
When the students at Penn State rioted and overturned cars because Coach Joe Paterno was fired, there were no MRAP armored vehicles. There were no riot police. There were no weapons pointed at those wacky, passionate college kids. No one called them thugs. No one called them animals. No one tear gassed or terrorized them. That’s White Privilege.
When black protestors come to protest,
they’re told their First Amendment Rights are contingent upon them doing so while moving. I saw an elderly black woman who had been marching for hours sit on the curb to rest her feet. An armed officer immediately began threatening her with arrest if she didn’t get up. She tried to explain that she was old and her feet hurt. He told her he didn’t care and said if she didn’t get up and move, he’d arrest her on the spot. I helped her to her feet and he walked away. A group of white counter-protestors for the officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown pitched shade tents and lawn chairs and brought beer coolers and set up just around the corner from the Police Union Hall and that’s freedom of speech. While the white protestors got lawn chairs and honks of approval from passing police cruisers as they openly drank beer on the sidewalk, just a few blocks away, a culturally diverse group of more than 300 citizens marched down the Avenue in 100 degree heat on a street lined with armed police officers giving them the stink eye. That’s White Privilege.
A few hours drive from my home, a black teenager died. His body lay in the street on a hot summer day for four and a half hours. The community can’t get over that. Maybe it’s because for the first two hours, Michael Brown’s body lay bleeding, uncovered for all to see. There was no attempt made to respect the remains of a human being. After two hours, he was finally covered with a sheet and later, a tarp. The police chief stated he was taken to the Coroner by ambulance. No. He was loaded into the back of a white police SUV. I spoke to a resident whose window overlooked the street. She told me, “You know how white folk pose with animals they kill? That’s what it feel like to us.” It took me a while to digest that. Witnesses felt his body was left out there for so long… like a hunter’s trophy kill on display. I can’t believe that was the motivation behind the very bad decision not to take Brown’s body away or at the very least cover it, but I get it. These citizens feel like the hunted. That perspective would never have occurred to me because my White Privilege means not only do citizens not get killed in the middle of the street here, if they did, they’d be white and they wouldn’t be left on the pavement for four and half hours. One of my social networks connections, a black man named Kevin who raises pit bull terriers commented to me:
“The dogs and I can’t even think of any reason to call the cops. If you know of one, please do tell us. All I know is they kill people and dogs that look like us all the time. Even if we are just as kind and loving and don’t mean no one any harm. The cops don’t see things like that. The dogs and I will just call it ‘taxed by life’ and move on if any crime comes our way and that is sad that we have to do that. The cops are not here to help my kind. That is just the view from my world.”
I couldn’t even respond to that with meaning because my White Privilege means I have no frame of reference. Kevin and I live both live in the USA but we don’t live in the same country.
In the end I did derive comfort from James Baldwin: “I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt (not even my own). Guilt is a luxury we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a (wo)man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, for the very same reason.” It’s time we all accept responsibility for the condition of our two Americas. It’s time we do something about it. I really am a white woman trapped in a history I don’t understand – and never will. I can’t understand because although I marched down the same avenue, I wasn’t even marching in the same country. My hope is that stupid white people can stop talking about “what’s wrong with the Negro” and start reflecting on what’s wrong with the Caucasian – start figuring out ways to make the countries we live in a more congruous experience for everyone. It’s time for this drought of tolerance to end and to let it rain.
Also, thank you for going to Ferguson, and marching.
What a wonderfully written and insightful article. This time has been especially trying for those of us who are trying to break down the wall of white entitlement. It’s exhausting, and writing like this is revitalizing. Thank you.
Thank you. This is EXACTLY what I’ve been trying to explain… and feeling, thinking. On some issues, I admit, though I struggle, I cannot find it in me to understand “the other side.” I try to avoid that mentality, but sometimes…it is purely unavoidable. So, thanks for this. You get me.
Then if you don’t read anything else today, read this:
http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/world-ferguson – the writing is phenomenal and the perspective, one we all need to get a grip on. Denying historical truths will never make them go away, merely perpetuate a faster repeat.