Tonight we read the words of a bi-racial sister (no, not Lisa Bonet) who has a message for her white friends.
“Dear White America,
It is somewhat strange to address this to you, given that I strongly identify with many aspects of your culture and am half-white myself. Yet, today is another day you have forced me to decide what race I am — and, as always when you force me — I fall decidedly into “Person of Color.”
Every comment or post I have read today voicing some version of disdain for the people of Baltimore — “I can’t understand” or “They’re destroying their own community” or “Destruction of Property!” or “Thugs” — tells me that many of you are not listening. I am not asking you to condone or agree with violence. I just need you to listen. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, but instead of forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion, please let me tell you what I hear:
I hear hopelessness
I hear oppression
I hear pain
I hear internalized oppression
I hear despair
I hear anger
I hear poverty
If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away. Race affects our lives every day. We must consider it all the time, not just when it is convenient.
As a person of color, even if you are privileged your whole life, as I have been, you cannot escape from the shade of your skin. Being a woman defines me; coming from a relatively affluent background defines me; my sexual orientation, my education, my family and my job define me. Other than being a woman, every single one of those distinctions gives me privilege in our society. Yet, even with all that privilege, people still treat me differently.
For most of my childhood, I refused to allow race to be my most defining feature. I actually chose for most of my childhood to refuse race as my most defining feature. But I found that a very hard position to maintain, given the way the world interacts with me and the people I love. Because I have to worry about my brother and my cousins getting stopped by the police. Because people react to my wonderful, kind, intelligent father differently, depending on whether he’s wearing a suit or sweat pants. Race has defined the way I see the world like no other characteristic has.
This can be hard to understand, if you never experienced it firsthand. So again, for just one more moment, reserve your judgments and listen. This is what you might come to realize, if you spent your days in my skin.
A few years later: Go on a road trip with your mom. Refuse to get out of the car at a gas station in the boondocks, because you are sure the person with the Confederate flag bumper sticker is going to realize your white mother married a black man and hurt her (and you too, being the byproduct of said union). He’s carrying a rifle on a gun rack. Now even more terrifying.
As a teenager: Be the only person of color in the majority of your Advanced Placement classes, even though there are a decent number of brown and black people at your school. For years following 9/11, get “randomly” selected for the additional screening at the airport.
In college: People assume you got into Princeton because of affirmative action. They refuse to believe it could be because you are smart.
In adulthood: Your younger brother has been stopped in his own neighborhood — the neighborhood he has lived in all his life – and asked what he could possibly be doing there.
At your workplace: For two years in a row the NYPD shows up randomly at the school you work at, which has a 100 percent minority student body. The first time the police don’t even tell the school beforehand. The cops just show up early in the morning, set up a metal detector and X-ray scanner, and fill the cafeteria with dozens of policemen. As your young students file in in the morning, the NYPD scans them like they’re going through airport security right after 9/11. They confiscate cellphones, and pat some of students down, particularly the older-looking boys. As you watch this, you feel anger welling up in your chest and almost start to cry. You think, “Why are you treating my kids like criminals?!” Children are in tears. The screenings are not due to any specific threat, but rather as part of a “random screening program” — but one that never seems to make its way to the Upper East Side. White America’s children are told they can go to college, be anything. These students are treated like suspects. And that is exactly what society will tell your children one day, unless something changes.
Today, tomorrow, every day: White people around you refuse to talk about what is happening in this country. The silence is painful to experience.
These are my experiences. They have deeply affected who I am. And I am SO PRIVILEGED. Mine has been a decidedly easy life for a person of color in America. I try to conceptualize what it is like for my students who got wanded by the NYPD, my students who have been stopped and frisked, my students whose parents work multiple jobs, my students on free and reduced-price lunch, my students whom white adults move away from because they look “scary.”
I try, when I can, to listen to them, because only by validating their feelings can we begin to find a way to overcome the challenges they face. That doesn’t mean I let them off easy when they do something wrong. But I try to understand the why.
I don’t need you to validate anyone’s actions, but I need you to validate what black America is feeling. If you cannot understand how experiences like mine or my students’ would lead to hopelessness, pain, anger, and internalized oppression, you are still not listening. So listen. Listen with your heart.
If you got this far, thank you. By reading this, you have shown you are trying. Continue the conversation, ask questions, learn as much as you can, and choose to engage. Only by listening and engaging can we move forward.
Black is Beautiful and Black Lives Matter,
Hey, I know that Kat Williams say that we should all get some white friends, and I am cool with that. But if they are going to be our friends we have an obligation to be honest with them.