Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Ferguson Mandate: Show Up

I remember the day when I had had enough.  I was sitting with two elderly relatives, and the conversation had recently shifted to immigration, with some of the more predictable comments:  the Mexicans are taking over, they’re coming illegally, they drive without licenses and so cause numerous traffic accidents without consequences, etc.  I kept silent, as usual, inwardly rolling my eyes and reminding myself that these family members would soon progress to safer topics, like the new traffic light in town.  And then she said it, “I know it’s horrible, but every time I hear about all the drug wars down there, I think ‘well, at least there will be less of them to come here.’”

Then I lost it.  Only then.  

It’s a common experience among progressive, White, young people to go to large family gatherings and sit through extremely racist conversation.  We come back from Thanksgiving or Christmas and swap stories with other White friends about what crazy Uncle Al said at the dinner table.  It’s a sick game of whose family is the most racist, the most ignorant, and thus who is the bigger saint for having to put up with such awful conversation.  We never talk about how we engaged these family members in conversation, confronted ignorance, or stood up for our brothers and sisters who are targets of such hateful speech.  Because that would be rude.  Politics have no place at the dinner table, the most important thing is that everyone in the family have a nice time and we have as little family drama as possible.  What a privilege.

This holiday season, there’s going to be lots of uncomfortable conversations in White households.  For the first time, I’m actually relieved instead of sad that I won’t be joining my extended family for Thanksgiving dinner because it means I don’t have to hear people I love complain about Black criminal culture, reverse racism against Darren Wilson, or that Martin Luther King would be “ashamed” of the protests across the country.  I won’t have to sit there, debating whether or not to join the conversation, ignore everyone and focus on my pie, or to change the subject to something sunnier, like football.  I won’t be challenged to be an ally where it really counts.
"Now remember, the dinner table is no  place to talk about
race, politics, religion, income inequality, globalization,
climate change, or American Imperialism."

Our unwillingness to have difficult conversations with the people we love not only hurts our oppressed brothers and sisters, it hurts our family and friends.  When the elderly relative I mentioned before said those awful, unforgettable, and unforgivable words, I realized that I had failed her.  This amazing, loving, kind woman who in many ways has been my role model became a hateful racist.  Oppression dehumanizes both oppressor and oppressed.  Had I entered the conversation earlier, had I engaged her before, over the previous several years in which these comments began to irk me, perhaps she would never have gotten to that point.  I look back on all the times I’ve sat in uncomfortable silence among my family, whom I love dearly, and see that I have sinned against them as well.  They are better than this; they are loving, kind people, made in the image of God, called to be a part of the Beloved Community.  I’m someone who can show them the way, who can exorcise demons of racism, sexism and homophobia, and I’ve cowered in the corner.  I’ve run from God’s call. 

Us White Folks Who Want to be Allies have asked, “What can we do to stand in solidarity with Ferguson?”  The response has been two mandates: show up and engage other White folks.  The first is often interpreted to mean to show up to the protests themselves, to bring our bodies and our voices.  While this is a valuable act, it is not courageous.  My white skin protects me from danger when facing down law enforcement; they’re not going to target me.  I can offer some protection to my brothers and sisters of color in the struggle, I can be present and witness police brutality, and righteous anger, I can make sure that the media gets pictures of White people standing side by side with people of color in this moment.  This is needed, it is valuable, but it is also easy. It’s the well-worn path of progressive White folks, the opportunity we jump at, the choice we most often make, and the laurels on which we (undeservedly) rest.

The greater challenge is to engage other White folks, the ones that aren’t at the protests, who aren’t blowing up twitter and Facebook with #BlackLivesMatter.  Us White Folks Who Want to be Allies have to confront the prejudice and racism that comes from those who share our skin tone, our privilege, and our blood.  As much as we may want to unfriend all of the people on Facebook who are defending Darren Wilson, we should not.  As much as we may want to avoid awkward and uncomfortable Thanksgiving conversations with racism being thrown around like the proverbial football, we should not.  We should talk to our friends and family, tell them our own experiences, offer a glimpse of a different world and a different attitude because we are the only ones who can.  We have the privilege of access, not only to systems of power but to individuals who won’t listen to anyone else.  Crazy Uncle Al is not going to hear the cries of the young Black protestors in Ferguson, but he has to listen to his beloved niece/nephew because they’re family.  Our witness carries more weight than all the Fox News pundits combined, as hard as that is to believe sometimes, and our reluctance to engage in difficult discussions with friends and family for the sake of decorum is a sin. 

So, White Folks Who Want to be Allies, our calling is clear.  We have to show up, not only at the protests, but in our communities.  Not only at vigils, but at the dinner table.  So tomorrow, when Crazy Uncle Al says, “What about Black on Black crime?” don’t roll your eyes and go back for a second piece of pie.  Tell him that intraracial violence is a red herring, that White on White violence is just as (if not more so) prevalent, and that White on Black violence is different.  Explain why.  Don’t fall back into the privilege of ignorance; show up.