Note: This blog originally appeared at www.souldegree.com.
As I write this, we are several weeks beyond the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. I have tried a number of times to gather my thoughts into the written word and come up short each time. I am giving it one more effort this morning.
In some ways, I think the only thing that needs to be said is three words that are not a meme, nor a hashtag, nor a slogan. They are three words that have been absent throughout American history, starting with the arrival of the first enslaved African in 1619 and continuing through Mr. Floyd’s murder a few weeks ago. Even as the fabric of our country is being torn apart in 2020 by division, they are words that we can and must use to restitch that very fabric, integrating them once and for all into the heart and soul of our nation.
Black lives matter.
And yet, I realize that writing those words doesn't make them manifest. Doesn’t make them true in 2020 America.
So, in addition, I have demonstrated; I have made donations; I am doing my reading; I will support anti-racist candidates for office and support anti-racist policies; I will educate myself and help educate others. I believe doing these things is incumbent upon all of us. An obligation we owe our Black brothers and sisters and that we owe our country as a whole if we truly hope for a more perfect union.
One of the most important things I can do as a white man is to simply listen to Black men and women, and raise their voices whenever possible. With that in mind, I am going to shut up for a minute here and share the words of two friends--the first, a former classmate and friend whom I’ve known for twenty five years; the other a close childhood friend of my sister’s who I have known since I was a little kid. I am grateful to each of them for letting me share their words here.
When I was 19 I got a passport and took my first overseas flight. I arrived in Madrid for a junior semester abroad. A few days into the semester I was walking home quite late, past midnight. An older woman sitting at the edge of a park beckoned me. I went over to her and had a conversation in my broken Spanish. She invited me to her house for food because she wanted to learn more about "el Americano".
I was nervous, but I was up for an adventure, so I went. She made me patatas bravas and we talked and talked and talked. When I finally left her apartment I remember feeling liberated but also unable to place the source of my liberation. Eventually I realized how liberating it felt to be treated decently by a white person who didn't even know me.
Back at Yale the constant tax of having classmates not unlock residential college gates, or the occasional harassment by campus police and the casual suspicion that I and other black students navigated every single day...it was just exhausting. But it was also so normal. I assumed that's how it was everywhere. Until I went to Spain. And white strangers were mostly friendly.
Decades later, I watch my 6'3" 16 year old son enraged at Georgia, Kentucky, and Minnesota. He wants to go to local protests. I won't let him. I feel my 13 year old son crawling into my bed in the middle of the night---most recently because he's having nightmares about George Floyd. I wrestle with guilt.
As privileged as I am---and by nearly any measure I am privileged---it sucks being black in America. Living here doesn't suck every day. I have a great deal of joy in my life. But being black in America sucks every day.
You see, as a black woman in America, I have experienced the following – there are more incidents but I want to share a few activities that are mundane to most that can cause fear, aggravation and humiliation to blacks.
• I was stopped by police because they did not think that I was from that neighborhood.
• I have had things thrown at me from a car to send a message that I should not be running in a certain neighborhood (the commentary from the passengers clearly enforced that fact).
• I have been followed by security and asked to show receipts because they felt I fit the profile of a shoplifter.
Driving/Riding in a Car:
• Stopped for speeding because the officer only saw me (we were in the middle lane and had cars passing us on the left).
• A mail carrier refused to give me my mail because he did not think I lived at my home.
This is everyday life, it is tiring and has to stop.
If a knee-jerk reaction when reading these is to think, “Well, life does sometimes suck,” or “Life can be tiring,” please note that for these two friends, life sucks and is tiring not for generic reasons but rather because they are black.
In a conversation with my female friend, she said that she shares her story out of concern for her goofy and fun eleven year old son who, in just a few years, will be a Black man in America with all the connotations that carries. My male friend states his concern for his sons right there in his own words.
Our challenge is to change America, and change it soon, so that when those boys are in mid-life, they may be tired of working long hours, or think their situation sucks because they got in a fender-bender and the insurance company didn’t pay, or both of those things because they’ve lost a loved one, had a sick child, or lost a job. Life happens.
But let us please make a world where the beautiful black tone of their skin neither tires them out nor, ultimately and simply, just plain sucks.
A few resources for those interested in reading and/or supporting efforts for racial justice.