Some Of Us White People

30 Jun

Protest following death of George Floyd, Providence, RI, June 5, 2020

It’s been a little over three weeks since the local protests took place here in Providence, and all over the world, in the wake of George Floyd’s death. And it feels like it’s been three weeks of vast numbers of white people in a tizzy over how we could not have known how bad things were for Black people in America, and how blind we all were to systemic racism.

Some of us woke up, and rose up, and said we want to help. We pored over the Google Doc of resources shared widely on social media by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein–books, articles, organizations and funds to donate to, and legislators to call. Some of us also learned of the Justice in June Google Document turned website with expanded anti-racism resources and teachings by Autum Gupta and Bryanna Wallace.

Some of us bought all the books recommended on social media to educate ourselves on the history of racism in this country. Books like, Stamped From The Beginning, and How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, The Me And White Supremacy Workbook by Layla Saad, Waking Up White by Debby Irving, and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Currently, The New York Times Bestseller List for Paperback Non-Fiction, shows all top ten books are on race, with the aforementioned books on the list.

Some of us have confessed on Facebook how ignorant or blind we were to our own white privilege. How blind we were to the continued systems of racial inequity that came about post-slavery through policies and laws that created redlining, Jim Crow laws, loan discrimination, education disparities, job discrimination, mass incarceration, and the one we, if we have any humanity, can no longer deny: the more than “a few bad apples,”systemic racism inherent in law enforcement, and the never-ending police brutality against Black people.

Shortly after some of us spoke about being overwhelmed and not knowing where to begin to educate ourselves, and take action, we learned about the police killing of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta on June 12th. The 27 year-old Brooks, married and the father of three children, had fallen asleep in the Wendy’s drive-thru and the police were called. After a half-hour of conversation where Rayshard politely told officers he had a few drinks, and offered to leave his car in the parking lot to walk to his sister’s house which was just a few blocks away, the officers decided to arrest Rayshard after a failed sobriety test. Rayshard, who was on parole, and working hard to stay on track with his family and work life despite the many restrictions and burdens the judicial system placed on him, most likely feared what an arrest would mean for him and his future. He resisted by trying to free himself from the officers trying to cuff him, Brosnand and Rolfe, and a scuffle ensued. Rayshard did grab one of the officer’s tasers and ran away, pointing it over his shoulder, and shooting the taser once at Rolfe, a taser which cannot cause deadly harm. Officer Rolfe shot at the back of Rayshard Brooks with his gun, hitting him twice. Rayshard fell to the ground. Officer Brosnan stood on Rayshard’s shoulders while he was on the ground, and Rolfe kicked his body. They stood over his body for two minutes before administering any medical attention. Rayshard Brooks died later that night at the hospital after coming out of surgery.

Some of us returned to our urgent call to ourselves to “do something!” Some of us worried still about offending Black people by either saying or doing the wrong thing, so some of us did nothing. Some of us thought and hoped we were doing the right thing by reaching out to our Black friends and asking them how they were doing. Some of us felt guilty when we read articles written by Black people who were taken aback, or baffled, by the awkward ways white people were reaching out to them– about friends who before now, rarely, if ever, had conversations about race with them, or ever noticed the micro-aggressions their friends endured, or the way their own white privilege allowed them to move through the world never having to think about their race, because their white skin was the default.

Some of us Venmo’d our Black friends, either at their request, or after seeing articles that said sending money to your Black friends is what you should do, because we sure owe them, or as a gesture to promote self-care for the recipient, then felt guilty again when we read some posts on social media about how sending money to Black people was insulting. I received a link to a podcast through Facebook Messenger from my friend, Darrell, who is Black, which he thought was hilarious, and which I had to admit I could see my own shortcomings in. The podcast, /reply-all/, episode #162 The Least You Could Do, produced by Emmanuel Dzotsi, was about this very subject of Black people receiving texts with offers of money from white people, like some kind of offering to absolve ourselves from the sin of being white, and benefiting from white supremacy. In fact, toward the end of the podcast, Black Latinx comedian, Milly Tamarez, did just that. After the 2016 Presidential election, she did a stand-up act asking white people to pay her, and if they did, she would absolve them of the sins of their people. It took off, and lots of white people sent her money, confessed of their sins, and received absolution. While some of the sins confessed started out light, like performing in a West Side Story play in school where all the parts were played by white people, some got darker as time went on, like the confession by a young white guy who was dating a Black woman but was afraid to get intimate with her because he feared he wouldn’t be as good a lover as a Black man. I hope all of us reading here will want to listen to this podcast to hear Milly’s response, and her thoughts about the whole experience of her White Forgiveness Project, as well as the thoughts and feelings that some Black people are having about how white people are reaching out to them at this time.

Some of us may have found ourselves saying, “damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” yet, hopefully we learned instead, that Black people are not a monolith, and do not think alike, and that most Black people would probably say they’ve lived “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” to the point of life vs. death, every single day. We hopefully learned that while one friend or acquaintance might welcome your reaching out to ask them what they need from you, and one person might say, Venmo me, and another friend might tell you they are too exhausted from experiencing racism to do the emotional labor to respond to you. They might nudge you to initiate your own self-education, and tell you to talk to other white people who may be further along on their journey in anti-racist work and action. They might tell us to figure out amongst ourselves what we should do next. After all, it is all of us white people who created and continue to uphold racism and racist systems in the first place. But, we’ll never know what to do if we don’t put ourselves out there and ask.

And as some of us are spending way too much time dealing with our own white fragility, rather than being of benefit to the movement to support Black lives, we learned of the death of Elijah McClain. Elijah was a 23 year-old massage therapist from Aurora, Colorado who was walking home from a convenience store when he was stopped by officers after a call was made to police about a suspicious person walking down the street wearing a mask. Elijah, who played violin on his lunch break to cats at animal shelters, because he believed it calmed them, was a slight, young man, with anemia, who wore the mask to keep warm. He did absolutely nothing wrong, and was wrestled to the ground by several officers, held in a carotid hold, and injected with the tranquilizer, ketamine, before being taken by ambulance to the hospital. Elijah suffered a heart attack on the way there, and was brain dead and on life support, when several days later, his family had to make the decision to take him off life support, at which time, Elijah passed away. The heartbreaking words of Elijah McClain while he was being arrested and his tiny frame being pressed on, to the point he vomited and could not breathe, have been shared widely:

“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity. I’ll do it. You all are so phenomenal. You are beautiful. And I love you. Try to forgive me. I am a mood gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You all are very strong. Team work makes the dream work…(crying)..oh I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly (proceeds to vomit from the pressure to his chest and neck).”

– Elijah McClain

And as we ask again, what should we do, some of us are pulling out our pocketbooks and making donations to local and national Black-led organizations that promote justice, and build resources for Black communities. Some of us are educating ourselves through reading, conversation, and attending virtual panels led by Black scholars and activists. In Providence, the calls to Defund The Police rang loud and clear this week on a 9-hour Zoom call for the City’s Finance Committee meeting, where residents, Black, white and Brown, got to use their voices to speak about far better ways to address community wellness and public safety.

Yet some of us learned of another Providence meeting of the City Council members, where Black councilwoman, Nirva LaFortune, was talked over and muted during the Zoom meeting, by fellow councilman, John Igliozzi. Igliozzi announced a petition he said he created to bring to the RI General Assembly to appeal the state’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights. Councilwoman LaFortune stated on the call, that she had been working on a resolution to repeal the bill and it was on the agenda to present to the council. She continued to say that Igliozzi was aware of and co-signed on it, and that this petition was appropriated from LaFortune by him without speaking with her, or giving her credit for the research, and work that she had done. Igliozzi continued to erase the work and voice of the Black woman councilwoman, as he muted LaFortune several times more as she tried in vain to make her point heard and acknowledged–the final time right after the councilwoman told Igliozzi that “this is oppressive behavior.”

And in all of this, still we wait for the arrest of the two officers who killed Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Breonna, 25, a beloved EMT, and her boyfriend, were asleep when the police broke into their home unannounced. Thinking it was an intruder, Breonna’s boyfriend walked toward the living room, licensed gun in his hand to defend himself and Breonna. The police upon sighting him started shooting. They fired eight shots that killed Breonna. Why did they break into her home? They were looking for someone who had a warrant out for his arrest for drug dealing. They were in the wrong home. The person they were looking for: He was already in custody.

Some of us are performing activism with expressions of outrage, and sadness, followed up with lackluster, or absent action. Many corporations have made statements in support of Black Lives Mattering, along with proclamations of intention to make their workplace “inclusive” and “equitable.” Some have even already instituted a policy to now make Juneteenth an official holiday. Some of us are seeing media outlets scramble to feature stories on race, and even hire Black writers and photographers and journalists to tell them. We are seeing art museums and arts organizations all of a sudden featuring the works of Black artists on their sites, like the Poem-a-day series I subscribe to that for the last month has featured daily poems by contemporary, as well as, 19th and 20th century Black poets.

Some of us are so worried about how dangerous the world feels “because of all the rioting and looting and Chicago and Black on Black crime, and nobody wanting to be a police officer anymore because of how dangerous it is for them, with everyone being against them now…” Many of our inner Karens have been exposed.

Some of us, a lot of us, say we really care, and we really do, and all of us, have to really do. I heard a Black woman artist at the George Floyd protest, who said in conversation with a friend of hers, another Black woman, that at this point, the only way white people can show they are supporting Black people, is to do one or more of these three things:

Give money

Share resources

Put your body on the line

Some of us see ourselves in some of this here, or all of this here, or none of this here. Trust me, my own white fragility guilt and shame level has been on ultra-high, too. Now is the time to rid ourselves of the guilt and shame that does nothing but absolve us in our own minds from doing anything, keeps us uncomfortable about ourselves only. Keeps us stuck and inert. With this focusing on ourselves and how bad we feel, we cannot see beyond ourselves, or be strong enough to do anything to break down racism. All of us have to be willing to be in discomfort outside of ourselves, whether it is in conversation with other white people about race, whether it is asking a question to a Black person that we are worried is going to make us seem racist, or whether it is digging into figuring out what actions we can take in our communities to break down systemic racism.All of us need to decide which ones of us we see here, and which one of us we are going to become.

2 Responses to “Some Of Us White People”

  1. Ken Harge June 30, 2020 at 8:42 am #

    Very thoughtful…good job Wendy!!!

    • Wendy Jane June 30, 2020 at 12:25 pm #

      Hi Ken,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read the piece and let me know what you thought.

      I appreciate your support.

      Wendy

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