On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by an officer in Ferguson, MO. Following this event, people took to the streets of Ferguson to protest not only the unjust killing of Michael Brown, but also the systematic oppression and racism experienced by people of color in that city and in our country. The police responded to these protests by deploying SWAT teams and utilizing military-grade equipment and protocols, including tanks, tear gas, and rubber bullets. The event facilitated a wave of protests in both Ferguson and around the country which have continued more than two weeks later. If you are unfamiliar with Michael Brown or the events that have been occurring in Ferguson, MO, go here to familiarize yourself.
Since the event, I have posted article upon article upon article on my Facebook page in an effort to keep this on people’s radars. One week after the killing of Michael Brown, all I was seeing on Facebook were videos of the ice bucket challenge, and barely anything about Ferguson. (For an interesting article regarding the ways in which the ice bucket challenge may actually be obscuring/ignoring systemic injustice, read this.) The events of Ferguson deserve at least as much attention as this viral campaign has received, and my endless Facebook posts have been an attempt to keep this event at the forefront of people’s minds.
At the beginning of this entry, I posted a link for people to check out if they are not yet aware of what’s been happening in Ferguson. The title of this blog post is “Ferguson: Why White People Need To Talk About It.” The reason for these things is that—18 days after Michael Brown’s death, 18 days after protests started and continued, 17 days after the SWAT team was called in and tear gas and military-grade weaponry was deployed, 8 days after this police officer on the ground in Ferguson was suspended for pointing a weapon at protestors and threatening to kill them, 5 days after another police officer was suspended for a video that surfaced in which he said things like, “I’m into diversity. I kill everybody, I don’t care”, 2 days after Michael Brown’s funeral service occurred, which was attended by thousands (4500 people according to CBS news)—after all of this, I am still encountering white people who do not know who Michael Brown is and who do not know what is happening in Ferguson.
Yes, you read that right.
There are hundreds of reasons why this might be so. We could talk about the fact that “75% of of whites have ‘entirely white social networks without any minority presence,’” that “on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people,” and that maybe this lack of presence is rendering the experiences of people of color invisible to white folks. We could talk about the phenomenon that people who use Facebook are half as likely to bring up controversial political topics in fear of causing conflict or losing friends. Christians could talk about the fact that, according to a study performed in 2008, “only 7 percent of American churches are racially integrated” (we can only hope it’s gotten better since then), and consider whether the church’s separatism has something to do with the lack of integration.
For now, I’m choosing to talk about the decision of white silence.
White silence is something that I’ve been complicit in, largely because I will never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of a person who’s not white, and there’s a sense of not knowing how to deal with that tension. I never feel my skin. I never think about my skin until I’m in situations where white people are the minority in the room—and these situations are few and far between. I never worry when I’m around authority figures or police officers that they might be threatened by my skin color. I remember once after a cop pulled me over as a teenager, I opened the glove compartment to retrieve my identification. I didn’t have to think about whether the cop might mistake that as going for a weapon. I didn’t have to tell him why I was opening the glove compartment. In fact, I never once wondered whether I would come out of that experience alive. I never once wondered whether I was going to be unfairly arrested. I never once thought, “I better be careful right now because I’m white.”
It’s hard to think about the fact that my non-white friends have to think about these things. I don’t know how to resolve that tension, and I don’t always know how to talk about these things with non-white people. What I’ve come to understand, though, is that my inability to know how to resolve the tension does not mean that I have the right to be silent about it. In his blog post, “This Is What We Mean When We Say It’s About Race,” Jelani Greenidge says, “When impassioned people of color are saying that a particular event or issue is about race, what we’re aiming to both uncover and dismantle is the racialized system of interlocking societal institutions that perpetuate these kinds of outcomes. We’re not necessarily trying to blame you for what happened, as much as we’re asking you to consider your situation, consider the reality around you, and try to make it better for those of us who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t getting a fair shake.” As a white person, I have the immense privilege of not even having to think about race if I don’t want to, which means, of course, that I have the equally immense privilege of remaining silent—because I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’m going to get a fair shake as a white person. (As a woman, that’s a bit of a different story—though as a white woman, I’m still not too worried.)
White silence, or what can also be viewed as “impartiality,” is “the logic of privilege, the logic of those who are actually protected and served by the system and are so safe to give or withhold judgment freely.” It is this white privilege that not only gives me tacit permission to be silent when I read the stories of injustices that people of color have suffered, but it is also white privilege that renders these stories invisible. White privilege means that the following stories, all of which happened since the killing of Michael Brown, might not be something white people know about:
Kajieme Powell, a black man, is killed by police in St. Louis. Police fired 12 shots because Powell was displaying erratic behavior and approaching them with a knife. Those who knew Powell state that he was suffering from a mental illness.
TV-Producer Charles Belk is cuffed and booked outside of a pre-Emmy event for being a “tall, bald head[ed] black male,” the description of a suspect in a nearby robbery.
Kametra Barbour, a black mother with four children in her car, was pulled over and detained at gunpoint—apparently her burgundy red Nissan Maxima looked a bit too much like the beige Toyota they were looking for? (Or maybe they saw a black person driving and figured she must have done something wrong anyway.)
White privilege means that the names Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, and Dante Parker, all unarmed black men killed by police in the last month, may have been unfamiliar before Ferguson, and may even remain unfamiliar now. Read more about their stories here.
These are just some stories. How many more have occurred that I don’t know about?
In the past year I’ve taken two seminary classes about race, and it’s made me think a lot about privilege and silence. Silence means that racism goes unchallenged, that these things might never change. Silence means that violence will continue to occur and be deemed normal. As I’ve wondered how to challenge the notion of privilege and its oft-accompanied silence, the first step for me was to begin asking some pretty hard questions, both of myself and of the institutions in which I have found myself. Here are some of them:
In the two years that I served in AmeriCorps, the team I served with was overwhelmingly white, and in the school site where I was placed, most of the teachers and principals were white. The communities that we served were diverse, but the leadership was not always very diverse. Why?
Seattle does not lack diversity, but in the past two years the spaces I’ve found myself in have been incredibly white. The private Christian university where I’m in graduate school is really white. The church I’ve been attending for the past four years is really white. Most of my friends are pretty white too. Why?
The neighborhood I live in isn’t all white, but the majority of the neighbors whose names I know are white. Why?
After the death of Michael Brown, various social media sites began listing the names of other black men and women who lost their lives to police brutality. Some of the names I knew, many I did not. Why?
I don’t know the answers to many of these questions, but by asking them, I’m breaking a silence. I’m confessing white privilege—privilege that I didn’t ask for and wish I didn’t have—and attempting to step into a different kind of reality than what I’ve known in the past. I’m confessing that in the ways that I have been silent in the past, I have been complicit in this oppressive structure of white privilege. I am confessing that, as a church and as a society, we need to begin a deeper process of listening to the stories of non-white people in our lives, to attempt to understand the history of racial injustice and oppression in our country, and to actively seek out opportunities to learn under the leadership of those whose experiences and perspectives are different from ours.
The following are some of the ways that I am going to attempt to live as a result of this confession, and are ways that perhaps can be useful to some of my fellow white friends.
1. Find and participate in environments that value diversity, especially nonprofit organizations that work in areas of community building, poverty relief, and education.
Find an organization in your community with a diverse population and volunteer there. Make a concerted effort to get to know people of a different race and/or culture than you, whose experiences may not have been as easy as yours. I know many people who thought they knew everything about how to solve poverty, welfare, and racism, without ever having worked with people who are affected by these realities every day, and when they began volunteering in nonprofit agencies, their perspectives drastically changed. It is problematic if someone thinks s/he knows how to solve the problem of poverty, but has never known people who are experiencing it. It is problematic if someone judges a person on welfare, but has never known anyone trying to live through that system. It is problematic for a person to claim that racism doesn’t exist in our country, when that person does not have any non-white friends from whom s/he can learn.
2. Find some news sources that consistently report on the experiences of non-white people in this country, and check those sources often.
After seeing the names of people of color who have been killed or profiled by police in recent months, I wondered why I did not recognize a lot of them. I realized that the news sources I relied on were not reporting these things. I have since started following The Root, Urban Cusp, and ColorLines, where I’m sure it doesn’t take military tanks rolling down the streets of a suburban neighborhood for news to make headlines.
3. Learn some history.
In my undergraduate program, I read a book titled Long Memory: The Black Experience in America, which profoundly shaped the way that I think about the experience of black individuals in American society. The authors state in the preface, “Convinced that the ideas articulated by blacks in poetry, song, folklore, novels, cartoons, plays, speeches, autobiographies, newspapers, and magazines reflected their attitudes and significantly affected their actions in the political, social, and economic arenas, we have relied heavily on such material in developing our themes.” The inclusion of various art forms in this history book not only makes for an incredibly interesting read, but also reminds me that the people in these history books are real, their stories are real, their pain is real. Other books that have been recommended to me in recent days are The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, Racial Domination, Racial Progress: The Sociology of Race in America by Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer, and The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad. I hope you’ll join me in reading some of them.
4. Be willing to be unpopular.
This week I attended a local event in which artists, activists, columnists, and scholars presented on the events of Ferguson. One presenter urged participants that if they wanted to be a part of a movement of change, they needed to be okay with being unpopular. One of my professors, Brian Bantum, said something similar once—that affecting change in the area of racial justice means being “that person” who always brings up the topic of race, who is always willing to say something and challenge people when it is clear that a racial injustice is happening. As a white person, talking about race has not made me the most popular kid in the club. People have argued with me, put me down, called me an idiot, and made me feel both incredibly angry and “less than” all at once. Despite this, however, I have committed to speaking up. It’s too important. I would rather lose friends than stay silent when black men and women are being systematically oppressed and executed by the very systems that have served to keep me privileged. If I am silent, I am complicit.
As the church, in this moment, it is incredibly important to be a part of this conversation. It is important for white people in the church to listen to our non-white brothers and sisters, to learn from their experience, to come under their leadership. As Christena Cleveland notes, “The gospel calls us not only into individual faith in Christ, but also into the multi-racial family of God.” This means that white Christians must be intentional about forming relationships with non-white people, learning about the experiences of non-white people in our society and elsewhere, and working to build bridges across racial divides through education and raising awareness.
I will conclude with this, from Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson’s book The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change. They state, “What should the church’s response be in a world being torn apart by prejudice, hatred, and fear? We believe it is imperative that the Christian church regain its integrity to address injustice. This will require that we relinquish the individualism and isolation that have been prevalent among evangelical Christians in the past, so that we can develop new models of racial reconciliation, social justice and spiritual healing. Our unity and reconciliation efforts could be the greatest witness of the church to the power of the gospel in the twenty-first century” (Kindle Location 148).
There is indeed hope. Hope is found in the body of Christ uniting as one to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yolk, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Is. 58:6). White Christians—don’t be silent. Don’t be complicit. Ask questions. Listen. Become more informed. Don’t be afraid to start conversations, and don’t be afraid to be unpopular. This conversation is simply too important to ignore.