(A note to white folks.)
When I was a teenager, a relative told me that if I brought a Black man home, they’d shoot him. Growing up, my relative said these things offhandedly, but I didn’t always respond to them. The only serious arguments we ever had were about race, so I picked my battles. Some days I would argue, other days I would shrug it off and try to ignore the blatantly racist things that were said. On this particular day, I chose to ignore the comment.
I grew up in the Milwaukee area, a city that consistently ranks as one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. It has also been deemed the worst city for Black Americans to live. While Black communities on the north side suffered from funding cuts to education, incarceration rates disproportionate to the rest of the population, and poverty, I spent my childhood in white suburbs just outside of Milwaukee, blissfully unaware of daily injustices occurring just miles away (for more info on the history of white flight and racial segregation, see this). I attended a predominately white private evangelical school, where my Bible teacher mockingly read aloud passages from the Black Bible Chronicles, instilling in us the value of ridiculing Ebonics—all in the name of Christianity, of course. These experiences perpetuated the notion that segregation was best, and that mocking Black culture was acceptable—and even right.
In July 2016, two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were killed by police officers. Later that week, five Dallas police officers were killed at a Black Lives Matter protest. Though the shooter was not affiliated with the BLM movement, many people (mostly white) were quick to denounce protestors as the ones to perpetuate the violence—if they hadn’t been protesting, these police officers wouldn’t have been killed. A week later in Baton Rouge (where Alton Sterling was murdered), three more police officers were killed. I remember reading a post from a white person on Facebook that simply said, “I’m done.”
After these events, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in the Atlantic regarding anti-police violence, in which he said, “A community consistently subjected to violent discrimination under the law will lose respect for it, and act beyond it. When such actions stretch to mass murder it is horrific. But it is also predictable.”
I couldn’t help but think the same thing. Horrific, yes. But predictable.
On August 13, riots occurred on the north side of Milwaukee after a Black man was shot to death by a police officer. As I’ve watched the comments roll in through social media, white people have been quick to say things like, “This isn’t helping their cause,” or “Look at them destroying their own communities.” But the reality is that, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (a man who is woefully misunderstood and diluted by white folks): “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Riots happen when white supremacy continues to pillage and destroy Black and Brown communities. It is in white people’s refusal to confess our racist history, our refusal to acknowledge systemic racism and implicit racial bias, our refusal to offer reparations for the harm we have caused, our refusal to listen to the cries of the unheard—it is in this refusal that we ourselves are complicit when a building burns in the wake of yet another Black man dead at the hands of police—police who, regardless of their race, have been indoctrinated into a criminal justice system built on white supremacy.
White people have much to answer for. Racial injustice and white supremacy is the ground we have tilled since the inception of what we call the “United States.” It’s in the way we enslaved Black and Brown people to build a country on land we stole from Native people, yet we celebrate our Independence Days and Columbus Days without a second thought. It’s in the way we’ve never given substantial reparations to the people we’ve enslaved and murdered in pursuit of our material conquest and vie for power. It’s in the way whiteness was created as a means of justifying these acts of terror—and in the name of Christianity, too. It’s in the way we claim slavery is over, but say nothing about mass incarceration. It’s in the way we vote. The organizations we put our money into. The racist comments we let slide. Our unwillingness to try and understand a reality different from our own. Our denial that racial disparity exists. The oppressive policies that we say we don’t agree with, but tacitly accept when we refuse to challenge them, or when we dismiss the people who seek to change these policies through activism as “whining SJWs.”
On that day fifteen years ago when my relative made that terribly racist and violent comment, perhaps my lack of challenge to it, individually, didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps challenging them wouldn’t have made any difference. But the problem is in understanding that moment as an individual moment, separate from every other moment. The problem is failing to see that moment as one small piece of a grander narrative. These things might seem small, but it’s when we let these comments, these ideologies, these policies, these implicit biases, perpetuate—when we don’t confront them the moment we see them happening, when we let them slide because it’s simply a battle we don’t want to fight today—these are what make us complicit to racism and social unrest. It’s when we let our relatives say racist, violent things and do not challenge them that we become a part of what’s happening on the north side.
I don’t live in Milwaukee anymore, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore what happened this weekend as though it’s not relevant to me. We do not exist in a vacuum. White people cannot dismiss rioting as “those people” doing a “wrong thing” — because it is a cry of pain from a wound that our ancestors have created and we have perpetuated, a wound that, rather than trying to heal, we continue to stick our knives into because we’d prefer to believe that “race doesn’t matter” and “this isn’t our fault.” This riot was not the singular cause of a singular event—it was a breaking point from the systemic oppression that has been building, layer upon layer, for decades. We cannot distance ourselves from these events simply because they make us feel uncomfortable or angry. We cannot ignore the reality that white supremacy created the conditions that lead to riots. We cannot pretend that a Black man dead at the hands of police or a building burnt as an expression of outrage and pain has nothing to do with us.
So don’t act self-righteously when riots happen, because we have systematically and unapologetically oppressed Black and Brown people day in and day out. Don’t expect an apology for rioting when we haven’t apologized for the ways we’ve pillaged Black and Brown communities for hundreds of years. Don’t expect members of the communities we have decimated to settle for a reality built on oppression. Don’t get mad when people we’ve oppressed say ‘no more.’
It’s time for us to see ourselves not as individuals, the ‘north side’ not as people separate from ourselves, but all of us as one body. When one part suffers, every part suffers with it. We cannot afford to simply say “I’m done” and ignore what’s happening because it makes us uncomfortable. We must begin to repair the damage we and our ancestors have inflicted. We must invest in communities that our systemic racism has gutted. We must use and divest our privilege for the sake of the marginalized. We cannot respond to injustice by saying, “I refuse to be blamed for what my ancestors did!” Through our tacit dismissal of racism, we are at fault, and when we have sinned against another member of the body, we cannot simply ignore it. We must confess and redress it — so that we can all find healing.
I’ll close with this, a Facebook comment on the events in Milwaukee from a woman named Alisha Hunt:
It was only a matter of time. You can’t continue to strip resources from people and then question their rage. This part of Milwaukee has always been chained and beaten in Wisconsin’s basement. Milwaukee is the “Great Place on a Great Lake” for those who have choices about where they live, work and go to school. Over the past few years, every effort has been made to choke us out. If one more person starts on the whole “make better choices” rant…the better choices should have been made by the officials charged with creating this environment. Better choices should have been made when they killed high speed rail to prevent blacks from leaving Milwaukee, when they cut school funding, tried to bust up the unions, cut medicare funding, closed neighborhood schools, turned a blind eye to housing discrimination and shady landlord practices. The better decisions to be made, in theory, come in voting but–gerrymandering. So yeah, there’s that. Better choices should have been made rigging the districts. I don’t condone violence and looting, and people should be held accountable for their actions, but I have seen first hand the anger and frustration of the people involved. Instead of asking them “What is wrong with you?” ask and seek to understand “What happened to you?”. #ptsd