Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ferguson: Ignoring the Pain

This morning I sat across the table from a good friend in pain. My friend is African American and the cause of her pain is Ferguson. She, like many of my black friends, was devastated by the grand jury's decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown last August. She, again like many others, sees this as just one more sanctioning of excessive police force toward unarmed African American males. Trayvon Martin (no actual police involved in this shooting), Eric Garner, and most recently, 12 year old Tamir Rice -- all black, all unarmed, all dead.

Certainly these deaths weigh heavily on the heart of my friend and on the hearts of many people in our country and around the world. But the deaths are not the only reason for the hurt I saw on my friend's face this morning. She's been around for awhile and she understands the systems in place that create the environment for shootings like these to occur. What she is having trouble understanding is the silence of the white community of faith around her. No one reached out to her, no one said a word about the grand jury decision. She doesn't understand how people within her own community can be so uncaring.

Here's the thing - my friend's silent white friends are not uncaring. In fact, some of them are the kindest, most caring people I know. They just don't get it. They don't understand the depth of emotion that surrounds the Brown case and others like it for African Americans. For many whites, the response to the shooting is to analyze the facts - what did eye witnesses say? Why didn't their testimonies agree? What does the forensic evidence show? What kind of person was Michael Brown? What kind of person and police officer is Darren Wilson? Is his story credible? Etc., etc., etc.

Now, let me go on record. I don't find Wilson's story credible. Of course, I can't know for sure what happened, but I find his demonizing of Michael Brown suspicious. Yes, there was an altercation before the shooting. But the one response that I can't get out of my head is that of the construction workers who witnessed the shooting. Perhaps you saw the video - here it is again: The way these guys responded, along with the man who walks through the scene with his hands up, unaware he's being videoed, seems too spontaneous and authentic to ignore.

But in a way, that's besides the point. It's more important for me to understand and empathize with the feelings of my African American friends than it is for me to play CSI and analyze the crime scene. I need to accept that my experiences inform my beliefs, and, experientially, I know nothing. I need to listen to those "in the know" if I am to learn.

So, in the spirit of listening, I hope to share some guest posts on this topic from African American friends. It's time to stop analyzing and listen.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

R is for Resentment?

I'm reading a book called "Americanah," by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. LOVE it. Adichie is a Nigerian author who explores U.S. race relations through the eyes of her fictional character, Ifemelu. As an outsider looking in, Ifemelu notices the hierarchies and sub-hiearchies of race. Like me, she is a blogger, but unlike me, her posts are witty, poignant, lucrative, and frequent. She blogs about how people respond to her as a dark skinned woman, and explores topics like racial profiling and the privileging of lighter skin and straighter hair among whites and people of color.

My favorite blog post by Ifemelu is titled, "Understanding America for the Non-American Black: Thoughts on the Special White Friend." She describes the sense of appreciation and relief she feels when she comes across "The White Friend Who Gets It." The White Friend Who Gets It understands how centuries of racism have created systems of oppression that perpetuate poverty and lack of opportunity for some and advantage for others. He or she understands that race really does still matter in this country. Let The White Friend Who Gets It speak for you, Ifemelu suggests, because whiteness allows your friend to say stuff to other whites that black people can't. (I've seen this many times in my classes - when a white person writes about racism, it's ok, but when a black person writes the very same things white students dismiss the work as "biased.")

Why don't more of us white people "get it"? Why is there such division and polarization in the way that many whites (at least many of the whites I know) and many African Americans, especially, view race? As Adichie points out through Ifemelu, polls show that most whites think racism is over and most blacks think it isn't. What quality is required what quality stands in the way of getting it for so many of us?

Taking the all I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten approach, I think it's pretty simple. It's about empathy and the willingness to grow past egocentricity. I need to understand that my experience may not be the experience of people around me. For me, racism is not an issue because I'm white. I'm part of the dominant culture. For someone else, racism is an issue. Even if I don't understand it, can't I accept that racism exists because people who have experienced racism tell me it exists? Do I have to experience something personally in order for it to be true?

Of course not. But resentment stands in the way of empathy and fuels egocentricity. If we, as whites, spend all of our psychic energy feeling blamed and defensive over the topic of racism, we will resent, rather than understand, people of color who share their experiences with racism. That wall of resentment will cause us to say things like, "Black people can be racist, too," and "My uncle didn't get a job because a black person got it," and "I'm not racist, but black people should stop acting like victims and get over it," etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, you should read the book. Ifemelu says it much better than I ever could. And then maybe more of us could try a little bit harder to be a white friend who gets it.