The events that are occurring in Ferguson are important to all of us. Not should be. Are. The very least we can do as allies is stay informed as events move forward. If you have not been following along, start now. There is great reporting to be found from those actually in Ferguson. On television, check out the best work from Chris Hayes on MSNBC and Jake Tapper on CNN. Some of the best first-hand accounts and reporting are on Twitter, so check out St. Louis alderman Antonio French (@AntonioFrench), the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery), Buzzfeed’s Joel Anderson (@blackink12), Vice’s Tim Pool who has been live-streaming (@Timcast), the Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) and for how Washington D.C. and the Department of Justice are responding, Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidner (@ChrisGeidner). These are just a few, and the Ferguson hashtag is also informative.
This all began with the killing of an unarmed teenager. The story of Mike Brown and its resolution are extremely important. The best reporting will follow it as it unfolds through the continuing release of information and criminal proceedings, and that conversation will continue to be important as we all pay attention, as it should be.
Knowing that, I want to consider the larger issue this specific situation has brought to the forefront. There are a multitude of complicated problems that have arisen through the protests in Ferguson and the police response. The militarization of American police forces. The subjugation of freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Criminal elements taking advantage of peaceful protests. The depiction of black people in the media. The imagery the press focuses on in depicting protests. The control of the narrative. The list goes on.
These are all important things to address as a country and society. However, at the root of the entire situation is the issue of racism and the racial divide in our country. It is a systemic problem that we cannot keep ignoring. It is about all of us, and it affects all of us.
Every time an incident happens that creates enough response to bring a situation involving race to the national dialogue, we get close to having the real discussion. We tip toe on the line mentioning a “racial component” so we can nod to the root issue. Then we focus intensely only on the specifics of the situation because they are easier to deal with than the systemic problem.
There is a very real danger that in the case of Mike Brown, this will happen again. Make no mistake, I’m not diminishing the importance of justice in this case. However, if defeat or victory is based only on the specific result of this case, then regardless of the outcome, we can “move on” when it is done. Again. Like we have done in every other race-based crisis. Black people invariably bring up for discussion the elements of the greater problem along with each of these situations, but the white majority population focuses on addressing the specific instance as an isolated moment rather than an ongoing cultural issue. Once it is over, we leave the greater problems rooted in racial disparity behind. We cannot keep doing that.
As white people, seriously, as white people, we have to acknowledge there is a massive problem. Whether Darren Wilson is convicted of a crime or not, the problem will still exist. The ability to believe that our justice system will deal fairly with the facts and evidence of this case is proof of the great divide. Many black people do not believe justice from the system is ever possible. If the outcome of this case is in line with their understanding of the facts, it will be viewed by many as a welcome exception, but not a new rule.
We have to acknowledge and begin truly understanding that black people experience our America in a fundamentally different way than we as white people do. Many white people get upset at the mention of white privilege, as though it somehow devalues their accomplishments in life. It does not. That is not the point. To stop listening there just reinforces the very concept.
We have to be willing to listen. Black people are speaking loudly through the specific lens of the Mike Brown case, but the issues they raise are rooted in the systems of our culture. If Ferguson is shocking, it’s only because we have not been paying attention. Many black people’s distrust of the police, the justice system, voting procedures, educational opportunities and government at every level from community to federal is based in their lived reality.
We can argue with it, we can say they should not feel that way, we can say it will not get better if they do not believe it will get better – and we will simply show ourselves to be in denial of reality because we are afforded the ability to believe it is not true. That it is not many of our experience does not make it less real, it makes it that much worse that it is the experience for so many.
It can be seen in the simple difference in the way we teach our children about authority figures in society. I was taught to respect the police. That’s it. And the same goes for the vast majority of white people. Ask any black person, regardless of socioeconomic status or location in our country, how they teach their children to interact with the police, and then sit back for a complex monologue on behavior and attitude. And that’s just one extremely simple example.
We have to let black people lead this dialogue. We cannot direct the narrative, or tell them what we think they are saying. We have to be able to hear and understand the true differences in the way they are treated in our country, and then together we have to figure out what we can do about it. Dismissing their experiences is arrogance. Denying their examples is willful ignorance. Ignorance afforded by our long history of built-in privilege.
It is not simple. There are certainly no easy answers. Showing up for the conversation prepared to acknowledge that there are actual differences across everything from voting to job opportunities to education to services available in urban areas is the very least we can do if we want to be a part of working toward solutions.
We cannot be defensive. We cannot be dismissive. We cannot continue to deny that if we are not actually and actively working to make it better, we are making it worse. If you’re response to any of this is to say, “but they…” followed by anything, you’ve missed the point completely.
I attended the National Moment of Silence in Los Angeles organized nationally by Feminista Jones (@feministajones) and others last Thursday. I wanted to do something while genuinely unsure of what that should be. At least I could add one more body to the crowd saying “what’s happening in Ferguson is not okay on so many levels”. People of every color were in attendance, and there were other white people sharing my question of “but what can we actually do?”
It is easy to point to Donald Sterling-style overt racism and say “that’s racist” and then feel comfortable denouncing it knowing that “we’re certainly not like that.” It is much harder to see or acknowledge the more subtle ways we each support systemic racism by enjoying the advantages of being white in America and doing nothing to equalize those advantages for people of all colors.
Doing nothing contributes to racism in our country. It bears repeating – when we do nothing, we are contributing to perpetuating racism in the systems of our country. In proportional representation in all levels of government. In law enforcement. In all forms of entertainment. In beauty standards. In so many small ways we do not even notice that all add up to a truly enormous amount of social, political and economic inequality.
So, to return to the difficult question – what can we do? As white people, how do we contribute to real change without appropriating the dialogue? To discover the answer we must first show up, we must then sit back and we must truly be willing to listen to perspectives and experiences that are fundamentally different from our own and acknowledge them as definitive reality in order to amplify black voices in finding and creating actionable solutions that get us closer to an America where equality is an experiential reality for all of us.
Before we can do anything, we as white people, with all of our systemic privilege and power, have to, all of us, admit that racism is an ongoing problem that we all perpetuate if we are not active in the fight against it. And we have to keep talking about it.