Ferguson Missouri, November 2014
Yup, I’m white. Been white all my life. No kidding. Grew up in the 1960’s, during which I watched JFK, RFK and MLK funerals on television and George Wallace run for office from a wheelchair after someone shot him too. I was 13 in 1968 when the riots in Newark erupted a few miles away from my home in the Watsessing section of Bloomfield/East Orange. My grandfather was a retired Newark cop. Everyone was scared. Some say the city of Newark has still not recovered from this episode of rage and protest. But, I am not going to comment on the violent protests in Ferguson in the context of 1968. The media has done enough with that subject. Nobody wants destruction and violence. Nobody wanted Michael Brown to lose his life.
I am here to write about the comments I have seen from friends and family on social media outlets since August when Michael Brown was killed in the altercation with Darren Wilson, police officer.
Most offensive of the comments I have read on my FB timeline was a suggestion that the cameras leave Ferguson and that the country turn its attention to the real problems we face: ISIS, homegrown terrorism, hunger, drugs, Veterans, illegal immigrants, the IRS…that the media is propagating a ‘myth of white cops victimizing innocent unarmed black teenagers’ and it is a ‘distraction’. This from someone who doesn’t believe white privilege exists and writes, “I object to that term. White privilege. It dismisses white people’s right to have an opinion on race.”
As a response to the decision by the grand jury to not indict Darren Wilson and the ensuing response by the Ferguson community I brought this to my classroom. Freshman writing. Montclair State University. Racial mix in the classroom? 17 students, 6 black, 11 white. Second section of same class? 17 students, 1 black, 16 white. I am not looking at Latina/o as a separate category. Some I am putting in the black category may identify as Latino/a rather than African American but, well, we can dissect forever so I’m letting this go for now. One class also has an Asian student enrolled.
I played video from the CNN coverage of events in Ferguson. Prosecutors press conference, President Obama’s speech, footage of Michael Brown’s mother hearing the grand jury decision, footage of tear gas and fire and rioting, and some pundit commentary. Then I asked the class to open their books to an essay by Peggy McIntosh entitled “White Privilege, the Invisible Knapsack,” and we took turns reading aloud from it. The essay contains a list of privileges McIntosh says all whites carry around in a virtual knapsack and of which we are unaware. We took each item on the list and paused to reflect upon it. This was written in 1989, long before my students were born. I asked them to consider whether any of the items no longer applied as well as to consider the bigger question about whether they can say they possess these privileges. The comments reveal hesitancy to speak about race in the classroom. An awkwardness sprang up that I hope will ease as we revisit this after the Thanksgiving break. These students will write their final essay of the semester on the topic of Ferguson and racism and particularly reflecting upon white privilege. The results are soon to be revealed.
I added my two cents during our discussion when I had something real to share or when there was silence to fill. Here is what I told them I witnessed in my life that I saw as evidence that racism still happens and is often ignorantly unseen by white people whose experience would never mimic a black person’s experience in similar circumstances.
Recently, this week, a friend posted that she left her purse on the train. As it pulled away, a woman on the train held it up to the window. Rachel saw her and hoped that she would turn it in or at least contact her so she could claim it. She relayed this story to a woman in a doctor’s office who responded by asking, “Was the woman white or black?” Rachel asked why she wanted to know. “You’re more likely to get your purse back if she’s white,” was the reply, triggering an expression of indignation from Rachel, the white mother of two dark-skinned children. This is what is ahead for her children? Rachel is so very aware of the lack of this type of distrust of herself by others simply because she is white. She knows what her children will face in the future if not in the present.
Several years ago, my mixed race friend needed help getting to doctor appointments after a fall down the stairs which injured her back while she was pregnant. Baby fine, back crippling with pain and immobility. So I drove her to the hospital, found a wheelchair in the lobby and got her to the floor where the appointment took place. We did this every two weeks. On one occasion, the head nurse who came to wheel my friend into the examining room said to my friend, “What, Dad is not around?” My friend was befuddled by this question about what she thought was her own father who was retired and living 60 miles away. I knew better, since I am white. “She is assuming that you’ve been left as a single mom by the father of your child because you are darker skinned than she is,” I leaned over to explain to my confused friend. She gasped and grasped the significance of this woman’s subtly expressed racism.
This occurred a few years earlier. After visiting the Giants practice field with her boyfriend and nieces and nephews, my hairdresser leaned over and whispered to me about the excitement the kids expressed over meeting Lawrence Taylor, now retired Giants great. “He’s just another n – – – – -,” she said in reference to him, to my utter dismay and anger. I wanted to get out of the chair and leave but calmed myself so I could finish my haircut. To this day I am angry at MYSELF for not doing so. I never went back to her after that. What angers me more than anything is the assumption by the hairdresser that it was okay, because I am white, to share that ignorant attitude with me, assuming I was on the same page.
I can go further back in time (1960’s) and tell more stories. My sisters remember our grandmother who shouted with fear that “a colored man got my granddaughter” after my claustrophobic sister, age 8, took too long on the stairs at Haynes Department store in Newark while Grandma, other sister and I took the elevator. Said claustrophobic sister went one flight too many and took a few extra minutes out of my grandmother’s eyesight before she returned, safe and sound, of course. I will never forget Grandma shouting to the black elevator operator (yes, this is how long ago this was) about “I thought a colored man got her.” Need I interpret this through the lens of white privilege? Why a ‘colored’ man? Can you imagine now that a black woman could let her child out of her sight today and worry that a ‘white policeman’ might ‘get’ her child? We could discuss this endlessly and see racism on both sides of this coin. Cultural distrust across the board…how do we erase this from our society? Which fear is unfounded considering recent events? My grandmother’s clearly was. I knew that at age 7.
This Michael Brown Darren Wilson altercation in those particular circumstantial moments in August may have been a response (by the police officer) to a potentially violent attack (by an enraged teenager) which the grand jury seems to have determined to be true based on what is known.
The real causality that lies under the responses of each of these young men, one to the other, is the distrustful relationship between the young black teenager and the police officer whose job it was to keep a community safe long before the two crossed paths. The roots of this altercation, I think it is safe to say, are found in that historically reinforced distrust, one of the other, on both sides.
Only one man survived this altercation. We only know his testimony. We will never understand Michael Brown’s behavior on that day, in that moment or in what tone of voice it was ‘suggested’ to him by Wilson that he walk on the sidewalk, not the street. We will also never fully understand why Wilson, clearly outsized physically by his suspect took this opportunity to attempt to subdue Michael Brown and his companion (who fled) singlehandedly. Was it because he was in uniform and carried a gun? Bad judgment? Looking for someone to bully? Angry at being challenged verbally by Michael Brown who suggested he was too weak to use his gun? This speculation will not bring back the dead Michael Brown. Looting and burning will also not bring him back.
What do I really want to end this with? Let’s try this… Warranted or unwarranted coercion by a police officer, of a white teenager who has never been bullied by a cop (because of his privilege of being white) will result in less fear and perhaps less aggressive responses than Michael Brown’s.
Warranted or unwarranted coercion by a police officer, of a black teenager, who has witnessed the results of other bullying by cops of others like himself, triggers a more aggressive survival response from the black teenager. The essence of this awareness of the potential harm to himself that comes simply from being accused is the result of the ugly element of racism that insidiously resides in our society. Some will say he responded this aggressively because he had just committed a crime…and this too is true (we know now). This seems to be the element many have forgotten to consider in this outrage and forgotten too by those who classify Michael as just a kid walking down the street.
To my white privileged relatives and friends, I just want to say, we cannot pretend the death of this one young man is what this explosion of rage and protest in Ferguson is all about. It is deeper and it is inside the fabric of our people – all of us, white, black or any other color in between, so let’s stop pretending it isn’t. Rather, let’s acknowledge it with all the appropriate humility because only then can healing begin. Like all the protesters we have seen in pictures, since August, with their hands up, with signs and captions reading, “Don’t Shoot,” let us all submit to the ultimate authority in our hearts. Maybe what some call a ‘myth’ of white police officers bullying black teenagers does not apply in the case of Michael Brown who had just committed a robbery, but don’t stand there and tell me this ‘myth’ is a fabrication. It is deeply true and the rage in the streets is a rebellion against the systematic denial of that truth by those who have not experienced it, can’t experience it, and for whom denial of the truth is simply a defense against society’s shame.