This blog is hard to write, which is in part why it’s taken me one week to do it… And, I’m taking my discomfort and sense of being overwhelmed by this task as a sign that it must be done.
One week ago, I travelled with some Indianapolis friends and my fiance down to Ferguson–the site of teenager Michael Brown’s controversial shooting, days of protest by the black community there, and the subject of national attention and, it seems, starkly split opinions.
The Ferguson incident and all the experiences I’ve had around it up until now still tangle up in my mind, so I’ll do my best to present this in a way that makes sense, does justice to the subject and subjects.
I want to begin with some context on race, racism in the U.S., and my own experiences with and feelings on the topic. In the following post, I’ll share the variety of people, perspectives and insights we encountered on our journey through words, pictures and videos.
* * *
Issues around oppression, social disparities and inequality have always been close to my heart.
Now, I’m a white girl raised with plenty of privilege. My doctor Mom and mathematician Dad, while never spoiling me, provided me with a lot of opportunities and financial support. I had mostly white friends at school and lived in a white neighborhood. My own lack of actual experience on the other side of the race line always makes me hesitant about speaking about racial issues, despite the fact that they are pretty much always on my mind.
But, what I’m realizing is that this “saying something,” and swallowing the fear that usually holds me back, is one of the most powerful things I can do to actually address the issue and help us move forward as a people toward greater unity, equality and justice.
The first memory of the race/income divide I can recall was when I was a very young girl growing up in Florida. It was a small incident, but sharp, intense and–perhaps more importantly–repeated many, many times.
To get from our tiny little town of Grant up to where the action was in Melbourne, my mother would drive North up US-1, along the ever-gray Indian River, and cut West into the heart of Melbourne along University Blvd.
University ran along the Northern border of Melbourne’s one and only “black” section (there’s very little integration there). Every time Mom would take that left, without exception, she’d lock the doors.
She said nothing. But when the “clunk” of those locks sounded on all four doors of the car, a singular kind of pain and anger erupted in my chest and mind. Her impulse made no sense to me, and it felt wrong. My rage took form in my quick, defiant unlocking my door.
For whatever reason, ever since those car-rides and door-locking in Florida, I’ve been noticing a thick, insidious divide between black and white people… including the attitudes I’ve been encouraged–often not intentionally–to hold about people who are black. In college, I sought out validation for the discomfort I felt with what I’d been told, in ways often more subtle than my Mom’s door-locking, but sometimes not-so-subtle (ie. that welfare recipients, mostly black, are lazy leeches on society, many of whom create their own situations through poor decisions and a deficient culture; that black men are dangerous and to be avoided; that everyone has an equal opportunity in this country, and anyone who says differently is just complaining, trying to blame society for their lack of ambition, skill or willingness to work hard).
Black Middle Class Experience, My pre-college reading of Richard Wright’s Black Boy gained depth with the rich, resounding works of Toni Morrison (Beloved is my favorite) in one literature class. I gravitated toward the black section of my then-home of Sarasota, FL, using my school projects as an excuse to get to know the people who lived there who I had been discouraged (mostly unintentionally) by my upbringing not to seek out–young people, people living in public housing, community activists.
And more and more, my impression that racism is real, yet most of those not immediately touched by it are in denial of this fact, has been nothing but reinforced in my years of life since then–especially as the number of relationships with people of color has grown in my life and I’ve found myself both working and living in mostly black neighborhoods.
My Mom was present when I shared my University Ave. story with about 50 people at a community-building workshop two years ago. Later in the workshop, she stood and told everyone that, in her defense, she was not trying to be racist–and, in fact, her mother was one of the most equality-minded and -acting white women she knew in her town when she grew up. Rather, she was reacting to real potential danger and coming from a place of wanting to protect her child.
In this dynamic — my angered sense of “wrong,” and defiant (though tiny) action to reverse that wrongness; my mom’s original fear, protective action, and eventual defensiveness around that action — I find parallel with the tense, painful, and seemingly unyielding dynamics that keep erupting with increased anger and polarization in this country.
As Ferguson has risen to the national consciousness, I find myself again in the uncomfortable position of knowing two things at the same time. I know that my internal instincts for “wrongness” (and that of hundreds of others regarding Ferguson, and other similar stories) warrant attention and action. I also know that the people perpetuating what feels wrong to me and others, with often small (Mom locking doors) but sometimes not-so-small (Darren Wilson shooting Michael Brown) daily actions, are very possibly not, in their mind, coming from a hurtful or hateful place.
I also know that to simply see both sides is not, in itself, a solution. Yet, the simultaneous holding of these two truths seems such a rare thing in public discourse around Ferguson or race and equality in our current polarized culture.
My anguish–and my hope–lie in the pressure I feel to be an effective bridge… somehow… between these two worlds.
So, in hopes of this, here’s my Ferguson story.