We’ve read the gentle rundown of facts. We were lucky to have Alaina write such a beautiful piece on the ongoing and often painful healing process as a black Christian. We winced when presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton declared “all lives matter” the same week that President Obama declared that for too long we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. We felt the gut punch of Jon Stewart’s frank and despondent monologue about America’s disparity of response to the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and then we felt it again and again after learning that blacks experience the most hate crime, that whites have a racist view of black protesters, and that the media will stop at nothing to humanize a white terrorist.
We still need to talk about Charleston, but we really need to talk about White America: a country defined by white supremacy, a country where institutionalized racism permeates every aspect of its citizens’ existence, a country that traded one kind of segregation for another kind of segregation and called it de-segregation. White America serves white Americans and rarely values the lives of non-white Americans. In holding White America accountable, we need to start with white Americans.
Steady or Not
As humans, we are constantly looking to others to model — and mirror — our behavior, good or bad. We do this every day without thinking, like herd animals, but it is wilder and more plaintive when something or someone kills us off en masse and we are forced to reckon with how badly we want to live.
We’d been outside gardening when the bombs darkened a sunny Marathon Monday in 2013, just six miles away. Loved ones found out before we did, and there wasn’t a phone line of ours that didn’t ring off the hook from 3,000 miles away to make sure we were safe and sound. Our inboxes and social media feeds were full of check-ins from family and friends; even people we’ve never met sent messages of concern and worry and love that week. Through the baffling and surreal nightmare of having an unprecedented manhunt rage across the Charles with the whole country watching in horror, their support made it possible to remember the light and good in the world.
When our worlds are rocked by terror, support can steady us, and sometimes save us.
Most of us like to think of ourselves as supportive, and know what it feels like when we’re not supported: the cliche of the empty seat in the audience from the perspective of whoever is noticing it, the forgotten birthday, the sting of disloyalty. We don’t even like a peripheral lack of support, and dislike the idea of others feeling abandoned, forgotten or left alone.
We were still sheltered-in-place on Friday morning when our daughter realized that her dad hadn’t tried to reach her. She asked us just to make sure. It would have been easy to lie, to change the subject, to make excuses. We could protect her from a terrorist that day, but not from the truth.
It turns out that the opposite of support is silence, and choosing one over the other shapes our relationships.
From backyards to battlegrounds
Three months later, Black Lives Matter was born. In many ways, white silence is public enemy number one.
Over the past two years, the movement has only become more relevant. In lieu of progress, escalation. White America’s continued silence and inaction coalesced in Charleston at Emanuel AME Church in sickening violence, robbing the blameless of life, of innocence, of redemption. What should make any barely decent human bury their face in their hands with anguish has driven White America to bury itself in denial.
In contrast, Black Lives Matter has never been louder or more poignant than it is now, including within our own LGBTQ communities.While I am not in the habit of keeping company with racist, misogynist or transphobic individuals, even by extension, this was easier to do back home, safe(r) in the confines of an old-school Bay Area bubble. If your priorities align with rape apologies for Woody Allen, supporting MichFest, or #AllLivesMatter, that’s your choice. Mine is whether or not to expose my own circles — black family members, trans friends, QPOCs — to that brand of blatant disregard for their lives. Friends often make their excuses — ignorant cousins, withering uncles, childhood friends they haven’t seen in years, the usual — in an attempt to wave away the aggression in their feeds and I, like many others, make a mental note and file it away.
Needless to say, I have a smaller circle now, both IRL and online.
What is usually quiet and steady but still only mildly depressing personal social work becomes crisis management whenever we are faced with a Charleston. White America loathes not controlling the narrative and having its silence challenged. You can almost hear it bristle whenever Black Lives Matter comes up (again), taking up space. If you don’t think there’s a timer on how long we’re allowed to talk about terrorism in connection with the massacre at Mother Emanuel (spoiler alert: the FBI’s still talking in circles despite Loretta Lynch and Hillary Clinton both making public statements), you need to pay closer attention. Ditto on racism and the Confederate flag.
On the flip side, POCs (and our allies) know our online backyards are going to become battlegrounds for an indeterminate period of time. Logging off is a luxury and its tax is a guilt that gnaws at your already raw conscience. Strategies like #blacklivesmatter aren’t effective because they are intermittent; they have to be indefatigable. We don’t get to stop patrolling the online real estate we’ve worked so hard to nurture and build (in many cases to escape or recover from offline or IRL racism), we do it running on fumes through crushing grief on top of all the “normal” stuff because we know what happens when we don’t.
USA, USA, USA
Nothing gets the salve of patriotism oozing like terrorism ripping a wound in our nation’s psyche, provided the act meets the criteria for White America. Goodwill bursts the usual societal dams we all get stuck behind and we bask in the light that shines from the brave smiles of those who’ve lost everything but refuse to give in to the terrorists. Patriotism doesn’t doubt itself. Of course it’s easier to get back on your feet when you know someone’s there to catch you, to cheer you on and put their unwavering faith in you. When someone believes in you, it’s magic. (Would we even bother with love or one another if not for that magic? I can’t imagine we would.) There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s one of the better aspects of human nature.But when White America responds to an act of terror on the Black community by withholding the kind of support it has consistently shown itself, is that not racism exactly?
Is White America so uncomfortable at history repeating that it’s just going to slide into a catatonic infinite loop of passive racism and hope no one notices?
White America will look you dead in the eye after a white policeman cracks open the jaw of a 12-year-old girl in a bathing suit or empties his bullets into a 12-year-old playing in a park, and say, without a trace of irony, “They’re just doing their jobs,” and go to the trouble of creating #NotAllCops because the idea that even the most innocent black lives matter is unpalatable. Efforts to bring attention to police brutality since Oscar Grant in 2009 have grown substantially, but the media still uses language to relentlessly shame and silence national protest, which gets parroted by White America in derailment Bingo-winning dialogue on any subject having to do with race.When Bree Newsome, a bona fide superhero, scaled the South Carolina statehouse flagpole to take the flag down her damn self, she was arrested, the flag replaced and re-raised. Waiting for mainstream media to cover a possible string of arsonists targeting black churches in the south in the wake of Charleston is like watching a single ant try to herd a pack of elephants. We’ve already forgotten the five-year-old girl who played dead through a storm of bullets in order to stay alive in her own church. (Meanwhile, Batkid has a movie deal. Batkid isn’t the problem — when both children have fought for their lives, one against terminal disease and the other against pure, unadulterated hatred for the color of her skin, and we more or less pretend one of them doesn’t exist, it’s our society that’s the problem.)
When black people try to set reasonable boundaries, many of them in an effort to combat racism and save lives, White America seems to have one of two responses:
To stonewall with an astonishing efficacy or to issue a menacing Who do you hell do you think you are?
Business as Usual
The week Dylann Roof chose to terrorize a historical black church in Charleston, killing nine, Jon Stewart clocked in to work with genuine despair, an acute sense of resignation and that he wanted fuck-all to do with anything other than talking to a Muslim teen feminist Nobel laureate, and people noticed. It was an impressive broadcast of his inability to business-as-usual.
When President Obama let excruciating seconds pass without speaking or making eye contact with the camera before an audience of millions in his national address that same day, he also signaled the inability to business-as-usual. It was heartbreaking.
Two men, influential in their own ways, chose to communicate not with the usual pro-USA rallying cries of “They can’t beat us!” anti-terrorism, but with voices so heavy they sounded tethered to ten thousand ships at the bottom of every ocean on earth. The whole world was out there watching, and neither tried, not really, to hide the strain on their faces that said they barely had it in them to tread water, let alone do their jobs.
What does that tell us? Are we truly listening?When Obama returned to the public eye a week later, he said that we absolutely cannot abide a blithe return to business as usual. That’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.
But if black survival has so often depended on white comfort and black people forgive because they need to survive, how do we all move forward?
Southern Discomfort: “What is true in the south is true for America”
Jon Stewart didn’t even bother to ask White America “Where are you now?,” he just gave us the answer: “We still won’t do jackshit. Yeah. That’s us.”
President Obama said there is no shortcut, that we don’t need more talk about race. An open heart, “more than any particular policy or analysis is what’s called upon right now.”
He means yours, White America.
So I’ll bother asking: Are you going to show up or what?
I…I don’t understand the question.
Yes, you do, Rachel. Yes, you do, White America. So answer it. Show up. Stop making excuses, it’s killing people. Stand up to your friends and your colleagues and your family members. Support each other when you see someone standing up to racism. Power in numbers works both ways — use yours for good. Quit coddling ignorance because it’s easier, or because you’re afraid, or because it feels better. Take down the flag. Enact a gun control solution. (And save your damn breath on both those “issues” — it’s not hard and nobody buys the petulant, deliberately obtuse arguments in defense of either.) Don’t pretend you don’t see racism, don’t look the other way, don’t act like you don’t have a dog in this fight. You started this fight. It’s been two centuries and enough is enough.
Furthermore, you are not entitled to black people prioritizing your comfort and your safety over their own; refuse to enable people or situations that rely on this sort of harmful, racist gaslighting. Does that piss you off? Wanna leave a comment about it? A. That’s telling, and B. Too damn bad, we’re not going to sit here and listen to what makes y’all think you’re different from Dylann Roof anymore. Your cowardice is the same as his, and that cowardice trickles down and calcifies into a bedrock of systemic racism that destroys black communities, whether it’s a tiny white girl tear, a 10-gallon-full cowboy hat or the self-satisfied, faux-liberal killer mist of racism a la The Hunger Games.
You either care enough to do what’s hard and what’s right, or you are the same as him, you really are. Two sides, same coin.
None of this is going to feel comfortable. That’s what Netflix is for. You have to show up. As Hillary Crosley Coker at Jezebel wrote, “The jig is up. The world knows we’ve got a closet full of racism, that we’re no poster children, that we systematically subjugate people of color and the poor.” This country can protect you from a terrorist on most days, but not from the truth. Not from yourselves.
Choose silence instead of support, and the jig is up for you, too.