This morning as I scanned my social media feeds I felt overwhelmingly burdened by the tragic story of Eric Garner, as if the weight of all the other stories that have haunted us recently—Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice . . .—had come to rest together with his on my chest. #Icantbreathe became more than a hashtag; it became a physical reality. Part of the pressure forcing air out of my lungs was the weight of injustice and the sadness of such a senseless loss of life. The other part was the weight that kept me from adding my voice to the protest: there are police officers among my family and friends. Do I stay silent? Do I run the risk of offending people that I love? In the end I decided to write this piece in observation of #StayWokeAdvent because silence is complicity. It’s high time to wake up and speak out. I am writing as a white American, and when I say “us” I am talking first to myself and second to people like me.
I have seen a meme circulating on Facebook that says “Not all cops are bad. Not all black people are criminals. Not all white people are racist. #StopLabeling.” All of those statements are true, and “Stop Labeling” is an admirable sentiment, but there are two problems: 1) When there is injustice, we need to label it for exactly what it is, vocally and incessantly, and 2) We need to realize that even those of us who reject those labels are complicit in the system that perpetuates injustice. This is especially true when we remain silent, when we take refuge in the dream that we can simply reject labels and everything will be okay. We need to be awakened. Even more, we need to #StayWoke.
It is easy to reject a label. We see people do it all the time when they say “I’m not racist, but . . .” followed by something that is invariably racist to some extent. We can tell ourselves that we are not racist, and even comfort and justify ourselves with that thought in the face of the systemic injustices that often play out on television or via social media without affecting us directly. We can easily excuse ourselves and think that this is not our problem. We may be momentarily jolted awake by a tragedy, but then we shrug it off—after all, it isn’t our fault—and we sink back into our dream.
Like many white kids in the south, I grew up exposed to racist language and ideology. Most of it came from people who would reject the label “racist,” and most of them were good people. But they were, and probably still are, asleep, unaware of the divide between their ideology and reality. All of those words and ideas that I heard in my youth have not gone away; they still rattle around in my brain and sometimes surface. Although I hate to admit it, sometimes they probably do affect my actions even though I make a conscious effort to avoid them. As the Avenue Q cast sings with truthful humor, “Everyone’s a little bit racist,” and though sometimes the effects are inconsequential, other times they are deadly. That’s why it’s so important to #StayWoke. To pay attention. To actively work against the stereotypes and assumptions that have been subtly or not-so-subtly ingrained into us since childhood. To listen to one another’s stories and see the truth of how people of color experience the world and of how we are complicit in that experience, whether by commission or omission.
At various moments in my life, events have broken through to wake me from my complacent “I’m not a racist, it’s not my problem” slumber. I may share more of them before #StayWokeAdvent is over, but for now I will only share one. It isn’t an event that I can pinpoint precisely, but rather a gradual realization that solidified and hit me one day with a jolt hard enough to startle me awake.
I have several black female friends and acquaintances who, like me, have sons. I identify with them when I see pictures of their kids on Facebook or on a desk at work. We are moms of boys. We are alike.
But when a black man—especially a young black man—dies unjustly, we are not alike. I am sad. I am perhaps indignant. I think something needs to be done to keep this from happening to someone else’s child. But they . . . they are afraid. They are angry, I’m sure, but from what I see (and I see only a tiny glimpse), mostly they are frightened and worried about how to raise and protect their little boys. About how to ensure that this does not happen to their child.
I cannot imagine that anguish. I worry about my boys, but not in that way. I lie in bed at night with my boys and read books filled with police cars and police motorcycles. The boys point to them excitedly and we talk about sirens and lights and policemen who are there to help when someone is in trouble. That is our reality, but assuming that everyone else participates in that reality is only a dream. At some point I woke up. Now I lie there and I wonder if the black moms that I know read those same books to their little boys. If they do, what do they say? I suspect that it isn’t the same thing that I say. Their reality is not my reality.
To assume that our version of reality is the truth is to be asleep. In the light of recent events, however, it is even more pernicious than that. It is to intentionally ignore the stories that have startled us out of our slumber. It is to turn down the volume, roll over, snuggle into our blanket of privilege, and drift back into an American dream that exists only for some of us.
I don’t want to be caught sleeping through the pain of others like the disciples in the garden.
I want to #StayWoke.
For more information about #StayWokeAdvent, search the hashtag or visit Theology of Ferguson on Twitter.
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