Yesterday I watched the video of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop. It is terrifying. It would be extremely upsetting just in itself, but knowing that the jail she is being taken to — for changing lanes without signaling and expressing her irritation to the police officer when he asked her if she was irritated — knowing that she will die in that jail is just too horrible. And there are thousands of black women and men trying to tell us that this is not an isolated incident, that they live in this fear every day of their lives. The least we can do is listen. Friends, the very, very least we can do is listen without arguing.
If you do not have people of color in your life to listen to, find people online. Follow Austin Channing Brown, Osheta Moore, Bree Newsome, Karen Walrund, and Yolanda Pierce. Listen to them, and read the links they post. Go to Twitter and look up the hashtag #IfIDieInPoliceCustody and read for as long as you can before your tears blind your eyes.
If you can’t do anything else, just listen.
If you can do one thing more, acknowledge their feelings. Say, “I hear you, and I’m sorry.” It helps to have your pain acknowledged, to know that someone hears you. It matters.
If you can do one more thing after that, lament. Go to twitter and look up the hashtag #welament, and add your voice. You don’t need to write a poem or say anything profound. Just say something. Say the names of the victims of the Charleston shootings. Say the names of Sandra Bland, Yvette Smith, and Shelly Frey, say the name of Dajerria Becton. If you don’t have your own words, retweet the words of others. Mourn with those who mourn.
If you start to understand, and want to do one more thing, acknowledge your own complicity. I’ll start:
I, Jessica Kantrowitz, live in a country that was built on slave labor and has deep roots of racism and inequality. Regardless of how kind and inclusive my own thoughts and actions are, I participate in and benefit from the hundreds of small ways that the system is skewed in my favor. As long as I continue to accept those advantages and remain in a place of privilege, I am complicit in imposing disadvantages and inequality on others.
If you don’t believe my confession above, or don’t think it applies to you, please go back to step one. Please go back to listening. And maybe read this post by my friend Jaime Jennet: A Love Letter to Middle Class White Folks. This is a hard one, I know. I understand if it takes a while. Please just keep listening, keep reading, keep trying to understand. Things are not going to change until more white people understand what racism really is — not a personal attitude, not the way you yourself treat people of different races and ethnicities, but the whole history, culture, and societal structure of the country in which you live. And, do you know what? This systemic, institutional racism is hurting us, too. Listen to how lovingly James Baldwin wrote about it in a letter to his nephew [brackets mine]:
“For these innocent [white] people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
Our own freedom is at stake, here, too, friends.
Listen. Acknowledge the feelings of black women and men. Lament. Acknowledge your own role in institutional racism. These four things can change our hearts. And when our hearts are changed, we can begin to change the tide of history. There is much work to be done, but we can’t get down to work until we really understand what is going on and what our own part in it is.
Thank you for listening, friends.