Can we please talk about this, white people? I know it’s hard; fish can’t see the water they swim in. But there is an unusual opening, a portal in the firmament, at this moment in time: June, 2018. It’s unusual because so many black people are willing to say what they have said so many times before - and white people didn’t hear them. It is unusual because the opening is in the ears of white people. To hear what? That my friend goes to a big chain grocery store and a clerk follows her from aisle to aisle, where apparently the shelves next to where she is looking suddenly need rearranging. Where another friend just gives up shopping at the local stores and orders from Amazon because it is so exhausting to go through the checklist before you enter a store at our mall: keep your hands out of pockets; don’t browse too long - go to what you want; don’t pick up things unless you are ready to take them to the check-out person — the one who won’t cash your check, even though it is from a local instituiton. It will take you an extra half hour and three levels of managers to pay for your goods because it is unbelievable that a black woman would be cashing a check from a major university.
I’m waiting for my friend as she goes through this check cashing dance. I’m standing there wondering if I should say, “She’s ok. She’s my friend.” That my whiteness would be a cover for her, for the prejudice against her. Like having your parent sign for you when you get your first car loan or rent your first apartment. Only my friend is no child: she is a writer, an activist, an intellectual, an artist, a teacher. None of this is read by the clerk who refuses to allow her to be all that she is. To them she is a black person who is untrustworthy. Who must be watched. Monitored. It wouldn’t matter if she had the Nobel Prize she deserves - she’d still be a black-skinned person who sets off alarms in the not-black person observing her.
Those alarms: that is what I want to talk about:
They come from women in yoga pants driving hatchback Subarus in Virginia who call the cops when the farmer who delivers their organic produce walks in their neighborhood. Because he is black. Until he finally gives up deliveries he is so tired of being stopped by police.
They come from a woman in Oakland angry that a black family is barbecueing in a municipal park - never mind other people of other skin colors are doing so nearby. Their blackness is the reason she calls the police - she says so.
The alarm goes off in a white student at Yale who calls the cops on a black student who has fallen asleep in their dorm common room. Because the assumption is if she is black she must not belong. Or must not sleep. Either way it is about monitoring a black body in ways that white bodies would never be treated.
And most famously, the alarm goes off in a barista at a Starbucks in Philadelphia who calls the cops because two black men are sitting at a table. The police arrest the men. Who were waiting for their friend to come for a business meeting. But the barista couldn’t see two businessmen: he or she saw two black bodies, and in this upscale part of town black bodies mean something besides “entrepreneur having a business meeting.”
I’m white. Black bodies can make me feel nervous. But I am aware that that is my problem. It is my set of assumptions about what is happening and I need to ask myself what is going on in my head as well as what is going on in front of me. I believe in fear as a protection but I’m aware some fears are based on stories I’ve made up. I try to catch myself telling those stories, so I can interrogate them. I’m trying to shift my habitual narratives. I’m aware that living in an almost exclusively white town has changed my sense of who black people are. I went to a high school that was 90% black: there I knew people; now I know a category. This is what I want to change.
The only way I know how to do it is change who I know. Change whose stories I hear. Change so I am not a person who doesn’t know what to do when my friend is being ground down for the umpteenth time by a clerk. Change so we have a conversation with the clerk, or later we dissect what happened. I want my friend to know I am working on it with her so she doesn’t have to respond alone. Doesn’t have to spend her energy on confronting daily racism. I want to be a person who will take on some of that, who has her back, who challenges her ordinary tormentors so she can write her books or make art. Because that’s it, isn’t it? I can write poetry every day if I want since no one hassles me when I buy a can of beans at the store. I have energy left over from chores and daily interactions to do what I want: cook a nice dinner, paint a picture, listen to a friend, write a letter. I’m not carrying a daily humiliation or stuffing down an injustice. My white skin gives me a pass when the cop stops me to say my taillight is out, when the clerk wants to know if the clothes I’m trying on fit, when I park my car a little over the line in the garage downtown. Any one - or all - of these things could trigger a race-based suspicion or hostile response for my friend. Which she would have to carry all day, like any of us do when we are treated badly. It is exhausting. It is relentless. It is everywhere, every day, waiting to turn a good day into a bad one.
Those of us who have the privilege of not being treated badly for our skin color can do more. What? Work on that. Like anything you want to learn, treat this with open curiosity. There are skill sets we can learn. It starts with listening.
Thanks for listening to me.