Last night, as the country watched Darren Wilson not get indicted and not face a trial for Mike Brown’s death, I saw plea after plea online from Black friends and peers–people of color in my life imploring their white counterparts to SPEAK UP. I saw a lot of fear from white people about saying the wrong thing, about feeling helpless in the face of the enormity of the problem, and fear over the vicious responses received for those who do raise their voices.
Discussion ensued over people considering if and how to speak up, and if and how to speak to their children about Ferguson, juxtaposed with Black women and mothers, and mothers of Black sons terrified of NOT speaking up– especially of not adequately preparing their children to survive in a world where their skin color incites fear, snap judgments, an assumption of guilt, and potential deadly adrenaline responses from officers of the law or stand-your-ground-ers. On top of this terrifying reality for mothers of young males of color, piles the the bile one must certainly have to push down–the abhorrent dichotomy of rearing your child to thrive with confidence and a true sense of self, while at the same time training him on exactly how to act and appear subservient to his oppressors (quieter, calmer, smaller, “non-threatening”) in order to stay out of jail and live to fulfill his promise.
This is the thing: The more I learn, the less I can ever imagine keeping quiet again. Listen, I knew that structural racism existed. I knew I lived in a segregated city, and that I felt the gap widening between the haves and the have-nots right in my neighborhood school. But, until recently:
I did not know I lived in the state with the worst outcomes for Black children.
I did not know that 74% of my community’s Black children were poor, compared with only 5.5% of white, that only 48% of Black children were proficient at reading by 3rd grade, and that 50% of Black kids did not graduate high school with a diploma in four years.
I did not know, mostly because I’m a product of this system that has ushered me along in a lifetime of benefits-of-doubts, of free passes, and social capital. I did not know mostly because I’m white.
I grew up thinking of structural racism as history–as a flawed mindset and unforgivable despotism of previous generations in southern geographical locations, largely rectified thanks to the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. As a child looking back on history, it was easy to tell myself I wasn’t part of the problem. As a white adult living in the most racist city in America? I’m part of the problem until we fix the problem.
Here is what I’ve come to for myself: When I get into a helpless or hopeless feeling, I can’t allow that moment of weakness or feeling overcome to serve as a pass to retreat and do nothing. Now, when I hear myself say to myself It’s too big. I’m no expert. My efforts are vain and small. I go back to my list of what I can do, because this is the thing; It’s on us, the grown-ups with the power and resources of this generation.
The good news in Madison, is that dedicated people in this town are pouring themselves into action and strategy for reducing the achievement gap and making Madison not the most racist city in the US. Activists and community organizers in both the public and private sector in Madison present me with many opportunities for education and action. I don’t have to wring my hands over what to do, I need only pick which areas to invest in and when.
Here is my current non-comprehensive list of things I can do today, right now. Feel free to add your own in the comments:
Especially if I live in a highly-segregated area where racial and economic disparity go hand-in-hand, I can place myself in the position to attend and learn, instead of assuming a power position of “giver” or “teacher” or “provider of opportunity.” As vital as volunteer work and charitable giving are to community, if this is my only interaction with people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds, the gap remains wide. I seek opportunities to put myself in the position of actor instead of director, audience instead of podium. I ask people I work with to tell me if I talk too much and listen too little.
I can include my family in my process, bring them to events, and encourage dialogue in my home about current events, racism and injustice. I can (occasionally, and hopefully not too annoyingly) extrapolate Sunday School lessons and bedtime stories with parallels to current events.
I can make more conscious choices of how and where I use power. I look at my spheres of influence and how I can open them up and create a context for change. When offered an opportunity, I can try to extend that opportunity to my counterparts of color, making sure they’re well represented in leadership positions, in the spotlight, and on speaker panels.
I can educate myself. I can take advantage of programs in my area where change-makers gather to openly discuss privilege, race, and making change (see Madison Magazine’s Steps Toward Change, and read the story of Daishon Boyd and Jamada Norris while you’re there).
I can continue to read read read online and off. Read The Root. Read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (Eyes? OPENED). I can read and amplify and support the work of Black writers that educate, challenge my biases, inspire, raise awareness, expand my perspectives, enlighten me, and make me laugh and think. I can stay informed. I can know the names Mike Brown, John Crawford, Amadou Diallo, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, and Tamir Rice just for starters.
I can engage in a life-long commitment to examining my privilege and question myself and my biases constantly. How do my biases affect who I surround myself with–who I “feel comfortable” working with–what art or food or writing I appreciate?
I can give time and money to non-profits that support marginalized populations. When I volunteer at school, I can support students and teachers, but I also get to forge relationships with kids that last over years and into the especially vulnerable tween/teen/young adult years. (See caveat of only serving as a “helper” above).
I can get discouraged and make mistakes and keep going. I don’t have to do everything on this list today. I can keep adding to this list. And the best part is that this list–while weighty in responsibility–has already begun to enrich my life immeasurably through personal connections, meaningful work, spirited collaboration, turning me decidedly away from fear and hopelessnes and toward a burgeoning hope for a more equitable and just community for our children.