There will come a day when the protests end, when another hashtag pushes #BlackLivesMatter from our trending list and George Floyd’s name is no longer freshly on our lips.
Many of us who are white will return to whatever our 2020 version of normal looks like, with all its headaches, heartaches, anxieties, and distractions. Because if history is a guide, this tragedy will fade from our immediate awareness. We’ll go back to our lives until another tragedy rises, when we’re introduced to the next George Floyd and find ourselves shaken from our normalcy, repeating the names of his predecessors, promising to do better … until the hashtags recede and the normalcy returns.
In recent weeks, many of us have begun to awaken to the profound witness of black activists, leaders, and ordinary citizens who are sharing their grief and insights all while simultaneously processing yet another chapter in a nightmare they have been experiencing all their lives. Theirs are the voices that matter most right now, and while they do not owe us this testimony, it is essential that we listen and learn from it.
Yet those of us who are white have also been told that silence is complicity, that we, too, must act. So we post black squares on Instagram, sign petitions, and share calls to action, determined to be on the right side of history.
I’m convinced, however, that just as important in determining whether we are on the right side is what we do on those normal days when we don’t see a post to share or a petition to sign.
The same day Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck and murdered him, a white woman named Amy Cooper told a black man named Christian Cooper she was going to call the police and say “there’s an African American man threatening my life.” As we know, Christian Cooper was bird watching in Central Park and told her that her dog needed to be on a leash.
It isn’t hard to be outraged and disgusted by Amy Cooper’s blatant display of racism, but how many of us who are white have stopped to consider what we would have done in our own version of that scene? Called out for breaking a rule we don’t think we have to follow, growing angrier as our sense of entitlement is challenged, drawing on unfounded but deep-seated biases as well as an awareness — perhaps subconscious but ever-present — of just how pervasive and widely shared those biases are … are we certain some ugliness buried within us wouldn’t bubble to the surface? If the past few weeks represent the first time many of us have truly begun to grapple with just how entrenched and insidious racism is within our society, isn’t there a good chance we’re also just beginning to grapple with how entrenched and insidious it is within ourselves?
However necessary our social media posts offering solidarity and support may be, I wonder if on some level, we are virtue signaling, seeking a quick solution to definitively prove not only to others but also to ourselves that we are not — we could never be — racist. We could never do what Derek Chauvin or Amy Cooper did. We would never vote for someone who allowed police to use munitions against people peacefully protesting a black man’s murder, advanced “birtherism,” or defended alt-right protesters as “very fine people.”
But Amy Cooper did not think she was racist either. She even donated money to the first African American president’s campaign.
The reality is that there is no single action to take or membership card to earn. There is only the continual work of picking apart and examining our assumptions and reactions, checking, catching, and correcting ourselves for all those little things that have been ingrained and reinforced.
That might mean examining a belief that the protests that have turned violent and led to looting negate the cause of those that have remained peaceful. If we think this is true, do we also believe the police officers who killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade negate the work of all other law enforcement officers? Why might our first reaction be to denounce the violence of a protest rather than the violence that made protesting necessary?
It might mean wrestling with why coronavirus is killing black Americans at 2.5 times the rate of white Americans, why the poverty rate for blacks is more than double that for whites, why black women have a maternal mortality rate 2.5 times that of white women, why black people convicted of murder are 50 percent more likely to be innocent than white people, or why, despite a record-level employment jump in May 2020, the black unemployment rate still rose.
It could mean examining why one of our hands moves to guard a purse or wallet when a black person enters an elevator. And it should certainly mean finding new, concrete ways to support black communities — in where we spend and donate our money, in who we vote for, and in how we draw others into these efforts.
This is a task to be taken up every day. And if that sounds difficult, uncomfortable, or even tedious, we would do well to look back to the accounts we’ve been reading — the stories of black mothers’ visceral fear every day their sons don’t arrive home on time or of black men trying to appear non-threatening by whistling classical music or waving and smiling at neighbors when they go for a run, praying it will be enough to keep suspicion, danger, or death at bay.
This is what black people experience on the normal days between tragedies. If we are serious about being allies in the fight to dismantle the racism in our society, systems, and selves, facing this must become our normal as well. Only then can we imagine a new normal in which Ahmaud Arbery finishes his run, Breonna Taylor sleeps undisturbed, and George Floyd breathes.