Philando Castile. Watercolor by Emily LaFave Olson, words by student at JJ Hill School, where Philando worked.

The Luxury of Dreaming

Philando Castile. I have not been able to shake his story. It’s a story of institutionalized racism so deep that even now, with the cameras on and recording from every angle, we still can’t seem to find justice. Changing a system so deeply ingrained in America means each of us taking a look at our own blind spots. This is a story, as a white woman, of uncovering some blind spots of my own.

I was sitting at the window of my usual spot, Cafe du Soleil. A neighborhood cafe with just the right breeze flowing into the corner and a red vespa always parked out front. The coffee is mediocre, but the ambiance is delightful. It’s a neighborhoody kind of place. It’s my thinking place. I was scribbling in my notebook. Writing. Brainstorming.

“What are you drawing over there?” I asked. He was an artist and I was yearning to be surrounded by more artists.

“Oh just doing some sketches,” he said.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Hi, I’m Ace,” he said.

“How did you get that name?” I asked.

“Well it’s my nickname, the name I give people, until people know me. My name is Arrington. Arrington West.”

He shared with me his project, Black Mail Show, a collective of black male artists. His mission: to give the few remaining black men in San Francisco the space to share their artwork and have a voice. He wants to be a platform to cultivate artists of color: to be an incubator for the next generation.

Fast forward to September, and it’s the closing party of his second show. It’s the night where all the artists get to share the stories behind their artwork. I had been eager to attend.

One of my first conversations was with a gentleman who had recently moved to Oakland. We stood in the installation: The Living Room. The installation of a black family’s living room, well, specifically the grandparents’ living room. The recliner, where grandfather sat, sitting in front of an old tv, with old VHS tapes of significant black movies. The ashtray sat beside the table. My new friend walked me through the scene. As a white woman, this was not my scene, I was here to learn.

“Your grandparents’ home plays a significant role,” he said. “Especially your grandmother. She’s the matriarch. The rock. The one you can return to for stability and certainty in the noisy confusion and chaos as a black man in the outside world. Your grandmother and her table, she was comfort, safety, and stability.”

We talked about the Bay Area, as he had just moved there.

“I’ve been here for 8 years, it’s my soul city,” I said. “It’s the first place I ever felt like I belonged.”

“What do you love about it?” he asked.

“It’s a place for dreamers. It’s where dreams can become a reality.”

The culmination of the next four hours was a lot of listening as I heard each artist speak to their pieces. The legacy of slavery. Story after story, each of the men shared through their art how they had a friend, a father, or an uncle that ended up in prison or was shot and killed. Or faced police brutality. The unending cloud of these fears, weighing heavy over daily life.

We arrived at the very last installations, they were a combination of two pieces that serendipitously ended up next to one another.

One about dreams. The other about prison.

Without realizing it, the two men shared the stories of two different realities, yet tightly interwoven. One the reality so many black men face, that prison feels inevitable. One in three black men will be incarcerated. The installation of one man’s prison experience sat beside another man’s painting of a window, a piece about dreams. The artist, Muzae Sesay, for the first time let his paint flow, like a dream, without thinking of all the fears. Only feeling. The freedom to dream. The freedom to not be plagued by all the fears of what could happen with your life.

“Dreaming is a luxury,” he said.

My earlier conversation hit me like a ton of bricks.
This town is a place for dreamers. Maybe only white dreamers.

Dreaming is a luxury.

To free your mind, to imagine and dream, this is a luxury. My life as a white woman, getting to focus on dreams, it’s a luxury.

There was his painting, a window, with limitless possibility, set next to the photo of the prison gates. What a devastating juxtaposition. We have shattered the dreams for black men and women with our mass incarceration. And with our systemic racism that continues to kill black men and women.

The man known for the very speech, I Have a Dream, was murdered for it.

Back to Philando Castile. A growing list of murders of black men and women executed by police officers in our collective sight. Video cameras now documenting. Yet still, so very few convictions.

I think that is what shook me so hard with Philando’s murder. All of this evidence in pure sight and yet still, justice isn’t served by the jury. Why?

It turns out it’s not enough to simply see it. We are seeing it through a dirty lens, a collective consciousness and system that is still deeply racist. We’ll truly have to change ourselves to see things differently; it starts with each of us. Racism exists on a spectrum. There is overt racism, and there’s unconscious bias that lies in our blind spots. As a woman, I know first hand the oppression I have experienced, the little things day-to-day I experience that a man can’t see. I distinctly remember the catcall video that went viral. So many men responded in shock, saying “wait, is this truly your reality?”. And for women, it was like “oh, it’s so the norm you stop noticing it anymore”. When I first learned about the notion of “driving while black,” it was like the catcall wake up for men, but for me as a white woman. I simply had no idea that was someone else’s reality.

Even though I grew up in a household that taught love and tolerance for all humans, no matter the color of their skin, I still grew up in Maryland, below the Mason Dixon Line, and most of my schools were predominantly white.

Even though I was born in the Washington, DC hospital clinic, with all black nurses being the first beautiful faces welcoming me into this world, I was still born in America, where slavery is a part of our painful history.

Racism lives in me. Until I admitted that to myself, I couldn’t see my blind spots, change my way of seeing the world, and change where I took action.

Our liberation is tied to each other. We are not free until everyone is free. Free to dream. Free to live. Deserving of justice. I believe it will take each of us looking deep within ourselves to uncover our own biases. Surrounding ourselves with people and experiences that can elucidate where we need to change to help heal the racism in our country. Let’s wake up and own our responsibility to change the system from the inside out. Once we’ve changed our hearts, it means using our voices, our time, and our dollars to change policies to create a system where we all have the luxury to dream.

— — —

PS — Some of the people and organizations that I’ve turned to, both to learn and understand how best to take action include the Black Mail Show, Shaun King, Brittany Packnett, Black Lives Matter, Campaign Zero, and MASK.

If you are in Washington, D.C. Friday July 14th or Saturday July 15th, you can march with the Women’s March, marching for justice for Philando Castile and common sense gun laws. The march is to send a message to the NRA that their organization should stand up for common sense gun laws for all legal gun owners, no matter what race or color.