For You, I Fight.
In 2010, my aunt and uncle — after years of waiting — were finally matched with a little boy from Philadelphia, whom they adopted about a year later. This sweet, sweet little boy arrived to Vermont with two parents who loved him dearly; my cousin, Liam Louis Duffy, became the greatest gift to my family. Liam is Black, and the son of white parents who were born and raised in Vermont (a predominantly white state that claims to be safe from racism).
Liam was truly the cutest little boy, charming everyone that he encountered with winks and the sweetest smile and his remarkably large vocabulary from a very young age. At age 3, one of Liam’s favorite words was “cooperating,” used most often when he couldn’t get something to work the way he wanted it to. There has never been a moment in Liam’s life where he was treated as less than in our family, because in our family, he is just Liam. He is not treated differently as a result of his skin color, nor is he loved less or more. My grandparents have 3 POC for grandchildren — we have never been treated as less valued human beings by our own family. Liam is my grandmother’s grandson, my mom’s nephew, my cousin. Simple as that.
Liam will be 10 in November, and already he is almost as tall as my sister and me. Standing at just shy of 5 feet, he stands tall among his classmates and friends, just as he certainly will continue to for the rest of his life. He’s expected to be as tall as 6’4 (no one in my family is 6’4, either). Liam is still a sweet, curious little boy with lots of interesting questions, an unending knowledge of dinosaurs and Pokemon, and a love for music and dancing. I will always remember him as my little cousin that can make me laugh harder than any kid I know.
But what about 20 years from now, when Liam is nearly 30? When he’s driving home one night and he’s pulled over for a routine traffic stop? When he steps out of the car as a 6’4 Black man who towers over the 5’11 white cop whose trigger finger hovers over the gun strapped to his belt? What happens 10 years from now when someone encounters Liam, a boy scared of seaweed and spiders, and immediately assumes that he’s armed? What happens when he is no longer a cute little Black boy? At what point is he no longer cute or attractive, and instead seen as something to fear? When does the Black boy with the chubby cheeks and the beautiful hair become The Black Man: easily enraged, most likely armed, definitely dangerous? When does the cute little Black boy become no longer desirable to the world?
George Floyd was a cute little Black baby before he was a 6’4 Black man.
Stephon Clark was a cute little Black baby before he was shot at over 20 times.
Botham Jean was a cute little Black baby before his neighbor shot him in his own home.
Philando Castille was a cute little Black baby before he was shot for informing his killer that he was legally carrying a firearm as he reached for his wallet.
Alton Sterling was a cute little Black baby before he was killed by police officers who pinned him to the ground and then shot him for having a gun.
Jonathan Ferrell. Ahmaud Arbery. Freddie Grey. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. LaQuan McDonald. Tamir Rice. Samuel DuBose. Terence Crutcher. Justin Howell. Akai Gurley. Jamel Floyd.
These are Black men who were cute little Black babies before they were ruthlessly killed on account of the color of their skin.
My sweet little cousin, at only 9 years old, has so few years left before he is no longer considered cute and is only seen as a threat. Is this the world that we hope to sustain for future and current Black children? A world where they become the face of crime when they look old enough to commit one? A world that assumes that a Black boy will steal in Target, or is openly shocked when a Black girl “speaks so eloquently.”
I have learned so much in the last few months, and I admit that I believed for a long time that I was pretty well-educated when it came to racial justice. My dad was the Director of Diversity and Equity for the Burlington School District before he died. My sister and I have grown up as the Only Asian Girl in our classes for the majority of our lives. Discussions about race were a dinner table topic when I was a kid, especially about being biracial (white mom, Filipino dad). Over the course of this incredible resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, I’ve been uncomfortable. Discomfort SUCKS. It sucks to think that you are doing everything you can, only to be reminded that there is so, SO much more to do. I squirmed at the thought of someone thinking I wasn’t enough of an activist, or the “right” kind of activist. That I shouldn’t speak. That I wasn’t “Asian enough” to speak out about my own experiences with racism. And you know what? I had to check myself. Privilege is feeling uncomfortable with how people will see you IF YOU CONFRONT THE SYSTEM. There is no question of “if” or “when” we should confront the system. There is only the question of how.
My sister and I attended both film events that The Black Perspective organized over the past two days. With the best of intentions, we thought we were doing a good thing — supporting a BLM Vermont organization while also enjoying films that highlighted Black excellence in the film industry. There is nothing wrong with what we did. In this case, we Did The Right Thing. However, I had the greatest of learning moments (and non-Black POC guilt moments) while listening to Anthony Marques speak before Moonlight was shown last night.
Earlier in the day, there had been a Blue Lives Matter protest in Montpelier, and the Black Perspective had organized a Black Lives Matter counter-protest in Montpelier. They asked people to show up. A very small percentage of Black Lives Matter supporters did, and I was not one of them. While Anthony was speaking last night, he announced without hesitation that he did not care if we felt uncomfortable. He told us that he could not give less of a f*ck about us coming to see Moonlight or our discomfort at being confronted by him. He asked if those who had attended the counter-protest in Montpelier could stand up. About five people stood, along with the Black Perspective volunteers. I remained seated, along with about 50 other people. He said to us, “Congrats to you all. You can be an activist when it’s convenient for you. You can sit in the dark while you watch a movie and claim you support Black Lives Matter.” I have never in my life felt so guilty or uncomfortable. I felt like a fraud.
That discomfort was necessary. That discomfort made me really think about who I want to be as an ally, as an activist. I have the ability to physically show up, and there is nothing that I could possibly be doing throughout the day that is more important than that. We can all do better and be better as activists — there is still so much learning to do. For non-Black folks who define themselves as allies — there are never ending learning moments. There will always be moments where we feel that guilt or discomfort, but we cannot back away from it. We CANNOT.
And so, for Liam I fight for a respect and praising of Black Excellence, regardless of the age of the Black body. For my friend Zanevia, who never, ever stops fighting, I fight for the guarantee of her future — one that is so bright. For my friend Cole, I fight for Black artists — those who shine on stage or on screen but are constantly left out of the conversations about “true art.” For Breonna Taylor and her family, I fight for police reform — an entire restructuring of a system that consistently allows white law “enforcers” to avoid prosecution for crimes committed against Black and Brown people. For you, all of you, I fight for a more just world that could one day know peace.
We cannot just stand. We cannot just listen. Those who stand quietly in a room filled with white noise will NEVER be heard. And when I say white, I mean the voices. Those voices that belong to white bodies who insist that “Black Lives Matter” is a racist stance. But I also mean the nonsense that is shouted over Black voices. The white noise that drowns out the cries of Black and Brown bodies who are only asking to be acknowledged as HUMAN. So you cannot just say “I understand that I never understand, and so I stand.” You HAVE to fight. It is truly the only way, as made clear by the years of unchanging white domination in every aspect of western society. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been whitewashed and written down in history as “the peaceful protester.” However, he also said that “he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” You cannot just stand. That is passive acceptance.
We MUST fight. We must fight.
“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” — Malcolm X