Yesterday began with a video from Baton Rouge. Shots fired. A black man dead on the ground. Witnesses beside themselves with shock and grief.
I cried. I yelled. I got angry.
Yesterday ended with another video. Minnesota this time. A CHILD IN THE CAR. A girlfriend, robbed by the now familiar rhythm of “how these things play out” of her ability to simply mourn her partner’s death, having to instead defend his dignity, having to explain to the camera that he was cooperating with police instructions, having to prepare for the inevitable media narrative that he was responsible for his own death.
Sometime between her slow pan to her boyfriend’s body and the video’s conclusion (with her inexplicably being handcuffed and taken into custody) she calmly addresses a white officer with a gun in his hand.
“Please don’t tell me officer that you did this to him. You shot four bullets into him sir. He was just getting his licensure and registration sir.”
The two videos, each among the most jarring I’ve ever seen, book-ended a day full of reminders that I’ve been too damn quiet about what’s happening in my back yard. I’ve said nothing about Jay Anderson, dead in a suburban Milwaukee park with an official story that he too was to blame but no evidence released. I’ve said nothing about Genele Laird, who is still alive but wounded in many ways by the police force sworn to protect her and neighbors all too eager to cheer on her assault.
Through it all, I kept thinking about white people.
I kept thinking about missed opportunities, about attendant culpability and yes, about blood on our hands.
My mind is racing.
Can I talk about Montana for a second?
No really. And I’m not being cute. Here’s what you need to know about my home state: Like a lot of places, it is the absolute best except for the folks for whom it’s the absolute worst.
If you’re white in Montana, you not only get to live in one of the most drop-dead gorgeous places in the world, but you get the added bonuses of a good school system, a decent amount of jobs and a general ‘let’s make it through the hard winter’ neighborliness from just about everybody. If you’re Native (and lots of Montanans are.. the state has the fifth largest Native population in the country), it ain’t that simple.
Yeah, you’ve heard that one before. But what about this?
“All over Montana, you can walk into a bar, a café or even a school or a courthouse and just listen for a while as people talk to each other, and you will hear somebody, before very long, say something outrageously racist about the people who have lived in Montana for 10,000 years. So I decided I can’t turn the heart of a 45-year-old redneck. But if we start early enough. If we start with a tender child — so we passed Indian Education for All.”
That’s former Governor Brian Schweitzer talking. And yeah, that quote got him a couple dust-ups for a media cycle or two, but set aside if you will the question of whether a 45-year-old is too far gone and just bask in the overall dopeness embedded therein. What you’ve got here is a white guy, the head of a whole U.S. state (sure, a small one, but… still counts!) essentially saying — if we’re going to have any shot to build a different, more just, less racist Montana, we’ve got to plan for it seventh generation style. We need to put actual money and resources NOW into educating every school kid- especially every white school kid- with a culturally responsive, Native-history-culture-values-and-government-rich, anti-bias curriculum.
Now, this is the kind of plant whose fruit we won’t get to harvest for years down the road, so all caveats apply. It also goes without saying there’s likely nobody in Montana’s (now Native-led!) Department of Public Instruction who is going to promise miracles here… but still…. Montana!
We’ve got a job to do. We’ve got a lever we’re not pulling.
Ok, enough about Montana.
Time for a good old-fashioned pedantic list of things you already know:
- The systems we’ve got right now are literally deadly (as well as consistently causing just mammoth amounts of pain in other ways).
- Those systems, like all systems, are built and maintained and justified by people.
- The lion’s share of folks who get to build and maintain those systems in America are white folks.
- Most white folks don’t spend all that much time thinking about race, including their own biases, blind-spots and hold-ups (goodness that’s an understatement, but let’s not break from the dry, detatched, overwhelming CNN-ness of this little mini list).
Systems change and transform from lots of different directions (Citation: High School Government Class, Poorly Remembered). You can change the rules and codes by which they operate, especially if they live in laws and statutes. You can demolish them all together. And yeah, you can impact change through the people who create and maintain them.
We’re in a crisis right now, so let’s argue that this is a “by all means” kind of moment (Citation: College-Level Critical Theory, Even More Poorly Remembered). Given that, shout out to all of the organizing and movement being led by folks of color across this country for structural change. I’m talking (just to cite a few examples) of the work Campaign Zero is doing to structurally disrupt the rules of the game that perpetuate police violence or what the Advancement Project is doing on the school to prison pipeline and voter disenfranchisement.
Shine, support, resources: Us white folks can always do right by throwing all sorts of usefulness towards orgs like these.
But.. after our check is written… we’ve got another job on our hand.
Look back up to pedantic points #2 #3 and #4. This is why I keep thinking about us… white people… and the conversations we do or don’t have with each other. And that’s when it starts to really feel like life or death.
How many other white folks — friends, loved ones, bosses, teachers, patrol –mates had those super hard conversations, over many years, with the officers whose hands were on the trigger? You know, conversations like…
“Yo, I know you think that was just a joke, but can we talk about that?”
“Hey, what do you think of this research about how police officers across the country view black boys as being older and less innocent than white boys? Listen, I know you never want to do something you’d regret… but are there ANY patterns to whom you feel most threatened or scared by? Seriously, let’s talk about it.”
“I love you man, but seriously, every time you come home from patrolling ________ neighborhood, the way you talk about the people who live there- Ok, let’s be honest… the black people who live there- well, it worries me?
“And oh yeah, why do we choose to live in a different town from the one you patrol?”
Heck, let’s talk beyond cops for a second. They very well may be at the final iceberg tip of injustice, but lord knows there’s plenty of others of us to form that berg’s foundation.
Who’s talking to the white 1st grade teacher…
“Hey, why is it that almost every time you talk to me about a kid who you want to ‘kick out of your class’ or that ‘totally needs an IEP’ that it’s almost always one of your black boys?
Who’s talking to the white politician…
“I know why you want to pass that photo ID law. Politics is a game. The other party’s voters are black and brown and you know you can squeeze out some victories if fewer of them vote. But, first, you know that’s straight up evil. And secondly, before you decide to do it, can you do me a favor and spend an election day watching people vote… proudly and passionately… in a couple of the red-lined precincts that law would effect?”
Who’s talking to the white hiring manager…
“Hey, I know you keep saying that you’d love to hire a more diverse team, but why do you always source pools in the same way, every single time? You know if you keep looking in the same places, on the same timeline, you’re going to find the same people? And hey, while we’re at it, why do you keep making this point of saying ‘…but I don’t want to sacrifice quality?’ whenever somebody talks about hiring more people of color?
I could go on. The white union organizer. The white judge. The white CEO. The white social worker. The white shift manager. The white meter maid. The white app developer.
Forgive, for a second, the fact that I’m a pretty corny writer of dialogue. Forgive too the potential romantic over-simplification this track could easily veer down. No, I’m not trying to argue that “one conversation can change the world” or that all we need to topple thousands of years of carefully constructed injustices is to just be little woke town criers to each other.
I am saying, though, that if we actually ARE torn up about hundreds of black folks dead at the hands at police, thousands of black children being suspended every day from school and millions of black folks incarcerated then why wouldn’t we want to get serious, get strategic and get next-level urgent about the white-to-white education piece of this puzzle? Goodness knows we haven’t gotten where we are by doing it too much.
I have no idea how many deaths could be prevented if more white cops had loved ones in their life pushing, challenging, learning together.
I have no idea if more families would still be with their loved ones tonight if there was nationwide, comprehensive anti-racism and white identity development curriculum in every school, especially every predominately white school in the country.
All I know is that, near as I can tell, we say we’re outraged, but how much are we really trying?
Let’s pause before I’m misunderstood. I know a lot of y’all white folks ARE trying, and have been long before I started typing. Many of y’all have been leading trainings, developing curricula and mobilizing orgs like SURJ. So many more others are doing the brave, yeowomen’s work of having THAT conversation again with THAT uncle. Shouts to all y’all.
My ‘how much are we really trying?’ question isn’t to devalue, but to rally more troops around y’all who’ve been doing this longer. It is to challenge how serious and systematic we are about this. Why AREN’T we studying the strengths and weaknesses of curricula like Indian Education for All and demanding a version of it (relevant to each individual community, of course) in every state, every district? Why AREN’T we asking and scheming as to how we take the ‘having conversations/sharing resources/pushing our friends’ work out of the level of one-offs and actually try to organize something that blooms and grows? Why AREN’T we questioning how much “white anti-racist” writing is truly focused on changing minds rather than just proving the author’s advancement? And for those of us who aren’t even doing the one-offs, well what the heck ARE we waiting for?
Let’s not get it twisted. We are not called to lead this one. This is a fight for our friends, neighbors and colleagues’ liberation, and though theirs is tied up in ours, they need to be the ones leading the way up to topple the towers. But with that said, the reason I can’t sleep right now, the reason why I can’t stop thinking about you all (my fellow white folks) is that I think we’ve got a pretty obvious job to do. And though I can’t speak for you, I for one haven’t been showing up for work.