As protests erupted across the US and then the world in response to George Floyd’s murder by a police officer kneeling on his neck, I, like many other white people, found ourselves swimming in tears and experiencing raw emotion and rage we didn’t realize we had been repressing since the Ferguson uprisings.
As the George Floyd protests intensified and footage of the government’s response to peaceful but angered protestors and reporters went viral on social media, many of us anguished watching the violence against our fellow Americans, against the young protestors, against Americans demanding justice for legitimate state sponsored violence against its people. It was frightening, distressing, painful, horrifying, but also inspiring to see people of all walks of life rising up to protect and honor our black fellow Americans and their experience of American history.
For the first week I felt unsure of how to respond in a way that was authentic and appropriate.
During the weeks of a domino effect of headlines that led to these protests, I’d been taking a social media mental health break from all the dire coronavirus numbers and reopen America drama because it was messing my head up and causing heightened anxiety. On top of that, I had broken up with my partner of 10 years just before coronavirus hit the East Coast in the US and we got quarantined together for 3 months. That was an emotional rollercoaster as you can imagine: being physically together 24/7 working overtime remotely and trying to survive the apocalypse as two people who no longer want to be a couple anymore.
The last straw was on Memorial Day weekend when the state of Massachusetts had started to relax stay at home orders. I couldn’t take the breakup pressure anymore and moved out of my home and into a friend’s empty lake house for the summer to be alone and think about how to adjust to the single life in the midst of a global pandemic.
As a result of all this, I regrettably stayed silent on social media as the protests erupted even though I was actually pacing around my room for days unable to do any work or concentrate on anything unrelated to this developing historical event.
This has taken me some time to shed the tears and gather my thoughts but let me be very clear:
Black Lives Matter to ME.
Some of my earliest friends were black. They were people who loved me, laughed with me (and at me!) and had my back when I was the new girl in middle school entering public schools in an underprivileged rustbelt New England city for the first time getting bullied by other black girls and teased by the boys. Black friends taught me to cheer and helped me make the Varsity Cheerleading Team as a Freshman (Lookin’ at you, Dobson Twins!) Black friends taught me how to sing. They taught me how to put my ass into it and dance the way my soul shines. They teased me, they made me cry, they flirted with me, they hugged me, they kissed me.
Black people welcomed me as a new latin dancer at the now defunct Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts on ‘Creole Addiction Thursdays’ where I went for the salsa and bachata but stayed for the mostly Haitian Kompa and Angolan Kizomba music that I had never heard but quickly could not get enough of. They encouraged me to come back, so I started pulling 18-hour Thursdays between commuting an hour to work, working my 10-hr shifts then dancing nonstop from 9pm — 1am on Friday morning only to face another hour drive home in the wee hours of the night. A few hours later I’d be back at work feeling exhausted but thoroughly satisfied. Fridays were always a love-drunk hangover haze of happiness after a night of close sensual dancing with a club of mostly beautiful black people who were always friendly, respectful, witty, well-dressed and captivating to watch cut a rug.
The folks at my club were great at salsa and bachata but when that other music came on around 11pm, they danced slower and closer together than I even knew was legal. Konpa and Kizomba quickly became what I lived to do every single week after a long workweek at the office. Kizomba especially took over my life because of its addictive qualities for a dancer focused on dancing with as many people as possible, searching for that memorable silent connection between two strangers dancing completely in sync. I think all of us in the Boston/Cambridge Kizomba scene simply cannot get enough of each other’s moves and beautiful faces.
Over the next 6 years, that place became my home in Cambridge until it tragically closed in 2018 because gentrification kills black gathering places.
Black people taught me to listen to the stories of triumph, pain and anger in black music of all genres. Their music helped me see how they saw me as a white person, a white woman, and how people who look like me complicate and endanger their lives. When music makes you feel the complexities of their experience in America, you can no longer judge it by its rapid lyrics, bass and snare but by the way it reaches the depth of your humanity and settles in in the pit of your stomach.
If you could spend time with me you’d notice that I exclusively listen to black and latin music with the bass way up and the windows down like everyone else does in my diverse community because who da eff wants to live in a suburb with noise restrictions? (How you even restrict NOISE?) What is a world without music, the celebration of human life passing by your window all summer? Not one I want to live in, fo sure.
Follow the playlist I’ve worked of all of my favorites from around the world if you like to feel your music:
Haitian women showed me what self-respect looked like, dressed like, talked like. They showed me how a woman must insist a man should treat her from the very first encounter. A black Haitian man packed a suitcase and hopped on a plane with me to escape the winter to party in Atlanta and ride scooters around town. He took me go clubbing till 5am and I felt safe because he is NOT a threat to me and I trusted he would protect me and he did.
I let a Mozambiquan man take me out of the country and into Montreal, Canada for a long weekend. He showed me how to properly enjoy the simple luxuries of life, like sipping wine outdoors on old French city streets and picnicking in the park. He taught me to recognize my privilege and where the blessings in my life show up that I had told myself were my challenges. He helped me to learn to love where I’m from and to view the challenges of life with grit and optimistic hope.
A former Togoan refugee girlfriend sat with me in the front row of a packed movie theater to watch the movie ‘Selma’ together as we gripped each other’s hands throughout the violent historical police brutality perpetrated against protestors not by the police from 2020, but by the police in 1964. We cried in my car afterwards trying to understand why such human demands for justice were met with such intolerance and violence by the powers that be of the same American society that killed Trayvon Martin and left Michael Brown in the street for 4 hours that very same year.
Black friends continue to talk candidly with me about their experiences surviving daily racism, indignities and microaggressions in white America because I think they know that it’s important for me to hear it first-hand because maybe I could fix it in my own small plot of undeserved power. They call me out on my ingrained bias from growing up white in America and they hold me accountable for un-learning my complicit white conditioning. I’m glad they do this even if it’s embarrassing when they call me forward.
Black immigrant friends inspire me to persevere through my own personal challenges in life because they do despite all the challenges of thriving while black in America. Their determined strength and grace to get what they want out of life in America despite all it’s challenges never ceases to humble me when I feel entitled to an easier life than the one I have. They very vocally will remind me how privileged we both are to be here.
Flat out — I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t grow up with black folks in a diverse church and school system.
By the way, my school system was an underprivileged one. I can’t forget what it feels like to try to learn in frigid classrooms with a cop roaming the hallways looking to start trouble and school boards cutting funding for the music and arts programs that I loved or discipling us instead of teaching us because they were on power trips to get the ‘hooligans’ to respect their authority.
When I hear white friends casually mention the amenities of their lily-white suburban school systems, like lacrosse teams, recording studios, swimming pools or unlimited marching band and arts funding, I read between the lines and understand that they spent very little time with non-white people.
Despite the natural twinge of envy I quickly feel proud of the “bad school” I graduated from because we learned a valuable lesson in empathy and comradery as we saw ourselves in each other in hallways filled with black, brown, white, and yellow American teens growing up in a post-9/11 world.
I used to think growing up as a white kid in an underprivileged community was an unfair disadvantage of my upbringing, but now I look at it as an advantage because I learned to connect with people because who who they are and where they were coming from at the moment, rather than by what they had or how much money their parents made at work.
What this country has done to diminish the contributions black Americans made historically to make this country what it is was done deliberately to preserve white wealth, power, and comfort.
If that makes you uncomfortable it’s probably because you haven’t spent years reading what black American writers have to say. Not reading black writers makes it hard to acknowledge the contributions black Americans continue to make to our society and culture every day because you don’t know where we are on the continuum of the struggle for freedom from systematic oppression…AKA from us white people and the way we order our societies.
Black people keep America real and remind us to be humans when our racist system makes their lives unnecessarily hard in a country they built against their will. Our American legacy is so abusive and unforgivable. Yet, decade after decade black people find it in their hearts to do so even when we kill them like George Floyd. Then every half-century or so they rise up to inform us that we’ve yet again gone too far and demand that we listen to their lived experiences and use our power to change it in any way we can no matter how we perceive it will affect our comfort.
This moment is really hard. It’s enraging, uncomfortable, awkward, devastating…like the funeral it is about.
We white people have to fix this.
It’s not their problem to fix, they’ve had enough of our generational complicity and cruelty. They didn’t build this system to live in, we did. And now we gotta take unprecedented steps to fix it and FAST. That means we have to acknowledge our ignorance about our own national history and we’re going to have to deal with some serious unspeakable sadness, guilt, pain and shame. We’re going to have to have a cultural reckoning that includes substantial emotional dialogue and humility and gratitude and then we’re going to have to rebuild our country, rewrite the storyline, and acknowledge the true heroes and underdogs.
We’re going to have to shut the fuck up and stop justifying and finally listen to them and acknowledge how we hurt them in unspeakable ways because we wanted to enjoy our comfortable, “normal” life at their expense.
We’re going to have to look them in the eyes and tell them in concrete, meaningful ways that we apologize for all of it and we’re going to do whatever is necessary to make this country right. If we can’t do that…..God save us.
As for me, I will not diminish the influence black people have had on my life, my socialization, my personal culture, my nation. I say thank you! Thank you for being beautiful YOU just the way you are. I’m sorry if my ignorance ever made you feel uncomfortable or less than.
I stand with you, black people.
Then, now, forever.
Thank you for having the courage to say, YET AGAIN, enough is enough.
Because it IS.