During Washington, DC’s national moment of silence for Michael Brown at Malcolm X Park, the organizers read aloud the names of African Americans who had been murdered for living while black and brown–Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo….each name in this litany was said with great care yet was also such a cruel reminder of their horrific unjust deaths.
In an earlier draft of my post about Michael Brown, I reflected on how sad I felt as each name was read. And how I, as a white woman from a privileged background growing up under the impression that police protect and serve all people, first learned about the ever-present threat of police brutality experienced by people of color. I was a teenage bookworm, and one of the many books I read in my adolescence was Jacqueline Woodson’s young adult novel If You Come Softly. The title, I just learned, while doing some background research for this post, comes from an Audre Lorde poem that begins:
If you come softly
as the wind within the trees
you may hear what I hear
see what sorrow sees.
If You Come Softly tells the story of two teenagers who feel like they don’t fit in–Ellie and Jeremiah–who meet and fall in love at a Manhattan prep school. Because Ellie is white and Jewish and Jeremiah is African American, they are nervous to tell their friends and families about their blossoming romance. One night after a date with Ellie, Jeremiah, giddy with young love, starts running through Central Park, and is shot and killed by a police officer, who assumed that he must be fleeing a crime scene. Reading this novel where I so easily identified with Ellie and the world Jacqueline Woodson created, only to have it explode due to racist brutality deeply moved me. I do not want to dramatize the novel’s effect on me, but I truly believe in the power of reading to build empathy and expose people to different points of view, and I do believe reading If You Come Softly marked a first step in getting me to question my unearned privilege from being white and false belief of police as enforcers of safety.
I took this reflection out of my first post because Jeremiah is the son of a famous director and a famous writer. From when I first read this novel, I interpreted his parentage as a way of signifying that fame is not immune to racist violence. But since there has been a lot of discourse about how highlighting Michael Brown as a high school graduate about to attend college frames him as “a black man who didn’t deserve to get shot” as though there are those that do deserve to be killed by the police, I decided to leave these thoughts out. Michael Brown was exceptional though, to his friends and family, to the people who loved him. In a Democracy Now! interview from August 12, Michael Brown’s father described his son, “He was funny, silly. He’d make you laugh. Any problems that’d be going on or any situation, there wasn’t nothing that he couldn’t solve. He’d bring people back together.”
I had also taken this out of my post because I want to be very aware of my positionality as a white ally, and never take it for granted. I want to show up and listen, not make my contributions all about me and my point of view. This past weekend, I talked with a friend about how my earlier post felt unfinished, and my feelings of hesitancy to share all that was on my mind. She listened and encouraged me to not hold back in my writing and express these layers in my thought process. She added that it sounded like I was still working through how to be an ally and find myself in the movement.
I really appreciated her feedback, and I think there is a lot of truth in her perception that my navigation of allyship is a work in progress. I was also reminded of a scene in The Education of a WASP, a memoir that charts Lois Stavely’s evolution from a complacent white Midwesterner in the 1960s to a dedicated anti-racist ally. In this scene, Lois’s friend Barbara tells her about the different types of allies she has met over the years working in solidarity with white people.
“Look,” Barbara continued, she “was not going to stereotype whites as they stereotyped blacks, but white people did break down into certain categories….But it was the white liberals who, as she had come to believe were more destructive than the greedy or the damaged ego-whites.”
After Barbara enumerated on these categories of white allies, Lois asked, knowing that Barbara will give her an honest answer, “what group do I fit into? ” Barbara tells her, “I don’t know, and I don’t think you know yet yourself.” Tragically so much of life rendered in this memoir casts a shadow to this day (it was eerie to re-read the scene I described in my post on Trayvon Martin about how the young developmentally disabled boy who had been lynched was left hanging as a “lesson” to the neighborhood). The author of this post gives a present day example of more harm than good wrought by white liberals co-opting the movement for justice for Mike Brown.
In some ways, I am much like Lois captured in that moment. I am unsure of my footing and how to contribute to the anti-racism movement in the most meaningful way, and about making mistakes that will hurt those I wish to support. As described in FreeQuency’s post, I did feel like I was appropriating the vulnerability experienced by African Americans confronted by the police by doing the “hands up, don’t shoot” chant with my hands raised, and even though the Black Panther Party declares, “all power to all the people,” I still felt as though I was mimicking a gesture that was not meant for me when I did the Black Power Salute. I wholeheartedly want to and will keep showing up for justice, but I know I need to be ever mindful not to appropriate and co-opt, yet I need to try not silence myself as I describe this journey and the missteps I have made and will continue to make along the way.
I want to bring this post full circle and emphasize that in this journey, the demand for justice for Mike Brown is a movement, and for those allies reading please reflect on these ideas, and get involved by educating yourself, supporting The Saint-Louis based Organization for Black Struggle, thoughtfully and respectfully participating in rallies and marches in your area, and although I have expressed ambivalence about my role as an ally in this post, I am never ambivalent about being an ally, we as white people need to come out for justice, but come softly when doing so.