Note: All included images are by Michael Fleshman.
“The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." Audre Lorde
It took me a few days to cry after the George Zimmerman verdict. I read posts and kept connected via social media, went to the rally in Love Park in Philadelphia, and felt the deep resignation, sadness, and holy rage that was there. I watched the video in which Melissa Harris-Perry talks so vulnerably about how there is no neighborhood that is safe for black families, particularly black boys or men. I read and listened to the cries and outcry of my friends who are parents of black boys or men.
But it took a few days to feel it all the way; probably because I’ve been taught so long not to feel it, it’s crazy to say it, but even simple empathy can feel like you are breaking the rules. I’m embarrassed to own it, but when Sandy Hook happened, I was shocked for a day, but the tears came easily for the white children and teachers that were killed. I’ve been taught since I was so little who it is okay to care for and who is supposed to be dismissed. The veil of privilege and racism is so thick and being human can feel so transgressive, so out of bounds.
Finally, two mornings ago, I was riding my bike and I thought of Simon, my 11-year-old son, how hard it would be to know daily that when he walked to school, when he was coming home, when he rode an elevator or walked around in a grocery store that he would often be perceived as criminal, as the enemy.
Then it hit me hard; people mostly see Simon as “good,” “safe,” “pure,” but African American boys from the moment they start walking are perceived as a threat, as a menace. And then I cried and felt the sting of understanding, realizing that I can listen, I can hear, but I can never really know the pain of that day-to-day experience.
THAT is white privilege.
I moved to San Francisco in my early 20s. The Western Addition, at the time a very integrated neighborhood, was the most racially mixed neighborhood I’d ever lived in. I remember walking around full of fear, partly because of unfamiliarity, but mostly because of racism. I would cross the street when I would see one of my African American neighbors. I would cross the street or lock my car doors when I saw a young black man. Eventually I grew more at ease and less fearful, but that didn’t lead me to reach out and get to know my black neighbors.
About a year or two after I moved to west Philadelphia, a white friend came to the city for a conference. I met her at her hotel, and after dinner, her friend, also white, offered me a ride home. We drove through the predominantly African American middle class and poor neighborhoods just north of mine, Overbrook and Parkside, in which there are a few abandoned houses, and most of the people out and about, not surprisingly, were black.
By the time we reached west Philly, my friend’s friend was shaking with fear; she had locked her door and checked that it was locked several times. She was so afraid she couldn’t drive me all the way to my door. I said, “There’s nothing to be afraid of, this is my neighborhood, my place.” But she couldn’t listen to me. I got out and walked the last few blocks.
The fear I felt when I first moved to San Francisco and the fear that filled my friend’s friend’s car, that’s the fear, the racism that killed Trayvon Martin. It’s in me, it’s in us.
The thing that’s been the most difficult for me since the George Zimmerman verdict was announced has been the justifications and defensiveness coming from white folk. I get it - I was once so deep in the insane rationality of white privilege that I did it, too (sometimes still do). But more than anything else that defensiveness, that sense that we/I am “too good” to have done any harm is what gets in the way of healing.
Sometimes it shows up, as it has since the verdict, as rationalizing the law, the system (designed to do exactly what it did); sometimes as putting Trayvon Martin on trial, trying to paint his life as unworthy of protection, of justice; sometimes as white folks saying their parents never taught them racism, not acknowledging what it means that they never encountered a person of color in their lives.
It’s true, those of us living now didn’t set this system up; we didn’t establish slavery or participate directly in the genocide of indigenous people on which this country is built. It’s hard to hold it, to own what we’ve gained from the horrific acts of our ancestors. It can feel like a stone in the belly. But denial perpetuates the laws, the system, and the fear that, more than anything else, killed Trayvon.
We all need the balm of healing to become human again, to see that we are not angels or demons, but vulnerable people who sometimes act out of fears, sometimes out of kindness. But that healing can’t come without real acknowledgement.
We live in a culture that builds walls and enclosures, prisons and gated communities. These walls are possible because of the walls we build around our hearts, walls made from fears that keep us from accessing the family of God. These walls can’t be dismantled with vengeance or violence; let us instead struggle and use our desire for wholeness and the fire of holy rage to create out of great harm the tools of the heart that can help us to reclaim our common humanity.