Up until now, I have been hesitant to participate in the Ferguson discussion. I have not posted anything on Facebook. I have discussed it with friends, but in a hushed voice that belied the discomfort I felt in speaking about racial issues. I’m not hesitant because I don’t care. I’m hesitant because I am afraid. I’m not sure how to discuss racism toward black people in a way that is true to my own experience as a white person, and I’m afraid that I will say the wrong thing.
But on Monday, during the walkout and four-and-a-half minute moment of silence in remembrance of Michael Brown, I felt something that I had previously only acknowledged to myself: my discomfort in discussing these issues does not relieve me of my responsibility to attempt to understand and grapple with them. Yes, confronting my own role in these issues is uncomfortable. Yes, I felt a tenseness and confusion within myself, as I’m sure many others did, during the walkout and during discussions about Ferguson. But refusing to think about racism in America means to continue existing within the system of oppression of black people upon which this country was built.
I have a responsibility first to recognize that my experience of the world as a white person is different from that of a black person. That sounds very simple. But to fully understand that I inhabit a vastly different reality based solely on my skin color requires very real scrutiny of my own privileges, recognizing that the lens through which I view law enforcement and every other institution in America has been informed by my experience as a white person. In the words of Tim Wise, the inability of white people to even recognize the potential for realities different than our own “more than anything is the source of our trouble when it comes to racial division in this country. The inability of white people to hear black reality—to not even know that there is one and that it differs from our own—makes it nearly impossible to move forward.”
In my English class’s discussion of Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, we talked about how imagining different realities, while in itself not enough, can be a starting point, a space to bring people together. I do not feel the same kind of pain that others feel from Michael Brown’s death or the deaths of so many others who have fallen at the hands of racism. But I still feel pain: pain that an 18-year-old boy died, pain that I live in a world where that murder goes unpunished.
I can and should feel that sadness as I also listen to the different type of pain voiced by others. It’s not enough to hear people’s experience of oppression; you must be receptive to being changed by those discussions.
The alternative to this kind of grappling is to blockade oneself from different realities, which I think is a reaction often based in fear. No one wants to imagine that he or she is racist. But deeply thinking about your own perception of the world and privileges within society also introduces the possibility of confronting within oneself deeply internalized biases.
But that sort of confrontation is the only way to move forward from America’s past and present racial persecution. Only in listening to the experiences of those who are oppressed can we begin to imagine the previously unimagined reality of America’s racism and how best to be an ally within that reality.