Written by Rebecca Branle, Ephrata Township. This piece was first published on Oct. 26, 2020 on Rebecca’s blog, basicallybeckyblogs. Reprinted here with permission from the author.
Thoughts Penned After Ahmaud
It’s a white people problem.
And yet that’s not how most white people talk about it. They speak in lots of “he should haves,” or “but she saids.” They point out imperfections. They pick out excuses.
We don’t own the problem, and yet it’s ours alone. Ours to fix. White hands pull the trigger. White hands choke, punch, kill. White guys wearing fancy ties make sure the white ones with their murdering guns don’t go to jail.
The problem is all white and yet it’s black mothers and fathers, and babies and teenagers and grandparents; it’s black people that carry the weight of our white mess. We put the onus on them to navigate our unfair world, where declarations of independence and equality only apply in certain circumstances. And we grill them. Them. Like it’s their job to justify why we shouldn’t kill them.
Ahmaud stopped to look at a house under construction, something I’ve done about a bazillion times in my life. This, they say, justifies an armed citizens arrest. “He fought back!” They say, aghast, gripping their chests. But do they ever wonder what they would do? How would they respond if two bearded inbreds followed them on a run. Demanded they answer to them. Do they obey all out of shape, armed strangers barking orders at them? They never ask such questions because to do so would be to draw an equitable line between their life and Ahmaud’s, would be to see Ahmaud as a person with a life worth living.
Video of the construction site shows several white folks doing exactly what Ahmaud did, white grownups and white kids, and yet they’re still alive. They were never hunted down. Never suspected. When asked why they suspect this is so, racists respond in either of two ways: those who don’t identify as racist, but certainly are, become uncomfortable, so they avoid conversation. Those who stand proud in their hate laugh in the face of the facts. Because they just. don’t. care.
How do we make them care? WE, the awake white people, the tired and angry and sick-of-being-so-damn-disappointed, white people, have to make them care. We have to engage them. We have to pry their eyes open. We have to close the door, nah, slam the door, to hate speech. And make them afraid to open that door ever again. Those white people are the problem. WE white people need to be the answer. It’s not good enough to be quietly enraged behind closed doors. We’ve been trying that for years now. Now we have to step up, step out, and start to demand change.
When I was 14, I had a go-cart. It was a zippy little thing and I was a full-on terror on wheels. I had all the confidence and entitlement of a young teenager and I ripped like mad through my quiet neighborhood. One day, not even a mile from home, I found a newly paved road. Sure, it was blocked with road closed signs, but that new blacktop looked fast. And I loved fast. So around the blockades I went and fast it was…until the police came. I was scared, thought about trying to outrun them, but my go-cart was for kids and it topped out at 25. The heat had me beat. They also had a blast asking me if I wanted to go to jail, and then following me, lights swirling, back to my house, where I was sent inside while they chatted with my dad.
It’s one of my epic childhood stories. One we tell often. My dad said he and the cop had a good laugh over the whole ordeal. Sure, I was told sternly not to ride my go-cart on public roads. I learned a necessary lesson, one that every teenager needs to learn because lord have mercy, imagine if all adults walked around with the entitlement of a teen. But we tell the story, and we slap our legs in laughter. There are no scars, only smiles.
But young black boys, playing with guns that are toys, not up to half the trouble I was up to, they’re underground, in caskets. Their mother’s are left to grieve and wait. Wait for white America to care. Young black boys, smoking cigars, are thrown to the ground, punched, and hit. When I was 14, I stole my father’s cigarettes and tried smoking them. Should I have been thrown to the ground and smacked around by an armed stranger? Should your child be?
But they don’t bat an eye, those white people. They refuse to look because the child they’d see isn’t white, so there’s no need for rage and maybe that doesn’t sit well with them, their lack of care. Maybe they don’t own their racism, they don’t look it, or the child, in the eye. But they feel it creep up on them, and it doesn’t sit well, it squirms and claws at them from the inside. So they look away. The chid is invisible. The brutality is never digested. Instead, they deflect. They grab one of those talking points the NRA has dangled above them like carrots.
“What about Chicago?” they whine. “Black people kill black people.” “Guns!” “Gangs!” Blah, blah, blah. But do they know the story of Chicago? Of Baltimore? Of America? I listened to a Story Slam by a young girl from Chicago, from one of those neighborhoods, and her words carried me far beyond the statistics, far beyond cold numbers and easy discrimination. She explained how you can dial 911, but no one comes. No police. No ambulance. And if they do come, sometimes it’s 40 minutes after you make the call. There are no trauma hospitals near her neighborhood. That’s why this young girl, this teenager, taught kids in her neighborhood how to triage gunshot wounds. Because when she calls for help no one comes.
So if no one is coming, what do you do? If you’re a parent, what do you do to protect your babies? If you’re a teenager and the only way to survive school (actually survive as in LIVE, not survive as in “Jimmy doesn’t like me back, whatever will I do?”) is to join a gang, what do you do? You do what you have to do to LIVE. That’s what you do. And the cycle continues. Because the help doesn’t come. It doesn’t come when you call 911 and it doesn’t come from the powers-that-be that love citing statistics but never dig deep enough to actually understand the struggle.
And how did we get here? It starts with the original sin: slavery. Oh, the holy roller white folks are panting hard now. Because they love to dismiss with their, “I had nothing to do with slavery. Get over it already.” But it isn’t over already. It won’t be over until Karen stops clutching her pearls and starts owning her role in it all. Because it didn’t end with the Civil War and it didn’t end with Brown Vs. The Board of Education and it didn’t end with Emmitt Till or The Freedom Riders or The March on Washington. It didn’t end with the Voting Rights Act. Because suppression didn’t end, segregation didn’t end, redlining was just warming up, and the Klan was still growing. Black tradespeople couldn’t join unions and couldn’t get ahead. The innocent and accused couldn’t get a fair trial. Wealth couldn’t grow, couldn’t flow, couldn’t be passed down to future generations. But those white folks, they shrug their shoulders. Saying they didn’t know…
And, really, isn’t that what this whole thing is all about? About not knowing? Never growing? Never letting go of our own white what-about-me-isms for long enough to GET IT. White privilege isn’t a cut on white people. It’s a social truth. It’s a responsibility. None of the above happened to us, therefore we have a head start. A head start in homeownership and familial wealth growth, and, you know, not being murdered for the color of our skin. But white privilege doesn’t have to be akin to white guilt. Not if we’re willing to surrender it. Not if we really believe in equality. Not if we’re unthreatened by building a bigger table, one with seats, and equal representation, for everyone.
Like James Baldwin said, like he so wisely said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Change has been a long time coming. But it’s time.
It’s long past time.
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