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What Happens When?

What Happens When?
 
 
This, my white friends, is privilege. Even in our most activist moments, we don a cause like a fashionable hat, briefly, until we exhaust our emotional reserves; then, when it suits us, we retreat to the comfort of our white, cushy cloud of isolation, so to recover from our (ahem) heartache. But the real victims never have such an option. When they’re tired and dismayed, the job only gets harder; it never goes away. Retreat literally is not an option.
 
Clinton J. Moyer, Huff Post
 
 
Even though I have been engaging with friends all week, trying to unfreeze my emotions around the latest slate of shootings, it took the above paragraph on today’s Huffington Post site to spur me to action. It was the final crack in ice already cracking.
            I’ve heard it before, thought it before…was just talking about this phenomenon with a close friend…but something about this man’s directness, his call for whites to get out of their comfortable chairs—how he calls us out for “when it’s convenient” activism—woke me up. And it hurts.
            The ice started to melt earlier last week, while watching Free State of Jones, then again when talking with my wife about it (in our “cushy cloud of isolation”). There in front of us were brave and activated individuals, white and black, fighting side by side, not giving up, not giving in. It was like watching a Hollywood trope for the Black Lives Matter movement; or, at least, a history lesson reminder what is possible. I felt the same way watching when I saw Selma. Movie as wake-up call. Act! Do Something!
       There are clear moments in my life when I know how and when to act. There are times to join the protest. I was there to escort a black friend to the chief of police’s office in order for him to see clearly who she is and agree to protect her as he would any white citizen. But these isolated acts of mine don’t feel enough. Not now, not as I watch along with the rest of the country this barrage of assassinations. And aren’t I always in danger of using them as pat-myself-on-the-back moments, emblematic encounters that prove that I am engaged, not afraid, doing the right thing? It sure feels that way.
My wife and I are almost through watching ESPN’s 5-part OJ documentary, Made in America, actually stopping halfway through the last episode to catch our breath. It was so very stunning to watch (again!) the divide that opened up between whites and blacks when OJ was acquitted. Sobering to see many of his “loyal” white fans turn their backs on him, spit on him. Painful to watch him begin to court the very black communities and church leaders he seemed to hold such disdain for earlier. Ironic to hear black activists at the time owning up to wanting “payback.” Of course they did. (So would I. I still do, if a privileged white male can call for pay back on something he has never directly experienced.) But OJ as a civil rights figure? All OJ ever wanted, it seems to me, was to be loved and adored. (And for us to ignore that he was a wife-beater.) We watch him over the course of the documentary sell his emotional wares to the highest bidder; and when the bidding ceased, when he was in danger of becoming a pariah, Simpson hauled his rag cart to the only place he thought he could be seen and loved. (And was he not right to do so?)
My boy and his three best friends are an interesting group. Among the four, two are Jewish, one was born in Jamaica, and one was born in London, where his East Indian father still lives. My son and his Jewish friend each recently had their bar mitzvah and wear their Stars of David outside their shirts with pride. I worry about them all.
        What happens when this foursome pile out of a car to grab sodas at some gas station? Will the police hanging out in their car have their inner radar turn on? Will they feel inclined to engage, intervene, arrest? What will happen to these boys inside that arrest? Will my son’s whiteness—his blue-eyed wonder-boy persona—end up “protecting” his darker-skinned friends from harm or will his and the other Jewish boy’s presence in the group exasperate the problem? 
I sat my son down the other day to talk about the two recent shootings of unarmed black men. (This is before the Dallas shootings.) He hadn’t heard yet, hadn’t realized there were videos to watch and mourn. I talked to him about his being Jewish and anti-semitism. And I talked to him about being white and his unearned privilege. I tried to let him know that his friends might be treated differently just because of the color their skin. He understood; I could see him taking it in. But he’s thirteen and doesn’t really know what to expect. Do I show him the videos or keep him from them? (It has taken me days to sit down and watch them myself.)
This conversation might be one of those “must-have” moments. There was no doubt in my mind we had to have that talk, and that the conversation needs to remain open and active. Just yesterday, as we gathered with other families delivering their children to a month-long Jewish sleep-away camp, the director warned the kids and placated the parents that they had all the appropriate security in place. How ironic is it that the local police are serving that security role? Do those southern white men (as I imagine them) really harbor goodwill for a bunch of Jewish kids and Israeli counselors? Or does their otherness blare forth at the local pool or at that imaginary gas station?
 
Let’s remind ourselves that this is not about us. Let’s allow, indeed, invite those who suffer to speak for themselves. Let’s entertain the possibility that such voices represent the best not just in “their” community, but in OURS — allof ours. Let’s let them be our voices, so that when we say “us,” we include them.
Clinton J. Moyer, Huff Post
 
 
Getting back to the article and its cattle prod to my comfort zone freeze… I am awake now, brother! But what next?! I will attend the protest, sure. But I know already that doesn’t feel like enough. Writing this letter helps a little. But even this…to what end?
It’s “not about us,” Moyer reminds white people. It’s not our voice that matters most. He urges me to let the suffering voice speak and to allow it to become my own voice. I agree with this, and I don’t agree with this. Letting other voices speak for me feels too much like the easy “arm chair” activism he’s warning against. Too privileged. I want to addmy voice to the conversation. I want to listen carefully to other voices then join the conversation best I can.

 

 

 

 

 

            I guess I need help figuring out what to do next. Surely, this is no time to dawdle. I will keep writing and keep talking with our boy. Keep watching the movies and reading the op-eds and talking with friends and loved ones. And I’ll do my best to keep up the good work—Teach. Write. Listen. Speak up. Stand up. Not give up hope.