I’ve been mostly staying out of the conversation about everything going on in our country following the murder of George Floyd. As a writer, I’ve been watching and soaking everything in, trying to collect myself and cut through all the social media noise. I didn’t want to speak out of turn.
I’ve watched many in the white community talk about what the black community needs and I often wonder how many of them have actually talked to their black neighbor or co-worker ~ or if they are just white people who think that, again (or still?), they know best. I don’t mean to criticize…I absolutely encourage people to get involved in whatever way they feel comfortable. Black out your profile on Facebook, join a protest, do what you can, but be careful to not put your words in anyone else’s mouth. Instead, let’s spend some time listening and really hearing each other.
I’ve also watched hate build. As you all know, situations like this mean you often learn things about people you are close to that may surprise you. I’ve been caught off guard by many things I’ve seen on social media lately, but when some of the noise is coming from people you know and love, it can leave a whole other level of hurt and confusion in its wake.
Maybe it’s a lack of self-esteem, but for a long time, I’ve operated under the mindset that “no one will care what I have to say”. Not just about the current state of racial injustice, but about many things in our world today. I have feelings of inadequacy…I’m just a no-name person who couldn’t possibly have anything helpful to say about race, politics, or whatever else is going on in our country at any given time. I don’t necessarily feel like there is anything I can add to the conversation that is going to make a difference. I’m a woman, placing me into another group of Americans who have been discriminated against over the centuries, but I’m a white woman, so there’s still a voice in my head asking me what the hell I think I know about truly experiencing inequality.
I’m going to tell you right now, that I don’t have the answer and I won’t pretend to. I wish I could just snap my fingers and fix our world, but I know it’s not that easy. What I am going to share, is my personal experience. I suspect it might be similar to many people’s experiences and, truthfully, the conversations need to start somewhere. So, here goes…
I’m 51 years old. If you’re doing the math, you’ll know I grew up in the 70s & 80s. Cell phones had just been invented in the early 70s, but there were no smart phones that took photos and video and certainly none of us kids had one. Heck, very few parents had them. The internet didn’t come along until the early 80s and it was certainly nowhere near the information highway it is today. There was no social media ~ a kid could go out and do something stupid and it wouldn’t live on in infamy for the rest of your natural life. The bullies at school had to tease you face to face.
You get the idea.
I grew up in a very white suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I remember having a couple of Hispanic friends in school, but I didn’t meet anyone from any other racial groups until I was well into my 20s. I grew up in a bubble and generally knew little about what went on outside of my little world ~ a world where we were taught to “never talk about politics or religion in polite company.” Which, as I look back now, the unspoken addition to that statement could have been race and civil rights. Really, it included any topic that was likely to elicit strong opinions.
And maybe that’s the problem…how can we have conversations about sensitive issues when we were never taught how to do that? We’ve all watched our country’s political parties’ constant fighting and bickering, unable to find a way to communicate and meet in the middle on literally anything. Maybe it’s because we were never exposed to anyone else’s viewpoints because…you know… “don’t talk about politics”. Wouldn’t it have been easier to explore other people’s viewpoints when they belonged to your close friends and family? If we had a disagreement with a friend, wouldn’t we try to understand where they were coming from and find a way to understand and compromise? I know this is a VERY over-simplistic idea, but maybe it’s part of the reason our country is struggling so much right now. Some of us don’t know how to accept anyone else’s opinion if it doesn’t match our own.
Anyway…to say I was ignorant of the world at large would have been an understatement. My view of the world, which I think is fairly common when you are young (at least back then), was innocently centered around myself. So many big things happened in Milwaukee during my youth…Jeffrey Dahmer comes immediately to mind. But the “big city” was so far away that it could have been in another country. Certainly I knew of Dahmer, but it wasn’t until I read a book about him decades later that I really stepped into the larger circle of what was going on in the city at that time. It was eye opening because I had no idea.
As I met and made friends with black men and women, I learned more about what life was like for them in Milwaukee. Even though I was learning, I still didn’t really “get it” until I moved away.
My husband and I were eager to escape the long, cold, Wisconsin winters. We landed in Charleston, South Carolina. I had been told by a friend who traveled frequently that Milwaukee was one of the most segregated cities in the country. I was dumbfounded at the time. It might have been God’s doing that found me relocating to, arguably, the very epicenter of the slave trade and racial oppression. Perhaps He thought an education might be in order.
And boy, have I learned some things. Although certainly, there is much more to learn.
Even before the murder of the nine worshipers at Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015, I became a student of Southern history. As a writer, I’m a huge reader, and I’ve been devouring books about Charleston’s history in an effort to learn about the unimaginable. The whole of this beautiful city was built on the backs of slave labor. The wealth of the city realized at the cost of thousands of deaths of the Africans they held in bondage. Often, as I read or visit historical sites around the city, I’m horrified by what happened here. And then, something like the tragedy at Mother Emanuel happens, and I am amazed to see how my adopted community came together, black and white, to speak out against the hatred that brought murder to the church that night in June. Tears came to my eyes as I listened to the families of the victims offer forgiveness. I don’t know if I would have been able to do the same in their position.
I walk through my neighborhood, and I see that Milwaukee’s segregated way of life is not the way all communities live. I don’t know about all neighborhoods in the South of course, but, the community I live in is home to all racial groups and it does my heart good. Certainly there’s hope for Milwaukee, Atlanta, Los Angeles and all the other cities in our country that are hurting. Surely, if Charleston can find peace and love, these other cities can too.
And then the video of George Floyd appeared on social media. Listening to him beg for his life is one of the most heart breaking things many of us have ever heard (certainly for this naive little Midwestern girl). Even Charleston lost a little of their collective composure (understandably so) the week after George’s murder. It’s quite clear to me (and anyone else paying attention) that there is still much work to be done.
Over all the years and everything I’ve learned, I wasn’t prepared for how this would make me feel. I saw a post on Facebook that I’ve been told was released by the Minneapolis Police Department whose officers were involved in George’s death (I have not fact checked the origin of the post, so this may not be true). The post apparently listed all of George’s run-in’s with the law. Almost like they were trying to justify what happened. No matter what he may or may not have done, he did not deserve to die. I was sick to my stomach. Since then, I’ve seen worse being posted and it so horrified me that I refuse to share it here and I’ve stepped away from social media for a while.
I’ve had wonderful black men and women in my life over the years and met many more. It tears me apart every time something like this happens and I imagine any of them having to live their lives with the very real fear that they or someone they love will be mistreated or killed. In fact, one of my friends in Milwaukee had that very thing happen, losing a family member to a police issued firearm.
I support the police. I support good police. I know there are many more good officers out there than bad ones. I’m grateful for their dedication to our communities, as they put their lives on the line to protect us each and every day. Sadly, however, the bad apples have made the largest impact lately and are getting the most air time. And just like that, all the slates of all the officers across the country who are doing great things in their communities are wiped clean. Suddenly, all of the positive work officers have been doing goes up in smoke and they must begin again to rebuild trust. Certainly, there is work to be done to prevent the bad officers from hitting the streets, but we need to also acknowledge and encourage all the officers out there doing right by the communities they serve. It doesn’t have to be an either or choice. You can support good police and also support racial equality. There has to be a way forward ~ together.
I’ve been encouraged by reports of community leaders who are beginning to have these conversations. Hopefully, George Floyd’s death won’t have been in vain and we can take real steps to prevent another family from having to bury a loved one under similar circumstances. People are angry right now. I get that. But I’ve got to believe we can come together peacefully and make change happen.
One nation, under God. Loving our neighbors as ourselves.