“There’s really no such thing as ‘the voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” – Arundhati Roy
“We walk with targets on our backs,” cried a Black woman from the stark letters of a New York Times article. Her words dragged me out of my time, brought me back to that place two years ago when I was on my way to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and found myself in a protest instead. Eric Garner’s trial was going on, and dozens of people massed on the sidewalk, barred from the plaza by metal gates locked together. Maneuvering my body through the crowd, I tried to move forward, but too many bodies pressed against me, anchoring me in place. Cardboard signs grazed through the puffed layers of my jacket so I felt each time they were thrust into the sky, screaming “STOP KILLING US!” and “SAY THEIR NAMES!” in red and black ink.
My breath arrested, any plan to see the tree dropped from my thoughts when I saw the rows of SWAT police officers lined up in front of us. They were padded and armed, some with transparent shields at their sides like a recreation of the medieval jousts I used to go to as a kid. But this was no game, and I was no child. Instead I stood, heart thudding against my chest as the protesters shook the metal barricade. As it rattled, the cacophony of shouting found form, met in sync as the people began to chant “BLACK LIVES MATTER” again and again and again until the hoarseness of their voices chafed at the air. I joined them.
We stood there for hours as the snow fell around us like ashes. The distant strains of “All I Want For Christmas” circled us, set an alien perimeter that separated our block of chaos from the carefully orchestrated holiday celebration only a few streets away.
I will never forget the words of the middle-aged black woman who stood in front of me. In the pause between breaths, she lifted her head, curls tipped by frost, and her voice rang out like a prophet:
They’re here to protect the tree, an inanimate object, but they don’t protect us. The tree is dead, and they’re here to protect the tree, but they don’t protect us who are alive.
Other voices soon joined her in what became a searing sermon on the coldest night in November. Here are some of their words:
“There’s the blue wall of silence!” – Black Man
“Thank God I’m white so I don’t have to deal with the stuff half of the people here do!”-White Man
“We know you are good people. Don’t protect the bad ones.” – Black Man
“Do you have to instruct your child how to not get murdered on his way to school? We’re not supposed to fear you? He should respect you!… The change has to start with you Officer–it starts from within. Put your batons down. We are here to have a conversation. We are not here to hurt you. You broke the public trust. Look us in the eye–don’t look down.” – Black Woman
I wish I knew your names.
Once, I was too hesitant to speak about these things. Whispered admonitions laid the foundation for my fear: Don’t rock the boat. Be constructive. Don’t be too harsh. Don’t be too angry. Show grace. I suspect many people of color who enter majority-white spaces know this mantra all too well. This is how we assimilate and avoid the dismissive label of “angry minority.”But as I have said before, there is a difference between grace and accommodation, and I can no longer accommodate the comfort and slowness to react of many white Americans when my people are being shot. I didn’t always call them my people, mixed and mixed-up and afraid to say I belonged, afraid that I didn’t count, but that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters, as black people have been declaring for decades before the #hashtag, are black lives, and the fact that in this country-and globally-they are not as valued as other lives.
What does it mean when a black man, a black woman, a black child cannot drive home, walk from the store, go up the stairs, enjoy a playground without being framed as a threat? We may not have signs that say Whites Only or Blacks Only in our stores and bathrooms anymore, but that doesn’t mean this world belongs any more to Black people than it used to. Racism has crafted insidious new ways of fortifying itself in our nation, and by convincing white people that its symptoms (urban poverty, gang warfare, substance abuse, high incarceration rates, unjust police shootings, mental illness) root itself in black culture and personal choice, white people have the freedom to avoid confronting the systemic and historical elements of the problem.
One of the most dangerous tools of racism is its ability to render an entire people blind to the consequences of their actions–both accumulated and present. This blindness shrouds the truth: you benefit from political and economic policies that position people like you on top. It’s not a matter of being white and rich or white and poor, even though the intersectional dimensions of a person’s experience add complexity to the conversation; it’s a matter of being White, and how being White will never equate to a death sentence. Yet from Columbus’ documentation of “savages” to the writings of Rudyard Kipling to the depiction of slaves to the lynching of black men accused of harming white women to the rhetorical warfare around the thuggification of black men, society has taught us to approach non-white peoples with caution. The words will never be spoken by moderate white people (that’s for those racists over there), but the truth comes out in the reflex to pull the trigger.
Years of racist imagery and coded language have constructed the schema that black people are dangerous, the schema internalized in the minds of white people born into the noxious fumes of racism…and in the minds of black people conditioned into the belief that we are inherently deficient. Racism is part of the daily reality for ALL people, but those blinded from that truth cannot understand its breadth. When a police shooting happens, the news channels will tell the police officer’s story first because this is deemed the rational, objective approach to the case. The shades tucked within their reasoning, however, point to the underlying belief that black people are less trustworthy, less capable of discerning reality because of our “emotions,” and less stable than a white voice of authority. We are assumed to be in the wrong until we somehow do enough to liberate ourselves from white expectations.
My time working in a public elementary school in the South Bronx made it vividly clear that starting even from preschool, black children are expected to be loud, belligerent, unmotivated, and aggressive. The reasons for their behavior are rarely examined in depth, and often too late to stem the tide of high school dropouts, disillusionment, and violence. Those who make it out of the heart of darkness will be tolerated; they will be the Exceptional Ones advertised on college brochures and human interest stories, but they will always be, consciously, Black.
We are feared. The lightness of my skin becomes my buffer, as does my educated status and socioeconomic background; but when I step out of my apartment, I remain Black in the eyes of my nation–even when it assures me that it sees no color. As a friend recently pointed out, we are “political bodies.” Our skin bears meanings and wars within the melanin. The relief I know in my safe spaces evaporates when I walk out Black and in danger, and I haven’t even experienced half the things my other black friends and neighbors have. But we see the headlines and hear it on the streets. I see it in the eyes of the black boys I teach and walk past in my neighborhood. We share this tragic kinship in knowing that this long-engineered fear turns the guns of police officers towards darker skin–our skin.
We are not given the benefit of the doubt. There are arguments to be proven, data to be supplied, eyewitnesses to be interrogated, the usual black commentators to drag out to console White America about the latest shooting. Black children pay the price when their mothers warn them not to wear hoodies when evening light falls. They play with their toys, wrapped in a wariness that any moment they may be asked to raise their hands so they will look less like a criminal.
We are hidden away when we are inconvenient. The prison cells spill over with our bodies. We are shouted down, placated down with sweet smiles when our ways of challenging racism make white people feel uncomfortable. When we are enough of a disruption, we are carted away in cuffs.
706. That is how many fatal police shootings we have witnessed in 2016 so far. This does not even include all those cases that go unreported, or my Latino, indigenous, and other ethnic minority brothers and sisters harmed through excessive and aggressive policing. And I am angry that the year is not over because I can expect more of my people to die.
I wrote in a previous post about the weariness people of color experience when constantly exposed to the suffering of their racial or ethnic community. We are traumatized, and we need our churches and non-black friends to come around us, pray for us, stand with us. There are times the world asks us to bear the pain politely and quietly–and we can’t. Our threshold is breached, and still many white people have the temerity to ask more from us when our ancestors were shipped on the waves of imperialism and slavery with empty hands and chained ankles.The chains clang loudly still, and we play no race cards idly–again, this is no game.
Why must black and brown people heft the weight of responding well to the horrific reality of injustice when they are traumatized? Why are we not allowed to be vulnerable, cracked open and grief-wracked?
I hurt when I see the gravity of what is happening to black and brown people reduced to “issues” or “difficult questions” or “conflicts.” This is racism. Let’s not shy away from the term or from the labels “white people” and “black people” because this is the language we have inherited, and we must take ownership of it in order to dismantle their power over our communities, our relationships. We are fractured. So many people have pointed out the inequities, documented the histories, and spoken to the economic, political, and social complexities, and yet as a nation we remain stagnant in our movement towards justice.
Numbness sets in some days when I hear of another shooting or scroll through the news. Bile on my tongue and a leaden heart other days. A churning anger today. Why are my people being hurt in this way? When will it end? The Lord hears our cries for deliverance, sees the blood dripping from bullet wounds where bodies lie on the street–when is a change gonna come?
We are the the walking dead, and yet we are not voiceless. Who will hear us? Who will help us bury our own and save the ones still breathing?
My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within,
my heart is poured out on the ground
because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city.