the questions you don’t ask

I didn’t know I was upset until I was halfway through the woods. I started my walk like I usually do, face mask wrapped tight over my mouth and nose, headphones pressed to my ears, the Chi-Lites my soundtrack as I jaunted towards the Wallenberg Forest. I pried the headphones off as I left the main road, the world shifting from the slightly-tinny sound of my music to the throaty chirping of birds. Dappled sunlight filtered through the trees, casting the ground in shifting shadows.

I didn’t know I was upset until I was halfway through the woods. There was nothing to announce the revelation–one moment I was threading my way around the trees, and the next moment I was frozen. All that was beautiful and wild and wonderful around me shrank away and sharpened to a single point: They had killed him. George Floyd had been murdered

My breaths sped up and beat against the wall of my mask, finding no release. They were trapped like me, stuck in the middle of a forest I couldn’t cry in because there were white joggers coming up in my peripheral vision, and I just couldn’t let myself break here. So I did what many black people have been taught to do: I shoved all the emotion into that pit in my stomach where all heavy things unspoken roil, blinked away the tears, and kept walking.

But even as my steps resumed, I felt the weight of my brown skin in that place. To get to the forest I had to cross Broadway at 231st into the other side of Kingsbridge and then into Riverdale, a predominantly white neighborhood at the northernmost section of the Bronx. I left a block of littered streets and salsa music and black and brown neighbors tossing gossip from their stoops and entered a carefully cultivated playground at the edge of the forest with no people that looked like me at all. 

They’re not all bad people, I thought. I had grown up with enough white friends (some of my closest friends now are white women) to know that white people couldn’t be reduced to Confederate-flag waving white supremacists marching through Charlottesville. But I’ve also lived in “progressive” New York City long enough to also know that racism is not bound up in flags and swastikas.

Racism shows up in the questions white people don’t ask about why things are the way they are.

It shows up in the invisible redlining of city neighborhoods, black people shunted off to blocks where rising rents will eventually push them out entirely so more desirable [white] people can move in.

It shows up in the absences of black men in universities and interview rooms because 1 out of 3 of them will be incarcerated in their lifetime.

It shows up in churches where the only theology books pastors read and recommend and quote from are written by white men (Brandi Miller’s essay examines this issue).

It shows up in blockbuster movies where the default is to have a cast of white people and either a lighter-skinned black best friend (usually if it’s a woman) or a comedic black sidekick.

It shows up in kindly tones when a group of black teens hanging out on the street or fundraising for a school function are told to quiet down by a white woman, and the police are only a phone click away (just typing “black teens” into Google instantly provided a wealth of examples).

It shows up in being told that black people can’t complain because slavery is over and isn’t talking about race making it more of a problem and being racist to white people?

My country is sick, and these are only a few symptoms. There is too little curiosity and humility on the part of white people to ask the kinds of questions that grab the roots of America’s racial problems. I suspect it is because many white people either don’t know where to start or don’t want to know the answers and are already prepared to reject them from the onset. I suspect this because instead of grieving the death of George Floyd, I saw an abundance of Facebook and forum comments which asked very different questions:

“Well, didn’t the evidence show the guy had just committed forgery?”

“Didn’t the guy have a criminal record?”

“Well, the officer thought he was in danger, right?”

We should be chilled hearing these responses that prioritize rationalizing a black person’s death over recognizing the tragedy of their life ending so brutally. It is a reminder that in this country, we are quick to defend those who are white and punish those who are not. Instead of “innocent until proven guilty,” black people are “guilty until proven innocent” and have to work harder to prove they don’t deserve execution for the pettiest of crimes–or simply the crime of being black. George Floyd didn’t have that chance.

My white sisters and brothers: It is not enough to say you are “not racist” and feel sad about bad things happening to black people. If you are unwilling to ask the kinds of questions that will make you uncomfortable, if you are unwilling to listen and lament with my black sisters and brothers and recognize the sickness of this land we’re in, how can you call yourself our neighbor? The man who helped the battered Samaritan didn’t just look at his body and then walk on his way. He stopped and drew close to the man and did what he could to support him and pave a way for healing despite the personal cost.

The cost of drawing close to your black neighbors means dealing with what whiteness means in this country and the historic privilege inherent in it. It requires reckoning with your own whiteness and interrogating any defensiveness or tension that arises in you when a black person brings up race. It involves surrendering the desire to be seen as the “Good White Person.” And it means peeling back the histories you’ve been taught and seeking out the histories told by black people that reveal a world very different from how you have inhabited your space, from what you have known as “normal.”

Black people have exhausted themselves in telling our stories for centuries, and our rage has been treated as more of a threat than the murders of those we mourn.

They’re not all bad people, I thought as I left the forest, desperate to get home so I could finally cry. But do they know a black man was murdered today? Would they even call it murder? 

6 thoughts on “the questions you don’t ask

  1. “I have made up my mind wherever I go, I shall go as a man, and not as a slave… I shall always aim to be courteous and mild in deportment towards all with whom I come in contact, at the same time firmly and constantly endeavoring to assert my equal right as a man and a brother.” ~ Frederick Douglass Address to the American Colonization Society, Faneuil Hall Boston, Massachusetts, June 8, 1849

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  2. …thank you for the thoughtful essay. Some days you just cannot find the words because they are trapped behind anguish… Glad you found them for me, us. Bless you.

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  3. You mom shared this with me,,,POWERFUL! It truly is time for white people to have the race talk with with themselves, their families and the communities that they are a part of. We are not responsible and we should no longer have ownership of their mistreatments and behaviors towards us. I look forward to seeing solutions that they create because again it is their responsibiliy! Thank you for sucha reflective piece! I will share and I hope you don’t mind. Stay safe and healthy!

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  4. Bless you, friend, for this beautiful and difficult vulnerability. Thank you for inviting us in and calling us to action.

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