(Please note: this was originally written on Monday, August 10th, 2015. Revised and posted after that fact.)
It is now one year and one day from the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
It has been one year since #blacklivesmatter became a familiar hashtag, a rallying cry, and a flashpoint within White communities. Since conversations about White Supremacy became commonplace on my social media feeds.
One year ago this time I had just returned from Doe Bay Fest, a dreamy magical music festival on Orcas Island. I was surrounded by (mostly) other White people, on a 3 day escape from reality to the pristine island life, with secret concerts by campfire and a midnight show under an auspicious apple tree.
Today, I am also on a dreamy island in Washington. I’m writing from the desk of a new friend and potential mentor. She is a leader within Native Americans in Philanthropy, has the most bountiful garden I have seen in quite some time, and is extremely generous to let me write and retreat to her home while her family is away.
And so here I am, one year later. Again, on an island, away from my day to day life and tendencies. The mere fact that I can reflect, retreat, escape to these dreamy islands is a neat metaphor of what Whiteness provides me: I can pursue these multiple opportunities specifically designed for ‘me’. Opportunities to get in a car, hop on a ferry, escape the buzz and whir of modern life. To just be around other (White) humans and to slow down for a while. To not fear for my safety and security because my body or gender identity marks me as Other to the White majority that lives on islands here. That I get to take time to work, write, think, and process. That I choose the comfort of an island retreat rather than stay in Seattle and march alongside #blacklivesmatter protestors marking the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. And, while self-care is a necessary tactic for any activism and movement work, the mode and opportunity for my self-care is scripted into my Whiteness. It is part and parcel of my identity as a liberal White woman in the northwest: seek retreat, enjoy festivals, get away on the weekend, turn off the phone. Unplug.
Ah, to unplug. What a luxury to get to choose to disconnect from the frenzy of social media and email. Earlier this year, Sarah Kendzior wrote about how many of the protestors on the ground in Ferguson are living in such dire poverty that they’re having to choose between food, housing or their cell phone bills. These same cell phones that keep them plugged into Twitter, into the movement alerts and text messages. Into the videos and Vines.
So, here I am. Unplugged for the most part. Except that there’s this thing that happened here, in Seattle, on Saturday. It involved Bernie Sanders. You might have heard about it.
For full disclosure, Bernie Sanders is my frontrunner for presidential nominee right now. I agree with his economic policy, and despite my loathsome feelings about economics in general, I think that addressing the racial wealth gap in our country is going to be one of the most impactful ways to mitigate inequality and White supremacy.
My good friend Jamie Utt at Change from Within wrote a stellar piece reflecting on the Bernie in Seattle direct action, and he’s summarized it better than I could. Tim Harris, the director of Real Change News, also had this to say, and Washington’s only senator of color, Pramila Jayapal, wrote a poignant guest editorial in The Stranger.
However, to summarize my stance on this, because I can’t rely on everyone to go read Jamie (though really, you should!)…
I wonder, who gets to sanction or condone appropriate protest actions? What gives me (as a White person), the right to say whether or not these women did the ‘right thing’? Do I have crowds of people policing my Twitter posts? (luckily, trolls have not found me yet… though that is not the case for many other badass feminist bloggers.)
It is not up to me or other White liberals to deem the ‘appropriateness’ of Black action. To think that Black folks need to ask for permission for their tactics is precisely the tools of White supremacy that Martin Luther King Jr. feared.
To believe in self-determination and sovereignty means trusting communities most impacted by poverty, violence, police brutality, etc to choose their tactics and build their own movements. The Black women who are leading the way in Seattle need not ask for permission from the White ‘progressives’.
To watch the footage from this event makes my stomach churn. Here are two women, asserting their Black female bodies into an extremely White space, and they are jeered, booed, told to get off the stage, and at one point someone yells that “how dare she call me a racist?!”. These are not micro-aggressions: this is aggression, plain and simple. I shudder to think about the courage it took to stand among that crowd, to assert their own humanity and the humanity of Black folks everywhere, and to be told to shut up. I send these woman so much healing energy right now.
And yet. I took the ferry to the island when the protest had just ended. I didn’t know what had yet happened, but I was surrounded by aging White Bernie supporters. I thought, “how sweet! All these islanders trudging to Westlake to see their guy.” One man stood out in particular. He had walked onto the ferry, and he had a little Bernie pin on the lapel of his hiking vest. He looked a bit forlorn and lonely, and when the rain started sprinkling as we touched based at the ferry dock, I felt a pang for him.
So when I heard about the rally, and the powerful Action by these two Black women, I thought of this man. About how even as I say, “Yes, I hear you and I trust you to choose your own tactics” to the women of #blacklivesmatter, I also hold empathy for individuals who are just trying to have a day. To make their own sacrifices of time and energy to invest some hope in a political system that is inarguably failing the vast majority of Americans. To do the important work of supporting Medicare, Social Security and the rest of the social safety net that many Republicans seem hell-bent on destroying.
This tension – between wanting to validate and accept the actions and movements of communities of color, of willingly de-centering Whiteness and White spaces (as uncomfortable as it may be!), and also holding empathy for the fact that most individuals are just trying to do their best and live their lives and get through the day with some peace and clarity – this tension is what gets me. I haven’t resolved it yet, except to say that my one fear about the Action at Westlake has nothing to do with the Black women involved. It has everything to do with the alienation and defensiveness that White folks are going to feel and act on. This is White fragility. And it is, I think, our biggest hurdle to overcome as anti-racist White folks working within White communities.
I am reminded of a quote I heard, that “Black Lives Matter is a White people problem.” It is. It is our responsibility as White people to shut up, tuck away our discomfort, and listen when Black women take the stage. It is our work to not get so defensive. There will be other chances to hear Bernie. Because, of course, the political system is designed for us. We do not have to carve out space for our bodies, our voices. White supremacy hands us a free pass to such events as these.
So I ask my White liberal friends: take a minute and pause. What triggers the defensiveness about this Action? Does this bring up some fears? If so, what? Notice them, acknowledge them. Thank them for making themselves heard. And then just please be quiet and allow Black, brown, disabled, poor, queer, trans, and Native voices to be heard. Please just take a step back and allow your fears to exist without them taking control of your actions. Because, at the end of the day, whatever fears and discomforts you have in this moment do not, cannot compare to the fear of violence, police brutality, harassment, aggression, hate and death that Black women in our country face on the daily.