Learning how to talk to each other in ways that are productive and respectful seems an essential skill in our modern times, particularly on the subject of race. With trolls and small-minded people subverting the process in far too many avenues of discourse, and the art of listening too often lost in the rush to pontificate, we struggle to find empathy and common ground amongst ourselves. And never have both been more sorely needed.
The conversation I've had over these last few weeks with Regina McRae--an articulate, passionate, and successful black businesswoman from New York-- seemed an urgent one, one I needed and wanted in hopes of gaining greater awareness of life from her perspective. She honored me with her candor and I've been subsequently educated. And, interestingly, when Senator Elizabeth Warren took her own stand on #BlackLivesMatter the other day, I couldn't help but notice how much of what she said echoed what Regina has shared with me in this three-part discussion.
Before we continue, though, a quick comment about the photos used to accompany the series: Those of Regina are obvious, but I wanted to point out why I intentionally selected the two-shots I did. I wanted to depict Regina and me as the women we are: our races, our professions, our everydayness; our similarities and our differences. It felt important to illustrate how individuals who live on opposite sides of the country, with different backgrounds and career paths, and certainly disparate ethnic and cultural influences, could come together with interest and compassion to discuss "that which ails us." A message, perhaps, that it can be done, it should be done, as often as people can come together.
Now let's get on to our final segment:
LDW: First of all, Regina, thanks again for working with me on this. Simply put, it's been a good thing.
RM: Thank you for giving me a voice. When I see trolls on the #BLM page and am sickened by the extreme hate, I know how important this conversation is. We have to all move past this.
LDW: Agreed. So let's continue. Here's something I'd like your perspective on: Despite our country's mandate against segregation, it's a fact that many communities gravitate toward neighborhoods and enclaves made up largely of their own ethnic or racial groups. Particularly in cities, we see whole sections defined by their largest populations. Busing students may diversify schools, but even then real connection becomes problematic when kids can't spend time with each other because their homes are so far apart. Many small towns offer little or no diversity; consequently, people have few opportunities to engage and interact with other races.
How can we, then, best promote empathy for the many reasons behind the #BlackLivesMatter campaign when too many whites in America still do not have meaningful experiences with blacks; still do not fully grasp the history and legacy that's led to this point in our culture, and still see only what they get on the news, which is largely negative? What, in your opinion, would best promote greater empathy and understanding amongst communities, on all sides of the racial divide, so that mistrust and knee-jerk stereotypes are not the go-to response?
RM: In this day and age of the Internet and social media, the world is a much smaller place than it has ever been. If someone is truly interested in bridging a gap, it's as easy as making a friend on Facebook or Instagram. Want to learn more about slavery, segregation, Jim Crow? Just Google it. The only reason for ignorance these days is comfort. As with yourself, those who truly wish to know, reach out and ask! A person who asks a question is only a fool for a moment. Those who never ask are fools forever.
LDW: That's a good line.
RM: It's true! You don't have to know a single black person to understand the #BLM movement. Read the Department of Justice's scathing reports on corruption and racism in the Cleveland police department, or the Ferguson police department, as mentioned last week. Read Amnesty International's report on the use of lethal force in New York City's police department, in which they were compared to the secret police in a Third World dictatorship...and that was just 20 years ago under Mayor Giuliani!
Things have not gotten worse over the years, they've become more evident with the proliferation of cellphones, iPads, and security cameras. The world is coming to know what we have always known: that some in law enforcement are protecting and serving only themselves. And because this cancer has not been excised, but been allowed to grow unchecked and untreated, it is now spreading from the inner city into the 'burbs.
LDW: What do you mean by that specifically?
RM: The problem with law enforcement is not just ours. Disproportionate violence by police is being perpetuated against whites as well as blacks. Stories of whites being gunned down, falsely arrested, and brutalized have led to many more people now seeing what we have been screaming about for decades. To those who feel that, somehow, we bring this upon ourselves by resisting or mouthing off and being disrespectful, I suggest they Google the number of whites killed by the police lately.
Like John Wrana, the 95-year-old WWII vet who refused to leave his nursing home to go to the hospital for a UTI. When Wrana become combative with emergency personnel, the police were called, and they purportedly came in like a SWAT team. Though witnesses testified that Wrana was waving a knife, this was a disabled man seated in a wheel chair! The officer shot him "five times with a 12-gauge shotgun that fires beanbags at 190 mph," causing massive internal hemorrhaging, and Wrana later died. He survived the Japanese army, but couldn't survive American policing.
Or David Hooks, the successful Georgia businessman who was gunned down by police during a no-knock raid triggered by an informant who claimed the car he'd stolen from Hooks had drugs in it. When they broke down the back door of Hook's home without warning, and found the understandably panicked homeowner with a shotgun in hand, they opened fire, killing this grandfather with no warning. Of course, there were no drugs, and the informant was a meth addict seeking a reduced sentence. This man is now dead because of bad policing.
Or Jose Guerena, who survived two tours in Iraq only to be gunned down in a volley of 71 bullets in his home in Pima County, Arizona, while his wife and four-year-old son were there. Killed by a SWAT team with, again, a no-knock warrant looking for non-existent drugs.
Or Deven Guilford, a 17-year-old white kid who flashed his brights at an oncoming car, only to be pulled over by that cop. When he explained that he was "simply flashing his lights to be a polite driver, and let the officer know that his high beams were on so he didn't cause an accident," the police officer ultimately got aggressive and a few minutes later Deven was tased, then shot seven times. The DA, of course, declined to press charges. As a side note, the #BlackLivesMatter movement showed up in solidarity with the family and staged protests in the area... we know better than most that all lives matter.
So, frankly, anyone really interested in gaining greater awareness and understanding, including about how out-of-control American policing has become, can just research "police deaths of innocent citizens." Not even black citizens, just citizens, and they will begin to see the pattern and the problem. They can also go on Facebook and join groups such as Filming Cops, Cop Block, Color of Change, and numerous other groups that expose corruption and incompetence almost daily. There is no excuse to not know, and every reason to know.
LDW: Yet even outside the issue of law enforcement and police brutality, there is so much racial distrust and misunderstanding between people in just day-to-day life. It feels, sometimes, as if we'll never bridge the gap. I see threads of black friends on Facebook related to racial incidents or some white person's bad behavior, and so many of the responsive comments are filled with generalized and derogatory language about "all whites" being this or that... not much different than the generalizing and stereotyping that goes on amongst small-minded whites about blacks! And yet, I know if I were to make a comment like, "but not all whites feel that way," I'd likely be booed from the stage, or dismissed as a "good white person," as we discussed in our first segment. So, tell me, how do we transcend that impulse to marginalize each other, if, even on Facebook we're busy doing just that? Racial harmony demands that whites reject generalities and stereotypes about blacks; do you think blacks can do the same in reverse?
RM: We come from a place of pain. That requires a great deal of healing. Again, please let me define racism. It is not a feeling; it is a structure. People can have prejudices and hatred, but if there is no power behind it, it's not racism. If I dislike you because of your color, I do not have the power to deny you a job, housing, or fair treatment. Racism is a power structure that leaves black folks powerless. It's like being raped on a daily basis, being made to feel that we in no way control our own destinies. The rapist is the business owner, the real estate agency, the cops, the courts. It's the educational system that punishes our kids more harshly than white kids for the same offense; that gives us substandard buildings, learning materials, and teachers, then sends us to jail for minor offenses: the school to prison pipeline.
It's the industrialization of the prison complex, including privatization. It's continually being made to feel like second- or third-class citizens. It's when you jail and kill our black men, then laugh at us for being fatherless, and say the problem in our community is all these fatherless children! Imagine living with your rapist and having to face him every morning, knowing what the nighttime will bring. This is how we feel continually.
So when even well-meaning white people make comments on social media, we tend not to care what you think. Comments don't help us at all. If you want to help, get off of Facebook and go plan a protest, stage a sit-in or die-in. Lobby Congress for a change in mandatory sentencing, an end to harsh drug laws. Seek federalization of local police forces, lobby your governor for an independent investigative unit in charge of all police shootings, and put an end to the grand jury system.
Even if you have not pulled the trigger, as long as you benefit from the power structure of racism, as long as you stay in your comfort zone and do no work to make changes, you are complicit and become lumped together with our oppressors. When you say, "but I'm not like that," or, "I don't feel that way," prove it. That's how to gain our trust, how to get us to stop stereotyping. When the revolution begins, whose side will you be on? We can never be sure, because you can strip off that #BlackLivesMatter tee-shirt and blend in with the white crowd, the right crowd, and be safe. We are never safe.
LDW: Certainly I know that intellectually, even observationally, but the depth and systemic nature of that cut is hard for many whites to understand, as I wrote in No, White People Will Never Understand the Black Experience. We watch from the sidelines, we perceive from a place of privilege and distance, with no personal experience of what it feels like to be judged, profiled, badgered, and beaten for the "crime" of having black skin. So when whites, as a society, see violence, crime, and upheaval with a racial component, we see, perhaps, what the media features, but we don't necessarily comprehend the bigger picture, the historical precedent.
For example: I was in LA during the '92 riots and watched valid outrage and anger at the King verdict metastasize into mob mentality that burned the city down and took 53 lives. Some blacks framed it as "civil unrest," but it seemed to many, including me, that authentic anger about bona fide racial injustice got co-opted by a racially-mixed mob less focused on injustice and more on wreaking havoc and stealing TVs. Some look at the situation in Ferguson and see a similar dynamic.
Is there just so much pent-up anger and rage within the black community at the bigotry and injustice built into the system that there's no easy way to respond to events without that kind of chaos, even if it damages and destroys lives and livelihoods within the community? And what is the best response whites can have to those sorts of combustive situations?
RM: I am not sure what the best response is; certainly the safest response would be to not have one. That's part and parcel of the white privilege syndrome. But we are a matchstick away from a conflagration, and the fact that the Rodney King riots took place in 1992, and it's 2015 and we are still asking for the same things says it all!
MLK said, "A riot is the language of the unheard." Yes, there are some who will steal TVs, and, of course, that's where the media chooses to focus; that way they can dilute the message of those who are speaking loudest to the most important issues. Their message gets drowned out to report sensationalism, which is too often the purpose of mainstream media.
Look at the coverage during Katrina: white people were seen as "foraging for food"; blacks were "looting." Both in the same grocery store getting needed provisions, but we were characterized as criminals. And whites' feelings are hurt when someone on Facebook makes a broad-brush statement about "all whites"?
We don't own media with which to paint you; we can do you no irreparable harm. When we have marches, and sing songs, and have meetings, not much happens. But when cities begin to burn, all of a sudden it's like, "Oh, why didn't you say so before?" We wouldn't have to riot if problems were addressed long before they became terminal.
LDW: Clearly the media has had a substantial role in manipulating how events are reported, even slanted, spun. It becomes difficult for anyone to discern facts in the glut of click-bait and politically motivated opinion. That is the scourge of losing the neutrality of our reporting journalists, which is a huge conversation in and of itself! But outside of the media, outside of law enforcement, and just to clarify more specifically: how can the average, everyday white person--living on your streets, posting in your Facebook circles, buying your cakes or cookies, and honestly caring about your plight--best respond? Again, what are the most effective things we can do? Some have organized marches, some have written songs about "hands up, don't shoot"; some have shouted a lot on social media, and some think it's most respectful to let blacks sort this out on their own. I've been quieter, listening, waiting, it turns out, to talk to you.
So help me bring this profound conversation to a meaningful conclusion: what do you think is the best contribution a white person can make to the #BlackLivesMatter movement?
RM: Please keep marching with us; keep sitting in, demonstrating, interrupting, lobbying. We have to do this as a nation. One group alone will not make a difference. But the first thing I ask is: stop being sensitive. Stop getting your feelings hurt because we are angry. We have been hurting for 500 years. If you're really in the trenches with us, just accept that it's going to come with a little pain. The system has fractured us; you are going to get cut on our broken pieces as you work alongside to restore us to whole. But keep doing it anyway; be our allies. We can't do it alone.
LDW: Thank you, Regina, for sharing your perspective and experience with candor, for being willing to have this conversation with me. I'm deeply grateful.
I hope everyone will take the time to read all three parts of this conversation, to get the full arc and balance of what we've discussed. I also hope everyone who's taken the time to read will let the ideas, the concepts, the calls-to-action, seep into their consciousness and propel them forward toward a new way of looking at things. We can keep dismissing and denying, keep trying to frame the conversation in cliches and tropes that avoid painful realities and our witting or unwitting complicity in a society that marginalizes some of its members, but to do so would only perpetuate a system that has fractured and hurt far too many.
We can't wait any longer. The time is now. We can't pretend we're "post-racial," or rest comfortably in the assuagement that "things have gotten better." We have to take this moment of awareness and unrest and do something substantial. Lives depend on it. Yes, all lives. Because all lives matter. But to create a society in which that is truly fact, not just an ideal defined by lofty thinkers, we must be willing to state, unequivocally, and with comprehension for the reasons why, that #BlackLivesMatter. From there, we move forward together.
Photos by permission of Regina McRae.
To access the first two segments of the series:
Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Rock+Paper+Music. Access details and links to her other work at www.lorrainedevonwilke.com, and her novels, AFTER THE SUCKER PUNCH and HYSTERICAL LOVE at her author pages at both @ Amazon and Smashwords. Watch her book trailer for AFTER THE SUCKER PUNCH here, and be sure to follow her adventures in independent publishing at her book blog, AfterTheSuckerPunch.com.