What Can a White Person Do?

Hundreds march away from the area where Michael Brown was killed Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., at the start of a
Hundreds march away from the area where Michael Brown was killed Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo., at the start of a 120-mile march to the governor's mansion in Jefferson City. The march, organized by the NAACP to evoke civil rights marches from the 1960s, began Saturday afternoon on Canfield Drive in Ferguson where Michael Brown was killed and is expected to last seven days. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Ferguson, Missouri is about a four-hour drive east from where I live in Lawrence, Kansas, yet it seems a world apart. In my town, which is far more white than Ferguson, there's no news reports of riots, burning drug stores, people shaken and weeping from tear gas thrown at them, or the hometown agony of what happens when a police officer kills a teenager for what's commonly summed up as "acting out." Like much of America, it might be easy to think Ferguson is someplace else, part of another, more broken country.

That's the thing about privilege: it's invisible. When I hear from friends of color that they often face discrimination, that -- according to one friend on Facebook, "it's just another day in America" -- part of me is always surprised because as a white person, I don't see racism on a daily, weekly or even occasional basis. Part of me is never surprised because I do hear about racism regularly when I read statistics about how men of color disproportionately fill our prisons, when friends tell about being pulled off "for driving while Black," and when people tell me their stories, which aren't about the occasional inconvenience of racism, but the enduring pain.

"You have idea how hard it is being Indian in this town," a Navajo friend told me years ago. She went on to say how the police regularly pulled her over, a mother of three, to check her license and registration, and some store owners watched her carefully when she perused the silk shirts. I wrongly assumed that because we had the largest inter-tribal university in Lawrence, native people would feel more at home here, but this friend was only the first of many who told me otherwise. "It's a daily thing," another friend said. Sometimes it was subtle, just an eyebrow raised or head turned away, but it was often daily.

I had no idea, not because I don't care or look away, but because it's not something running through the screen of what I see each day. Sure, I experience sexism on occasion. Yes, I've run head-on into anti-Semitism, but never in ways that put me in direct danger. In a land where race and class play big time in the suffering of human kind, as a middle-class white woman, I have an abundantly easy ride. Not so for my Latino, Native American, African-American and other friends of color. Not so for my friends with children of color, who carry the immense weight of educating their sons to appear as non-threatening as possible.

It is easy and outrageously common at the moment for people to jump into the Mike Brown killing and Ferguson riots with justifications, one-dimensional analysis, and lots of detailed scenario-playing. I've read reports and listened to people, for the most part white people, explain how, although Brown didn't "have it coming," he acted foolishly, and Darren Wilson, although impulsive, acted in self-defense; that we shouldn't jump to conclusions about racism; that there's also black-cop on white-teenager abuse and black-on-black crime. All of this reasoning seems bent on 1) Not understanding the power dynamics of having privilege and not having privilege; 2) Not understanding what it is to be Black or Latino or Native or otherwise not-white in much of America; and 3) Not understanding that what lit the fuse here is the systematic fire, that this incident follows so many others, not the least of which is Trayvon Martin, another Black teenager, and this one not "acting out" in any way.

While it's fine for white people like me to have our opinions, we are composing our opinions from a place of blindness. Most of us (especially if we're not married to or parenting people of color) don't get to see everyday what it is to be looked at with suspicion, judged by the color of our skin, expected to fail, or held to a higher standard. I've heard many white people say, "Well, I just treat everyone equally and with respect," which is great and what the best in us should always strive for, but at the same time, those of us saying this often don't acknowledge there's far more to the picture.

So what can a white person do? Ask questions. Listen. Open up our perception more to try to see what it's like more to not have such privilege. Lean into the story behind the story. Wait for our friends and acquaintances of color to trust us enough. Learn what's happening that fuels such anguish, such rage, such widespread feelings of powerlessness. Ask, when we're in a room or meeting or community that's mostly or all white, why that is. Start at the beginning of plans for events, readings, conferences, happenings to involve people of color who might otherwise be overlooked. Reach out of our comfort zones. Be scared and confused about what to do, but grapple with opening our hearts more to understand what life, in its minutiae, is like for people of color in our workplaces, groups, communities. Most of all, understand that we can't know in a constant and visceral way what it is to be a person of color in America.

My town, and perhaps yours too, may seem far from the fires and anguish, but that distance is illusion. Ferguson is part of the broken heart of this country where we live, no matter where and how we live. How to heal this broken heart? Remember that what's torn in our country is torn in us too. Begin the process of mending.