Three and two days, respectively, before Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s murders, on the freaking Fourth of July, I’d been walking my dog with two friends of mine, both white, and one was wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt. She’d just moved to Very Large East Coast City (VLECC). Her brother, who was with us, was anxious about her clothing selection. I was not. I thought nothing of it. In fact, I was a little confused by his anxiety, but assumed that once he acclimated to VLECC, his anxiety would dissipate. Within 10 minutes, three teenage boys were screaming white supremacist racial epithets in our direction, harassing us as we played ball with my dog in the outdoor hockey rink at the neighborhood rec center.
All I said to them was, “Go and play. Go. I mean it.” In my head, I sicc’d my dog on them, hit them, spit at them. What I actually did was equally egregious. I didn’t leave with my friends. I walked into the enclosed area that I’d intended to go into to play with my dog, with my friends, and didn’t leave. It was an act of defiance, but it was traumatizing for my friends, and I didn’t ask them if they wanted to stay. We talked about it, but mostly we talked about mundane things afterward. I took them out to lunch. And then later, hours later, I started to think about all of the ways in which I could have handled it better, been a better human being.
So of course, because I was too ashamed to ask, too ashamed to investigate how to handle it in the right way, I made the situation worse the next day in an attempt to make it better. I realized that I knew the parents, but they have yet to answer their phones, probably because my phone number isn’t one they know. Full of righteous anger, I went to the rec center director and told him what happened, and he said, “Eh, they’re just dumb teenagers.” I went to the police station and filed a report, where the cop looked at me like I was insane, and I got side eye from every single human in earshot of my complaint. And then, because I wanted to know how deep this was, I went to the school across the street from the rec center – a private school with mostly black and latino students.
I was stopped at the front door, before the metal detectors, by two black security guards. I told them what happened, and asked them point blank if this was a problem in this neighborhood. The look of incredulity and then annoyance and then that look parents give to kids they can’t believe aren’t too stupid to live – those were the looks. I knew I’d further fucked up the whole thing. I felt Intense Shame while they patiently explained to me that this is a racist neighborhood and always had been, and then told me what I should have asked Google about – how to find out when the community meetings are, to talk to the diversity officer at the police station about how I, as a concerned citizen, could help.
I stammered, “I was just… I was just so shocked. And I was scared. I’ve never heard anyone say those things before, not like that, not… not to my face like that. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I moved to a neighborhood where that could happen.”
The man answered, “You can read it in a book, and you know it’s happening. Your friends can tell you it’s happening. But until it happens to you, I don’t know why, but it isn’t really happening until it happens to you.”
I said goodbye, and as I left, he said, “Don’t come back.”
I won’t. I need get my shit together before I return to any space, any person where this is a daily reality. Research, read, talk to friends, absorb and think about as many voices as I can. Go to those community meetings. Go to protests. Maybe most importantly, identify exactly why I want to be involved and what I have to offer (those answers are usually way more complicated than we think they are.) Listen and listen and listen.
I’m ashamed of what happened for a lot of reason, but mostly because really, I should know better how to be an ally, having needed allies. I know how furious and tired and just flat out emotionally labile I get when allies won’t educate themselves before they make assumptions about what I (should) need, think, or feel. It’s disrespectful.
I recently quit an organization I started to provide medical outreach to people who are homeless for those very reasons. I couldn’t explain to the medical students I was working with why their voices might not have equal weight with mine on this one topic. They called me arrogant. They told me I didn’t know everything, so they gave themselves the right to selectively listen to what I did know, usually the things that made them feel comfortable. But they never did a single Google search of the word “homeless,” unless it was for a literature review over beers, at least not as far as I could tell. I would send them emails, post things online, only to find out that none of it was read. Eventually, that disrespect put people’s lives in danger, and the last time I spoke to any of them, they still didn’t get it.
“They don’t know what it’s like to not have money, to not be safe, to be homeless,” said a course director, and actually, several course directors. And I told all of them that I don’t care. I told each of them that the student’s ignorance only serves to render useless the work I’ve done to accommodate, acclimate and learn to live in their world – a bridge needs two sides. And it makes a mockery of what we were trying to do in the first place. That kind of disrespect of my willingness to work with the very socioeconomic class of people who, historically, have made my life almost not possible in the past, it was more than I could take. I couldn’t function with integrity.
However, as much as it broke my heart to do it, and even though there will be consequences and fallout, I had the privilege to leave that group without losing anything but my hopes, time and energy.
I have the privilege to leave this neighborhood, if I choose to.
I have the privilege to remain neutral, uninvolved, deaf/dumb/blind. Or at least, I have the privilege to live in denial. At least for now. Because here’s the thing: 1,134 black men were killed by the police in the US, and many of those cold bloodedly murdered for no fucking reason at all, just in 2015. These men, some of whom were boys, just like the boys I made with my body, their names and bodies just continue to stack like cords of wood, sacrificed to ignorance, fear and maybe worst of all, arrogance. Their bodies are becoming the walls that are closing every person in this twisted, god forsaken country off from our delusions. We aren’t separate. We aren’t special. We’re all in danger now. Dallas proved that.
That night, the night that a Black Lives Matter protest was ended with police dead in the street, the sound of war echoing through Dallas’ streets, I sat down with my ten year old boy to talk to him about what was happening.
“So wait, Mom. You’re telling me that all these people are being shot by the police because of an enzyme? That’s totally insane.”