Bridging the gap: What should white people say?

Those of us in multiracial families and interracial friendships have a unique role to play. Our voices need to be heard—and I mean that quite literally—perhaps now more than ever. In this post, I offer a few suggestions about how to use the collective power of our voices, especially from white individuals, in order to shift the national conversation about race relations. I further suggest that speaking publicly can actually slow down the widening of the gap that I fear will rip the nation apart.

One of my grandsons, already big for his age at 14 years old, is in the target group that is seen as scary and suspicious by many adults. As a mixed race teenaged male, my grandson looks black. And like Michael Brown (and my son at the same age), he also looks older than he is, and gets treated as such.

happy dadJohn Raible (middle) with teenage sons back in the day.

I was curious to hear what my grandson is making of all the recent coverage in the media. He says that the only reason people are freaking out is because the incident went viral. His mom tells me that he didn’t bother to attend a local protest because, from his perspective, this stuff happens every day. I find myself asking: What will it take for him to become more of an activist? I’d rather see him become an activist for social justice than join the ranks of jaded youth who simply hate the police. Maybe neither outcome will happen unless one of his friends is shot or beat up by the cops. While my grandson and his peers can expect more and more surveillance and some harassment as they progress through the teen years, I hope and pray they are never subjected to that level of victimization.

Since I started blogging about the Ferguson rebellion, which I will remind readers is not “off topic” when it comes to parenting children of color and to the experience of TRAs of all ages, it has been interesting to follow the blog statistics collected by Word Press. Every day, the stats give me some sense of who is reading this blog, and which posts are popular. By far the most widely read post so far has been White adoptive parents and Ferguson’s mayor. Whereas a typical post gets seen by around 150 readers, the one that mentioned white adoptive parents specifically spiked to 480 views (and counting).

On a very personal level, I have some thoughts about what white people of goodwill can do to facilitate racial healing. I remember feeling vulnerable and suspicious after the Zimmerman verdict. I was sitting in an airport lobby waiting to board a plane when the news of the acquittal came out.

For me, and I’m sure for many of us, the news of the verdict was a moment of great anticipation and heightened tension. Sitting behind me watching the news was a white couple, discussing the event as it unfolded on the television screen in the waiting area. I was worried that I was going to be subjected to insensitive or even inflammatory comments from pro-Zimmerman supporters seated nearby. Surrounded by a largely white airport crowd, I found myself defensively steeling myself emotionally. In my head, I rehearsed my response. Just in case.

You may not be able to appreciate the significance of this, but I was pleasantly surprised, and actually touched, to hear the female half of the couple verbalizing empathy for Trayvon’s parents. She uttered out loud so that those of us sitting nearby could hear: “That poor boy. There is no justice. Those poor parents.”

In hindsight, it is obvious how the power of her simple, yet heartfelt utterance helped all of us within earshot to remember the humanity of this tense public moment. I will even go so far as to speculate that her bravery may have silenced the people sitting nearby who agreed with the verdict or who supported Zimmerman. I like to think that this woman’s spoken kindness and expressed empathy made it harder for haters and fear-mongers to voice their views. In doing so, that stranger was my ally, and she probably didn’t even realize it.

The impact of the Zimmerman acquittal was devastating. Watching so many of my fellow Americans rally around Trayvon’s killer left me feeling disgusted, bitter, and frightened. Finding myself sitting alone in that airport lobby, in that moment I really needed an ally. The vocalized empathy from one woman mattered. No longer did I feel so alone. I was reminded that there are still good white people who don’t see all young African Americans as animalistic thugs that deserve to die. It helped me to feel safer in a public space in a moment of heightened vulnerability. It renewed my faith in my fellow Americans, during a critical incident when that faith was flagging.

Right now, in our nation, we are facing yet another critical moment. While many of us have been upset by recent events, people of color in particular have good reason to feel scared, not just angry. Did you see the proud, strong, and passionate (and no doubt scary to some viewers) Elon James White (comedian, blogger, and host of This Week in Blackness) break down on Melissa Harris Perry’s show this morning? I can totally identify with his emotional state right now. Not only do we, as black men and fathers, fear for the safety of our young people. These critical incidents also bring back vivid memories of our own racialized mistreatment at the hands of intimidating bullies, both in uniform and in civilian clothes.

I am telling you, it would be enormously helpful for people of goodwill in this moment to express out loud their empathy and compassion. You don’t have to get into debates about the eyewitness accounts or the looters. What each of us can do, with coworkers, neighbors, and acquaintances, is offer a compassionate word of empathy and quiet encouragement.

Maybe you don’t go up to a random black person and say, “I am on your side” or “I feel your pain.” But can you talk to your friends of any race and say out loud for those around you to witness, as that nice white lady did at the airport, “That boy should not have died”? That simple statement, uttered over and over across this nation—in public, not just behind closed doors—could go a long way to facilitate the process of healing that we sorely need.

And for white adoptive parents of children of color, and members of other multiracial families, now is your moment to come of the closet. If you are white and raising a child of another race, identify yourselves as concerned parents of children of color. Let your fellow whites (as well as people of color) know that you are not all that far removed from the parents of Michael Brown. Talk about the countless victims of police brutality as if you are talking about your own child. This can help disrupt the racial binary that the mainstream media wants to keep smoldering. People need to be reminded that this is not a simple case of blacks against whites, or of good against evil. You can help to humanize the victims of the excessive use of force in the national discourse that keeps vilifying and criminalizing particularly young black males, as if they somehow get what they deserve. As if their parents don’t grieve, and their lives don’t matter.

The words coming from the mouths in white bodies make a powerful difference. I need to hear, and I am certain other people of color feel the same way, white people saying out loud that you do not defend Officer Wilson’s actions. Although it may seem obvious, in this time of crisis and heightened vulnerability, please remind us that not all white people automatically side with the police when these tragedies occur.

Help us to believe that there is still hope for fairness, compassion, and reason. Help us to trust that some whites are not in denial of our children’s lived experience as perpetual suspects. Help us to not succumb to cynicism, despair, and fear. Each of us can take small yet significant steps to express empathy, concern, and compassion. Minimally—I am not even talking about more political expressions of outrage and solidarity with communities of color. That can come later.

And for people wondering about how to convey messages of support to our youth, who are understandably feeling frightened, incensed, attacked, slandered, misunderstood, and perhaps even emotionally abandoned, now is the time to speak up. Again, find ways to voice your disapproval of the overuse of excessive force. Say out loud that you know plenty of good kids of different races. Interrupt the narrative that criminalizes African American youths by showing photos of your children, your students (if you are a teacher), and your own multiracial family. My sister in St. Louis tells me that she has used this tactic when racist comments are made in her presence. It takes courage, but courage is what is called for among allies. Find the strength to speak out on behalf of fairness, empathy, and humanization. Don’t cling to silence and hope that this will all blow over. Each one of us can make a difference. Each one of us can do a small a part in the promotion of healing and national unity.

Thank you for reading this, and thank you for caring and daring.

Related posts:

Young black men, some of us do love you

Where can we feel safe?

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