Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us is incredibly important for white America to view and process. The mini-series has the potential to draw us to consider who we are in this time. It’s too easy to look back thirty years and think “I would never do that” which had me wondering whether my life exhibits how my beliefs about race are being transformed?
Last week, I realized I was avoiding watching When They See Us. As a white mom of two black boys, I knew it would gut me. I tried to absolve myself of facing it – I knew the history and I am clear on my role to abolish white dominance. As I walk out the role of white dominance abolitionist, it’s been important for me to have a filter by which I examine my actions. That filter has been my Lifelong Pledge, and as I found myself struggling, I returned to my pledge, recommitted, and leaned in. I’m offering this reflection of the tenets of my pledge as I look toward my white community and ask “are you ready to do this together?”
This first part of my pledge has meant that I need to stretch myself. It means that when I’m afraid of looking at some aspect of race, I ask myself why? It means that when I’m trying to blame someone else for why I’m like this or why our world is like this, I stop and look in the mirror. It means I don’t go a day without reading, watching, talking, processing, and activating myself into my role to abolish white dominance. When I’m in the pool and the number of laps I swim every day begins to feel routine — I add more — and lean into the challenge. The same goes for my practice to keep learning about race; lean in to the places I feel the most discomfort.
This mini-series was tugging at me. Hard. So one night last week, I tiptoed into a dark corner of our home and began watching. My stomach tightened, my head pounded, my clothing was wet with sweat, my heart raced, and I wept. These days I’m having a really hard time understanding why my people so brutally seek to destroy everything that isn’t us. These boys — Korey, Yusef, Antron, Raymond, and Kevin — are so beautiful, valuable, cherished, loving, thoughtful, creative, smart, and needed in this world.
I couldn’t help but think of my sons. I couldn’t fight the frantic wondering if we’ve done enough to teach them how to stay safe in a world with no concern for their well-being. I understood in new ways why my black husband insisted we talk with our sons about Trayvon and Tamir while our boys’ faces were still round and their voices sang soprano. I found myself praying my worn out prayers for safety and pleading into an empty room in the early hours of the morning for all of this violence to end.
Something I’m still learning is how to feel. White dominance uses dehumanization as a weapon. How and when did I start to become disconnected from my humanity? How do I see dehumanization functioning in racial oppression now and in the past? As I keep working to develop a feeling vocabulary that goes beyond sad and mad, I’m building muscle memory of the pathway to my humanity. Where do these feelings sit in my body? Am I allowing these feelings to fuel connections, or am I allowing them to isolate me further from my humanity?
Abolition work cannot be done in isolation. No one person will be able to end the white dominant hold, and so white people need to learn how to fuel connections and become builders of collective liberation. If white dominance is an ideological sickness within the white community, then we need to find the points of exposure and commit to research and development of solutions. White people generally spend an inordinate amount of time critiquing Indigenous, Black, and Brown people and their communities. That same level of critique is needed on our own community as we take responsibility for the collective us.
I often use the saying “I am them and they are me” to keep from separating myself from the seemingly more apparent harm of white antagonists like those in When They See Us. The truth is, while I haven’t put five black boys in jail, I have impacted black people similarly when I assert power and control in ways that are aligned with the norms of white dominant culture. When my behavior negatively impacts others, it’s time to reassess my beliefs and commit to a new set of behaviors that reflect my current understanding. And, even in this practice, I’m still going to get it wrong at times. But if my commitment to ending white dominance stands above my need to look the part, then my missteps can be seen as part of the process to find pathways that move us toward liberation.
I remember years ago being in a training with other racial equity facilitators. At one point, I was paired up with another white woman and I shared that I held the belief that white people who don’t have deep, loving relationships with Indigenous, Black, and Brown people are missing a key that unlocks important connections. At the end of the week, she offered me the feedback that she was offended by my statement because she didn’t have those relationships and didn’t think she needed them in order to be an ally. I’m not saying that white people cannot engage until they have these relationships. In fact, using this as an excuse to keep from engaging, would be repugnant. What I am saying is that the experience of watching When They See Us is vastly different when I envision my sons in the shoes of the Exonerated Five. It feels different in my body. It drives a deeper conviction and change of behavior. White people don’t get to demand relationship with Indigenous, Black, and Brown people, yet when those relationships form in authentic ways, we do well to posture ourselves humbly and recognize the gift that those connections are.
Do No Harm
At the dinner table, in the breakroom, at the park, in the boardroom, at the gym, in my bank account, when volunteering, when raising children…this list goes on. Last year, I heard Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity In A World Made For Whiteness speak and the thing that has stuck with me the most is how she learned to ask if the ways she was facilitating conversations about race were spaces that prioritize the needs of black women. She asked herself, “How will I create a space where the black women in the room can’t wait to come back the next day?”
As I get increasingly honest with myself, I find that at the root of my white allyship is white saviorism which allows me to feel good about helping others in lieu of looking at myself or risking loss of relationships because I critique our community. I have come to distrust my intentions when I think I’m being an ally. Allyship is for people who share similar risk of harm and who choose to join together to fight an oppressor. White people cannot be allies to Indigenous, Black, and Brown people while still holding a bat in our hands. Collective liberation drives me to innovate and practice methods to divest myself from the socialization of white dominant norms. When failing or finding success there, I owe it to the white community to narrate that journey as we seek to develop a collective exodus out of white dominance. We don’t know what it would look like for white people en masse to critically look at ourselves and commit to a posture of do no harm…but we need to.
Use My Privilege
The day after watching When They See Us, I am driving to a meeting and pass by a scene where three white, male Portland Police officers stand outside of a corner store talking to what appears to be two teenage black girls. The seconds slow – I drive a couple of blocks up, unnerved but also worried about getting to my meeting late. How will I look to others? I note my own motivation of trying to look good. I turn around. Pulling into the parking lot of the store, I see there is now only one girl. Four more white, male police officers have pulled into the parking lot, and two get out. The female is very petite but I can see now that she is an adult – one black petite female with five white, male police officers all within ten feet of her.
I get out of my car and approach. I ask her, “You ok?” She tells me yes. I am there for her, and I want her to be able to locate me – not as a white person who just wants to stick my nose in her business but as someone concerned about what I see. I say, “Ok, because you have five white men around you, and I’m just making sure you are ok.” Her face reveals that she knows what I’m asking. She says, “Yes, I’m ok.”
I begin to back away, and then one of the officers explodes at me: “You know that’s a really ignorant thing to say. She called us because…” and he proceeds to tell me why they are there. I say, “It’s not ignorant. I’m just checking in on her.” A second officer chimes in, his words dripping with condescension, “Yeah, you really are ignorant.”
I return to my car, collect my thoughts, get back out, and begin requesting cards that have names and badge numbers. The four officers who arrived when I did are in their car and backing out of the parking lot and I make my request through their open windows. They refuse to give me cards. The driver is arguing that I have no right to ask for a card because I have nothing to do with this call. The officer who called me ignorant says from the back seat, “Yeah, I called you ignorant” with a tone that says, “So what are you going to do about it.” I tell them that I am a concerned citizen asking for their cards. The driver continues to back out, denying my request. The one in the back sticks his card through the slit of his open window, and I take it as they scoff at me.
I walk over and wait for the other officer to be done talking with the woman. The officer who thinks it’s ignorant to talk about race stands a head and a half taller than her and positions himself no more than two feet from her – her head drawn tightly up just to look at him. Given what he told me they were there for, I’m wondering how he thinks it’s appropriate, much less compassionate to stand over her. While I’m waiting, a white male citizen approaches them and starts talking to them. They do not raise their voices at him or chide him for his engagement in their active investigation.
Now they are done and walking back to their vehicle. I ask for the officer’s card. He raises his voice again and tells me he doesn’t need to give me a card. I say I was concerned that he feels that acknowledging race is ignorant. I say I think race is really important for him as a police officer to always be aware of. He tells me that he is personally offended that I injected myself into his active investigation. I ask again for his card. He asks me what I want it for. I tell him I want to talk to his supervisor. He says go ahead but doesn’t give me the card. I ask if he’s refusing to give me a card, and he finally gives it to me while still lecturing me about my injection into his case.
My heart is racing. I get in my car and notice my hands are shaking. I breathe a few times and look at their cards – both of them are Gang Enforcement Team members. I am filled with questions for how acknowledging race with members of this team of officers could somehow be seen as ignorant. I can’t help but note that the aggression I experienced when mentioning race as a white person to white police officers, is a wholly untenable risk for Indigenous, Black, and Brown people. People who think it’s ignorant to talk about race, have no business being a public servant who carries a gun. I will keep pressing for accountability. Updates are posted here.
Prepare For The Personal Cost
I recently read Why Sharing Videos of Black Pain is no Longer an Effective Method of Allyship by Ezinne Ukoha who wrote about an experience on Twitter with a white male who posted a video a black child tearfully pleading for the end of police violence enacted upon the mothers and fathers of her community. Ukoha asked him his intention in exploiting a black child as a tactic of helping white people to see the light. Predictably, he blocked Ukoha who shares:
It’s also tragically revealing to observe White gawkers bypass the atrocity of such a thing even existing, while working overtime to prove their non-conformity to the inflamed symptoms that are causing the pain and suffering of the Black girl who heroically begs for the truce that will never come.
Ukoha is drawing white people toward something we must consider as we view and process When They See Us. As the title suggests, the instant when we begin to see these five boys is the polaroid moment in time when we see ourselves in the white antagonists. How does seeing these boys feel familiar? What does seeing these boys change in us? How does seeing these boys demand change that will be evident when viewed from the vantage point of thirty years from now?
I know so many of us express how overwhelmed we feel. The violence that is coming out of our community is immeasurable. Nevertheless, we must do more than feel overwhelmed because that feeling won’t stop the violence. We must dig past the emotions of inaction to the emotions of action. For years, I allowed the vastness of this problem to absolve myself of action. Not anymore. This is mine to solve — yet not just mine — ours.
I am done consuming these stories to soothe my white guilt. These stories were never meant to nourish my conscience. They are the first taste that leaves bitterness in the mouth; action toward liberation is the meal. Watching is not enough. Listening is not enough. Amplifying Indigenous, Black, and Brown voices is not enough. Posting Indigenous, Black, and Brown stories is not enough.
I must keep learning to change my posture and become activated. What is the change that you will create? Abolitionists share a common vision while acknowledging the need to build connection and cheerlead multiple pathways. We need academics skilled at evaluating our impact and helping us change course. We need speakers who will sit before power and not take no for an answer. We need organizers who naturally amasse large groups of people for common action. We need writers who can use words to activate the most hardened hearts. We need those who have the will to fight without an easy win. We need those who know how to nurture the body, mind, and spirit and keep us healthy. We need it all, and we are wasting so much time worrying about what to do or how we will look or who we can call out.
In February of 2012, Trayvon Martin’s blood was brutally spilled. His tragic death was the catalyst for the rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many white people credit the death of this child with their emerging awareness. Seven years later, the cost that has been paid by Trayvon and too many others like him, their families, and their communities is the standard by which white people must alter their lives. It’s offensive to call upon the names of any of the dead as our change agents while returning to life as normal. Do our lives show evidence of sacrifice relevant to the bloodshed? Comfort is a lie that keeps white people from our humanity.
Frederick Douglass, one of the fore-fathers of abolition speaks about the costly nature of liberation in 1857. His words are still true today:
Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lighting. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did, and it never will.
When They See Us has the potential to drive us to engage the most demanding aspects of abolition with a vigor that prioritizes collective liberation over personal comfort.
How then, will we respond?
Join us this summer…
- Alliance of White Abolitionists (AWA) FREE Event – a view and discuss series for each episode of When They See Us: Jul 15 – Aug 5
- Webinar Series exploring the Lifelong Pledge in more detail: Jul 17 – Aug 14
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