This Grief Belongs to All of Us (As Does the Responsibility to Do Something About It)
Updated: Sep 22
Our nation is on fire. Violence, anger, hate: this isn't new. This country was built on the backs of black people and continues to rely on systems of oppression and bias that limit opportunities for people of color, undervalue their lives, and even kill. Regularly. Like, all the time. To be black in the United States is to live with a target on your back. And, as so many of my friends on social media and writers/pundits have been saying, to be white is to have a responsibility to speak up against oppression, racism, and violence, to condemn these dangerous systems and ways of thinking, and to do what we can to change them, despite how big and immovable they may seem. With privilege comes responsibility. To be silent is to be compliant.
I've struggled with what to say this week, when yet another black man was killed by police, murdered in broad daylight by someone who was supposed to protect him, for allegedly forging a $20. Let's think about that, about what a black man's life is worth in this country. A few loose cigarettes? A pack of Skittles? A jog? Sadly, George Floyd's name is another in a long list of victims murdered by people who were supposed to protect them. So, who is this system designed to protect? White women like me, women who are afraid of black men minding their own business in a park, who are brazen enough to flout simple rules and threaten innocent bystanders? Does my watching these, unfortunately, not uncommon occurrences make me complicit? How can I use my privilege to condemn the kind of racism that leads to frantic calls to the cops or, inevitably, yet another murder that goes (virtually) unpunished, despite overwhelming evidence? Despite us all watching it unfold as the victim literally gasps for air, begging for the violence to stop? This racism isn't new, but now we're (yet again) catching it on tape, all watching, horrified, as we bear witness to the insidious racism plaguing this country. Again and again. I want to speak out, say this is wrong, be the change, but I worry what is another white women's opinion going to matter? It's black voices that we need to lift up and listen to right now, black voices that need to be heard. We need to listen when black men say, "I can't breathe." And yet, it's also not the responsibility of people of color to teach others tolerance, empathy, culpability. It's up to all of us to define what those things mean to us and to enact them, to speak out against the violence that plagues black and brown bodies in this country.
A few years ago, I was in the Trader Joe's parking lot in Burlington, VT, carrying my cheese bites and trail mix to my car, when I witnessed a fender bender. It was relatively minor, two cars backing up at the same time, seemingly failing to notice each other. I didn't turn to look until I heard the crunch of bumpers, so I'm not sure if anyone was to blame. I did, however, notice that there seemed to be more damage to a smaller, older-looking sedan than to the big shiny new SUV. I also noticed the black woman in a hijab in the small car looking panicked, tears streaming down her face. I've felt similarly during car crashes; they can be unsettling, scary. And while I don't know anything about this woman or her circumstances, they can also be financially damaging, as well. She looked distraught. The white woman in big sunglasses driving the SUV appeared to be pulling away without inspecting the situation. I got in her way and, ridiculously, put my hand up like a traffic cop (why?). She looked annoyed as I made her roll down her window. "I think there's some damage to the other car," I said, pointing at the crack in the front bumper and hood, near the engine. "You should exchange information."
"Yeah, thanks," the woman said, mid-eye-roll, and rolled her windows back up. I went to the woman in the car, who was still crying but had looked up to watch the conversation, and told her, "It looks like there's just a small crack in the front of your car, but you might want to get it checked out, just to be safe. I'm going to make sure this woman gives you her contact information for insurance, OK?" she nodded. I stood by to make sure the woman followed through, then turned back to my car.
There are a million interactions and microaggressions like this everywhere, all the time, and if you're white, you get to choose whether or not you pay attention to them, whether or not you bear witness to racism and discrimination, or whether you make that bitch roll down her goddamn window.
Whose stories get told and by whom? George Floyd's story is one that needs to be told, but, I know, I'm not the best person to tell it. I haven't lived that experience. Though some of the people I love have, I do not know firsthand what it means to be black in America today, to have to fear for my life on a daily basis. And so, we need to listen to the stories of people whose lives are threatened by this pervasive racism every day. We need to listen. And then do something about it. Here's one list of resources I've seen some friends share. Communities are organizing and banding together (no easy feat during a pandemic!). There are many groups and resources out there, many people telling stories like these, who will not be silenced. Let's honor their stories and repeat them. Let's honor and mourn the loss of George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and, sadly, so, so many more, whose stories met violent ends for no other reason than being black.
Though, once again, this isn't new by any means, it does feel like this is the nightmare I envisioned nearly four years ago when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, a world where we'll all pitted against each other, where our 'leader' promotes violence and discrimination against people of color, even in the aftermath of tragedy, where he downplays a global pandemic and underfunds the resources we need to combat it, where he spreads vitriol and misinformation freely. More than 106,000 people in the U.S. alone are dead due to COVID-19 (likely an underestimate), 40 million Americans are unemployed, and we know that communities of color have been hit harder than other communities (largely due to access to health care services, preexisting health conditions, and prevalence of essential jobs, in addition to affordable housing communities and other conditions that make social distancing and safety measures nearly impossible). So, while we're all hurting right now, it's our communities of color that, perhaps unsurprisingly, are hurting most, for many, in ways far worse than the inconveniences of this global crisis. We need to be telling these stories, to continue telling them, until people in power listen, until there is justice for George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, and every black person who has lost their lives.
I have to admit that I don't feel comfortable joining protests or large gatherings during this pandemic. That's a choice my husband and I have made and one that I do have some guilt around, at not being able to do more right now, though there are other ways to honor George Floyd's life, and the lives of all the black men and women who have been killed for being black in America. We can educate ourselves and those around us. We can speak out. We can remember. We can be better than this. Because the grief this nation is experiencing right now, the immense loss, fear, anger, belongs to all of us. And we all have a responsibility to turn it into action, to honor it, to be better.