I can’t say I was surprised about the decision by the grand jury in Ferguson. I’d heard from news outlets that more than likely Darren Wilson would not be indicted for weeks. So when the decision finally came down after an agonizing, bristling wait, the response from protestors was also not a surprise. The orchestration of the whole process spoke of the lack of sensitivity and wisdom that’s needed for such a hotbed situation. And the overall racial tension throughout the country has been brewing, considering the events of the past few years that brought our underlining problems to the surface.
But what I really want to do is talk about the average experience of a black American, speak to the root cause of this quagmire and what we can do now in a practical way to become an active participant to make a difference that can benefit our future generation. Right now tensions are high throughout the country, we’ve almost finished the holiday season and not everyone has a reason to feel real “merry” or “happy” right about now. Not everyone has a job, a loving family or even a pillow to lay a weary head upon. Personally I’ve seen more homelessness now than I can remember in all my years before in the state of Michigan. All the complicated issues — domestic and international — that we deal with in a more fast-paced and social way sometimes make us more lazy or tired to do the necessary work to make our own corner of the world a little brighter and enlightened.
We as a nation have not fully dealt with the sins of our nation. First, the Europeans who came here took over the country and forced the Natives of this land out by excruciatingly cruel methods — almost to the point of decimating the population to near extinction. I love my country and I am an American through and through. There are so many freedoms and blessings this country affords that can be found virtually nowhere else on this planet. Though we are a very young nation by comparison to so many others, there’s no doubt that many countries look to us with admiration, jealousy, and hope or often a combination of all three. But I cannot turn a blind eye to the injustices that began during the brutal birth and journey of this nation. Think about it — do you know any Native Americans? Are you friends with a Native American? It’s pretty sad. Reservations still exist in this country. The damage to this race reverberates throughout North America. I did have a friend in middle school who was part Eskimo and French. I was also friends with a girl from Laos at the same time named Kamohn. Having friends from a different race in Detroit Public Schools was pretty rare back in the 1980s, but I was never one to shy from others who didn’t look like me. Back then in Detroit the population was pretty segregated and I had plenty of friends who were black, but I never set an invisible race boundary around myself.
What happened at the inception of what we now call “America” is a horrific beginning that does not simply disappear because it happened hundreds of years ago. This trauma has reverberated through the country and was compounded by the enslavement of a whole race of people for profit. It was to many of the forefathers and founders of the nation a common practice and it was a business pure and simple. It didn’t matter that people from England came here to escape the oppression of a monarchy. They went on to commit more atrocities against others they branded as “savages” and “less than human.” Whole families were ripped from their homes, fathers and mothers separated from their children. The basic desires to marry and create a home of their own were considered a fairy tale at best. Learning to read were reasons to be whipped or killed. The level of emotional, psychological, mental, sexual and physical abuse that occurred went on almost uncontested for centuries. And then it was over. How does one process “freedom” after knowing nothing else? How do you “start fresh” when you’ve never been given the tools to succeed and constantly reminded you are less than in other’s eyes? There were no programs in place to help anyone build. No 40 acres and mule to start a life. Hostility, hate and anger greeted anyone who did not stay in line and many experienced a new form of slavery during the Jim Crow era and lynchings were common practices. The laws were enforced until 1965 in the south and other regions of the U.S. Yes, 1965. That was 50 years ago — within so many of our lifetimes. In modern-day society, those who’ve experienced trauma are usually encouraged to go through therapy, join a support group and/or take drugs to counteract the effects of a devastating situation/occurrence. We hear it on the news pretty frequently: a shooter goes on a rampage at a school and counselors and therapy dogs are dispatched to help people cope with a tragic event. People that come out alive from those circumstances are expected to not have the best sleep, experience depression, have problems functioning in every day society and maintaining relationships, etc. But for some reason, whether it be guilt or insensitivity, a whole race of people who went through almost the unimaginable are supposed to walk out of the circumstance whole and capable now that they’ve been afforded “freedom.” And never mind it didn’t really happen overnight and there are still many instances of racism and injustice still today. My people have triumphed in many ways, considering the roadblocks and plans and schemes along the way, but this was all with many unresolved issues within the fabric of America. I’ve had my share of negative experiences based on the color of my skin or just plain rude, oblivious behavior, but it’s the expected lot that folks of a darker hue endure.
When I started working my first job at 16, I became more aware of the racial divide and the perceived view of others around me. I was a shy, nerdy girl working my first mall job. I worked with mostly white girls. One girl I worked with named Carla was Middle Eastern and white. There was also another white girl I worked with who only dated black guys (by her admission) and dressed and talked in a perceived ethnic demeanor. As me and several coworkers left for the evening, Carla felt necessary to point out that myself and the white girl should switch places. The other coworkers (who were white) did express surprise and protest over her proclamation, but the statement was already “out there.” I think that was the first time someone very pointedly made a declaration on my behavior, personality and somehow came to the astute conclusion that I did not truly represent what they perceived as the black race. So is the lot of blacks across the nation, especially in corporate America. There you will experience a microcosm of this capitalistic society where blacks, whites and others are brought together and have no option to stay in a comfort zone where everyone thinks and looks like themselves. This little micro-society is an environment where odd comments, questions and awkward conversation abound. And silence — lots and lots of silence. I’ve had more than one co-worker ask me if I tan. Yup, I do. I tan just like you do. It’s as if black skin is impenetrable to the sun with some strange set point that will never change. I’ve had people from work suggest I go out with the only black dude or the mail room guy they’d never set their daughter up with. Because I guess I wouldn’t be interested in dating anyone of another race or they couldn’t imagine it, I suppose. One day I brought my baby sister to Kids’ Day at my workplace. I look young for my age and my sister was a young teen at the time. I guess a white woman, who worked at my company, assumed she was mine though some people bring nieces and nephews as well to the event. She gave such a look of incredulous disgust as if she was horrified I’d had a child so young. Ironically, I was in my early twenties when my sister was born, but this woman assumed the worst. So on many occasions, we don’t get a pass. Perception is their reality and what many in white America see on TV, in movies are the only education they’ll ever know about black people. It’s a scary prospect. It’s as if you allowed a child to be educated only by watching TV instead of going to school as a means of understanding the world. How can you expect them to be able to function in society without sounding like a bumbling idiot when encountering someone from a different background/race? Oh boy America, we’ve got some work to do.
Back in the summer of 2008, someone broke into my apartment in the early morning hours. Though I was asleep in my bed at the time, they did not harm me. Thanks be to God! They did take my car keys and steal my car, but I was just thankful I was in one piece. But what I experienced after I called the police reinforced my perception of how some white police officers deal with blacks. I lived in a suburb at the time and was given a heads up by my girlfriend (who was not black) that white cops in the area did not like the fact that blacks rented apartments in this city versus owning a home. I guess that’s a justification for bias. That’s what it sounds like to me. It’s not like people are just squatting and not paying to stay where they live (shrugging my shoulders). So rewind back to that fateful night. When the cops arrived I was pretty shaken up to say the least. I am a woman living alone and someone came into my home and could have done anything to me. One of the police officers (in his 30s) began to question me very aggressively. The line of questioning quickly turned to me, asking if I knew anyone that would commit this crime. He just continued to badger me and at the end of it all I felt violated and doubly traumatized from the events of that early morning. My boyfriend at the time showed up and they confiscated his car keys. His vehicle was not the same make as mine, but he was looked at suspiciously as well (incidentally, he’d just finished medical school). Even in that scenario it was perceived to be my own fault. My only crime that night was being black when a crime happened to me. It was sickening and it made me so angry.
Racism in America is one of the few strongholds in this country that’s never been tackled. It sits fermenting like the crazy uncle locked in the basement that never shuts up. You periodically hear fits and spurts of him rumbling below, but most just hum louder and louder to drown out the noise that never really goes away until it almost becomes white noise (no pun intended). Our nation is still very new and for those who may want to try to brush past wounds under the rug, to God one day is but an hour. In Psalm 90:4, Moses used a simple yet profound analogy in describing the timelessness of God: “For a thousand years in Your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.” There are so many conservative, white Christians who continue to condemn abortion and homosexuality, but ignore the blatant injustices that happen everyday. Jesus not only called out people to repentance but also addressed the issues of the day. You can’t turn on the TV nowadays without being confronted with the crazy uncle in the closet, but no one wants to talk about. We’d rather stick our fingers in our ears and declare everything is fine in this grand melting pot that really resembles a stew full of seemingly incongruent ingredients. It’s time to get out of our seats, get in our cars, walk across the street or whatever it takes to connect with your neighbor, your coworker whether he or she is in a different city, professes a different faith or background. We need to start linking and aligning our lives with others and by doing so have a greater understanding and an honest, real dialogue about race. Stop the silence that’s killing us as a nation and widening the gap of understanding and sensitivity. How many times have I seen two different newsfeeds when significant racial issues are playing out on the world’s stage. My friends who aren’t black are talking about what they’re cooking or some inane topic while some of the most timely and important conversations and critical moments are happening around them. We don’t have the luxury to ignore what is going on anymore. The face of the country is changing and we need to leave a legacy and example our children can be proud of and really live out more fully the creed of America being the “land of the free and home of the brave.”