Since I got the news last night about Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict, all I can seem to do is clean my house and watch alien invasion movies where puny humans are toyed with and brutally dispatched by more advanced species. Both activities are therapeutic for me when I’m angry about injustice, but now I turn to another therapeutic tool — writing.
This is an open letter to African Americans and all USian people of color from one White female ally that I hope represents the voice of many other White European Americans during yet another pivotal moment in race relations for our country.
First, please know you are not alone. I realize you don’t need me, or any White person for that matter, to tell you this — to comfort you, or try to make you feel better. You’ve been dealing with this kind of outrage and dehumanization for hundreds of years, and I’m just a recent arrival who’s been awake for a mere 20 years and carries the privilege of being able to walk away from this struggle at any time. I also get that you don’t want my sympathy — you want action and change. I am here. I stand ready and in solidarity.
Second, please know that I know you’re not crazy. It’s a special form of violence inflicted on people of color, being told that their fears, concerns, experiences, and observations aren’t real. That somehow these observations and experiences didn’t really happen, and that the fears and concerns aren’t based in reality. Sometimes this crazymaking is something we Whites do on purpose, but I think most of the time it’s unconscious because of our own racial baggage. We don’t want to believe that your fears, concerns, experiences, and observations are real, because then what would that mean? What would that say about us? About this country we live in and what we’ve been taught about it? About our responsibilities? This is too much cognitive dissonance for most White people to process — still. A part of me wants to ask you to continue to be patient with us, but on days like today, another part is too weary, disappointed, embarrassed, and fed up to ask for your patience any longer.
Third, please know that I don’t know what to do anymore. I’ve been doing some form of diversity/anti-racism/anti-colonial/social justice/peace/intercultural work since my early 20s. I’ve been doing this work in my own soul, in my personal relationships, in my profession, in academia, and in my political and community activities. At this point, I don’t know what else to do differently or better.
I’m from the Los Angeles area. I was in L.A. in April 1992 when the L.A. 4 verdict came down, and I was there for the L.A. “riots”/”uprising”. [By the way, why do we refer to it as the “Rodney King” verdict, just like we refer to the George Zimmerman trial as the “Trayvon Martin” case? Why do we name these trials after their victims as if they were on trial? (maybe because they are?) ]. I was a student at UCLA just weeks from graduating, and I was one of hundreds who marched past the fancy boarded-up shops in Westwood to protest the verdict in front of the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard. For a few minutes, we blocked traffic on multi-lane Wilshire in this swanky section of L.A. where we could see the smoke rising from the fiery chaos in South Central just miles away.
There were lots of police around, and at one point a stressed-out White policeman stopped his cop car in the middle of the street, got out, pointed his gun at us and started yelling until one of his colleagues got him to get back in the car. This incident was shocking to me, but suddenly struck me as nothing compared to what Rodney King and people of color faced on a daily basis. It was also a key moment in my political awakening to notice how news reporters were unobjectively framing events and labeling people, and how these reports didn’t always match what we were seeing ourselves, and hearing from first-hand accounts.
So then, 20 years to the month last year, Dr. Christian Head, an otolaryntologist at the UCLA’s medical school (and the first and only tenured professor in his department) went public with the story of how he was racially hazed and depicted as a sodomized gorilla during an annual event at the medical school — blocks from where the policeman drew his gun on us students 20 years before. Not only had Dr. Head suffered years of discrimination and mistreatment, his concerns were minimized and he was told to keep quiet.
And now we have a “not guilty” verdict for a man who confronted, shot and killed a young unarmed African American teenager who was doing nothing but walking home.
I know there have been famous cases like Trayvon’s in earlier decades — Emmett Till, Medgar Evers — and many more such incidents we’ve never heard of. But now, in my own lifetime, I have seen history repeat itself. I’m not seeing progress. I don’t know what to do anymore.
Fourth, please know that I am listening. I realize that the last thing you want to do is be my mammy and take care of me, educate me, explain things to me (again), and help me feel better. I also realize that while in my heart I’m much more Malcolm than Martin, my anger pales in comparison to yours, and me encouraging resistance or action — non-violent or not — poses a far greater risk to you than to me.
And yet I worry — about you, about me, about us all. I worry about the quiet, measured manner that has become a hallmark of USians’ response to outrage and injustice, especially since 9/11. The extreme caution and precautions taken to ensure there was no violence after the Zimmerman verdict is perhaps constructive in material ways, but I believe it’s highly destructive in others. Where will this anger go? Into self-medication through substance abuse? Into workplace violence? Domestic violence? Self-hatred? Depression? Even higher rates of chronic disease as our cells try to assimilate the rage?
I’ve done a lot of work with anger over the years. It’s a powerful emotion, and a force for change. It’s a healthy emotion, full of information. It’s usually a sign our boundaries have been violated, or we have been silent for too long. It’s also often mixed with grief, which comes from loss.
So what do we do with this anger? What do we do in general? Trayvon Martin wasn’t even born when the L.A.4 were acquitted. How can we act to make sure the Trayvons that haven’t been born today don’t have to go through what he did?
If I had a question for you, there would be two. One, do you think we’re making any progress towards racial equity and justice? Two, what should I be doing to create this progress that I’m still not doing?
If you’re too mad at me to answer or talk right now, I get it. But finally, know that this verdict is not who I am, this verdict is not in alignment with my values, and this verdict is not a reflection of what I want this country to be. Know that to the best of my ability, I will continue to act in alignment with my values and what I want this country to be, in spite of what this country has been so far.
May we each fearlessly and passionately seek justice, so that we can finally co-exist as fellow human beings. Then, maybe, we can have peace.