We’ve all been listening to the stories about Ferguson. There are many conversations out there about what happened, what’s happening now, how we’ve gotten to this place, and why. In my owner corner of the world I’m fairly insulated personally from the protests directly given that I now live in a rural area of northern Minnesota, but not from the realities of racism or from the conversation. And, my heart still travels with all my friends who hit the streets in cities around the country with the message; Black lives matter.
I was looking at Facebook today, skimming messages, seeing a lot of sadness from my politically liberal, progressive, and radical friends about the decision in the case and more broadly around how it has been considered a reflection of how Blacks are demonized in the U.S. Then I saw a message that troubled me more. It was from someone who I care about deeply and who generally doesn’t share my politically ideologies. It was a picture of an African American police office (I think it was an actor, but I couldn’t remember the show) with the message “Instead of saying ‘fuck the police’ How about you stop breaking the fucking law.”
It troubled me more because I know this woman to be a loving mom with beautiful, smart kids, a caring person who is very involved in her community and church. She’s someone who is thoughtful, politically engaged, and wants the best for the little ones that she is raising as well as herself and her husband, friends, and family. Politically a conservative yes, but not so different from me or anyone else I know in her underlying human needs and wants, and someone who I love as family.
I had to decide what to do. Should I ignore this post that bugged me and keep tension out of the family or do my job as an anti-racist activist and say something. There was no choice there never is. I made a comment. I started it with letting her know that I love and respect her then went into just acknowledging that my experience and the first hand accounts I’ve heard in my years of work tell me that the systems (police, schools, healthcare, etc) treat People of Color whether they be African American, Latino, Native American, or any other group differently than they treat White folks and that there are no “bad guys” unless society pushes people into that behavior. I opted not to get into how behaviors are looked at differently depending on who you are. It was just a brief facebook post and I thought that would get too confusing for a first naming. I did, however, suggest reading Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. I don’t know, maybe she will. She is a person who likes to learn and think.
As for me, I continue to think about what brought me to this place.
Thinking about the stereotypes associated too often with African Americans; criminals, uneducated, low income, addicts, unwed moms, etc. reminded me of when my eyes were first being pried open as a student at UW-Stevens Point. I think it was during the time that I was SOURCE director and working to ensure that the Black Student Union get a fair trial with the Student Government Association regarding some small issues with a member of the BSU who had been accused of taking some money at an event. I understood that race was a huge factor in this case and that it would be difficult for the all Black group to get a fair hearing from nearly all white government. I went to several mentors for advice. It was somewhere in here that I learned about the struggles that Dr. Andrea Turner had finding housing when she’d first moved to town in the 1990’s. The Affirmative Action Director for the University was having to deal with racist landlords! What the heck! She left Stevens Point after only a few years.
Another Point story for me was a diorama in Andy Gokee’s office. Andy works in the Native American Center there. The diorama was one he made with his daughter when she was in elementary school. Her teacher was teaching the kids something about Native Americans and was having the kids make Indian teepees. The Gokee family has a long and proud history in what is now Wisconsin and their tribe, the Anishanabe didn’t live in teepees. Andy took his anger and funneled it into teaching and made a beautiful piece of work with his daughter that shows more accurately how her ancestors lived.
From there I go to the road, I keep coming back to that Protect the Earth Walk from Red Cliff to Madison. We walked to draw attention to the seventh generation amendment, the environment, social justice, and to ask people what they wanted for the seventh generation. I still see it. Walking down the road, Frank, Walt, and I and there’s an older man, a white man across the road looking at us. We cross to go talk with him. Frank who is white and middle aged starts up the conversation. Walt who is unmistakably Native is standing next to him and I’m a step or two off to the side. Frank explains what we’re doing and asks him his thoughts. The older man responds as if Walt and I aren’t even there with a tirade about those “goddamn Indians and those goddamn Indian casinos.” I realize he has the ability to choose not to see us.
There it is. There’s privilege. Those of us with privilege get to decide what to see, who to see, what to do with what we see. Those without privilege had better see everything or they will be beaten and killed by whatever they miss in that one moment that they miss it.
I was hoping that I would come out of this free writing exercise with some great insight on moving forward. I’m not sure that I have. I only know that the toughest folks to confront are the ones you love and those are the ones you must confront. Do so lovingly. And, that a whole lot of stuff has brought me here, I am honored to have been given the gifts of these experiences though many have made me sad. I am and continue to be amazed by the strength of those I have grown to know.
Keep on keeping on.