“Your silence will not protect you.” –Audre Lorde
A NOTE TO YOU, THE READER, BEFORE WE START: I want to be clear about today’s letter from the get-go: this is NOT an attack on you. I repeat: Not An Attack. If you have been to Journal of You before, you know that, while I may share my opinions about an issue—sometimes passionately, even—the subject each week is YOU. My story is only to show you a way—ONE WAY—to look at an issue, with the kinds of thoughts I might put into my own daily journal entries to help me clarify where I stand on the topic du jour. It is there to stir the pot of your heart and mind on a topic. The questions at the end of the letter are ALWAYS the important part of the letter. So, as you read today (and every week), remember that this is not an attack on you. If the topic makes you uncomfortable and perhaps defensive, own that. That is the best kind of fodder for your own journal entries, the kind that leads to breakthroughs and A-Ha! moments. Explore the depths of those feelings and emerge with a clarity you have never yet known. Remember, you and I both arrived at this letter today because we are trying to do better, trying to be better. We become better by being open-minded and open-hearted, willing to face even the most dark and uncomfortable corners of our minds and hearts. Thank you for your bravery and for taking this journey with me. Let’s dive in!
The joy and optimism that I started the week with were instantly ripped out of my heart when I came across this post from a friend in my Facebook newsfeed on Monday evening:
Another Black man killed, this time in Oklahoma. I refuse to link to it because I am bone tired of seeing this. Terence Crutcher’s car was stalled. He had his hands up, no gun, and was shot within seconds of the police’s arrival.
With a mix of anger and heartbreak, like a moth to a flame, I searched for the video of a man’s final moments, images that would only make my pain that much worse.
I thought of Terence Crutcher in those last moments, what must have been going through his mind–the shock, the helplessness and desperation—and finally I thought of the awful senselessness of his death and how his family and loved ones were now left to pick up the pieces. And WHY? That is what I kept wondering. A million different WHYs, but mostly, “WHY is a memory all that they have left of their Terence?”
Gutted from the thoughts of all of this, I decided not to bring it up to my wife that night before I went up to bed. I figured she would hear about it the next day and probably be in a better space to process it then. She is a black person living in America. And though I do my absolute best to learn about the black experience, to empathize, and to do right where I can, I understand that, draped in my white privilege, I cannot possibly understand the depth of her experience or the experience of any other person of color in this country. I take these senseless killings hard—I am outraged and profoundly saddened by them—but I know that it is much, much worse for her. Tears are shed. Difficult conversations are had. There is genuine loss and the grief that goes with it.
So I went up to bed that night thinking I had spared her. I hadn’t. She told me the next morning that she had read about it late that night and had cried it out. We had an impassioned conversation and both shared our frustrations and pain. Her last words to me before she left for work that morning were, “I hope I don’t get shot today.” It was not sarcasm. It was honest hopelessness.
Why should a kind-hearted, law-abiding American have to leave the house with that thought? Ever? WHY???
Listen close, friend: black lives matter to me. Not just my wife’s black life or my children’s black lives. All black lives matter to me. We have a problem of systemic racism in this country. We have an epidemic of stories like Terence Crutcher’s. It is time we all had a good talk about this. Will you join the conversation?
Judging by the reaction to recent attempts to start this conversation lately, I have reason to be doubtful about your participation. Led by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick starting last month, several athletes from different sports have tried to raise awareness for this issue by taking the extreme measure of a silent, peaceful kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at sporting events, because just talking about the issue hadn’t seemed to work. The national response? All anyone seems to want to talk about is their lack of patriotism and respect, meanwhile plainly ignoring the systemic racism and injustice part (i.e. the actual issue).
The much-maligned Megan Rapinoe of the United States Women’s Soccer Team aired her frustrations over this and questioned aloud whether she would kneel a second time—she did—because it didn’t get enough people talking about the issue being protested, but rather only about the method of protest. I think that is an accurate read on the situation. Whether people are conscious of this tactic or not as they are employing it, it serves as a clever way to skirt the major issue, denying the conversation by focusing on secondary details. It serves as the perfect distraction from the real issue. (Check out the upcoming political debates to see this tactic used over and over again, consciously.) Judging from the amount of media coverage and Facebook posts I have seen in recent weeks that talked about the anthem but not the systemic racism and killings of unarmed black people by police, the deflection tactic has worked wonderfully.
I know that I am partially guilty of feeding that side of it, too, as I wrote a post a few weeks ago about it (see “Love It Or Leave It? What Respect Do We Owe to Our Flag & Anthem?”) and really do think the anthem issue is fascinating and worth delving into. But I also recognize it as a completely different topic than the issue at hand. To conflate the two is either foolish, callous, or recklessly indifferent (sometimes all three).
With all that said, still, here we are. I am sitting at my desk with my feet up and my computer on my lap. You are reading this letter I wrote to you, perhaps snuggled in your bed or sitting at the breakfast table.
Terence Crutcher’s four children are without their Dad.
And my wife is leaving the house thinking, “I hope I don’t get shot today.”
That is sad, not just for her but for all of us. It’s an ugly reality for her, one that the majority of us seem to want to ignore, even in our own minds. And clearly, the meaningful, let’s-really-talk-about-this-issue conversations are few and far between.
Listen, I understand. I do. These conversations are so difficult, so awkward. It is much more comfortable to avoid them. It’s a sensitive issue. You don’t want hurt feelings, either yours or anyone else’s. You aren’t interested in starting a fight. It’s scary to bring it up, because you don’t have a clue how intense the response will be. You could be stepping on a landmine when all you wanted was to dip your toe in the water. You might start a fire, and that is frightening. But you know, maybe a fire is the thing we need right now, something to burn off a lot of the old emotional and cultural baggage that is weighing us down, to allow for a fresh start, new life.
It’s time to stop ignoring the conversations, time to step up to an issue as old as our country. I know it will take courage, but I know just as well that the courage is already inside of you. It is in you to stand on the side of justice. It is in you to acknowledge that although we may all look different and come from different places, we are all part of the same human family. We are in this together. Black lives matter, my friend. Black lives matter. They matter to me.
How about you? Do black lives matter to you? Open up your journal and gather your courage. This is not just a question to stay on the surface with, to look at it philosophically and pronounce, “Of course, black lives matter. Why wouldn’t they? Let’s move on.” Do black lives matter to you? Your answers on this issue and your courage of conviction could mean the difference as to whether you are part of the problem or the solution. Most of us are unwilling to admit that we are ever a part of any problem, and it would be an especially painful admission on an issue of this much gravity. So, let me give you some examples of how your thoughts and reactions to this issue in recent weeks might be a sign that you are part of the problem. Consider carefully:
- You tend to think that this is an issue for black people only to deal with.
- You have felt absolutely no outrage about these killings and no temptation to somehow protest. (Or you felt more outraged by the athletes kneeling for the anthem than from the police shooting a man with his hands up.)
- You are not interested in having the conversation.
- Your most pressing questions in the Terence Crutcher case were things like “Why was he walking with his hands up and not just standing still?” or “Why was his stalled car in the middle of the road?” (or, in other similar cases, “Well, if he hadn’t given the police reason to arrest him in the first place, none of this would ever have happened.”)
- You have spent energy complaining to friends about the athletes who have knelt in silent protest for the national anthem but have said nothing about the racism and injustice that they are protesting.
- You are annoyed that this topic keeps coming up—annoyed at athletes or people on the street holding demonstrations.
- If you have been drawn into a conversation about race and police violence against unarmed black people, you have made it a point to insert the topic of “black on black crime” and asserted its importance and relevance to the topic at hand.
- You think of these killings as a new problem and possibly wonder if we are just over-reacting to a few isolated cases, making a mountain out of a molehill.
- You don’t say the words, “Black lives matter.”
The answers to these considerations may prove to be a difficult pill to swallow, but it is so important to address them. We are all biased—and I mean all—but that does not mean we cannot work to be a part of the solution. We can all begin the courageous conversations. Are you having these conversations already with your loved ones, with your spiritual community, with your social media community? If not, what is holding you back? If one end of the spectrum is doing all you can to confront the issue and raise awareness and empathy, and the other end of the spectrum is ignoring the issue (consciously or unconsciously), where have your actions shown you to be so far? Are you willing to work harder to move the needle toward awareness and empathy? What step can you take today? Leave me a response and let me know: Do black lives matter to YOU?
Be brave today,
P.S. If this letter helped you address this difficult topic more directly to yourself, please pass it on. Person by person, heart by heart, that is how change is made. Bless you!