Tonight in Ferguson

Tonight, my privilege means that I can close my Twitter app. I can turn the volume down and cry for our society that isn’t broken- it’s been shattered since its inception. I can shake with fury and yell at these injustices without fear of personal retribution. I can sit with pen and paper, then put my fingers to these keys and I won’t be disturbed by demonstrations, because the streets here are filled with white people indulging in the privilege of ignorance.

But to say that my town is ambivalent tonight only holds a mirror to my own acts of passive violence. How can I erase and silence the voices of all those here who push back against this unjust dominance?

Tonight, I scrolled through Twitter reposting and reposting and reposting because my own words would not come and my own words should not be elevated tonight. And as I scrolled and shared these raw jagged-edged thoughts, the university in my town posted photo after photo of smiling white children holding their acceptance letters. So I asked them to stop, because they shouldn’t be doing that now, when the only thing the rest of us can think of is Mike Brown, and the fact that he will never smile at a university.

Tonight, I watched as every media outlet displayed split screens—an empty anticipatory courtroom; streets full of protesters. They did that because they knew what would happen. Didn’t we all? I watched as the president called for peace on half the screen while the other half exploded in smoke from the canisters of tear gas police threw into crowds of citizens.

Tonight, I sat across the table from my mother and I remembered when I learned about Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams for the first time. There, in the multicultural 90s, in Washington DC, in a school that was entirely black save my sister and me, we were told rosy lies. They told us that Dr. King had peaceful dreams and he wasn’t angry because there wasn’t anything to be angry about because we used to swim in different pools and we all share now.

When I am six years old, I tell my mother this story I’ve learned in school and she looks at me sharply. I was there, you know. In 1963, the March on Washington. When she tells me this I am ecstatic and jealous because my mother had been there, she saw it happen, and I am reveling in the joys of having an older-than-average mother because none of my friend’s mothers saw Dr. King talk about his dreams. And I so wish that I had been there. Then my mother is even sharper. You do not understand. You do NOT wish you were there. I do wish I’d been there and she doesn’t understand that Dr. King’s dreams are a Big Thing because it is February and we are learning all about it.

My mother does her best to instill the sense of terror that historical period carried. She tells me about her friends who feared for their lives because they were black. She tells me of riots that scared her, even though she was white. She tries to tell me that there was nothing romantic about it, that we built such a corrupt world that violence was the only way out. She tries to tell me about the deaths that led to those dreams. She tries to tell me that they’ve taught it all wrong, that it wasn’t peaceful because there was everything to be angry about. But it’s all been lost between the decades and privilege between us so I pretend to understand, but privately I think she’s crazy for not constantly bragging about her former proximity to Dr. King’s dreams.

I don’t think I really understood what my mother was trying to tell me until tonight, and I know that’s a privilege, too. We are still living it and there is still everything to be angry about and it is not beautiful or romantic and we cannot lose this reality in the decades that span out before us. My white privilege means I am only now realizing the weight of what we have created, of what I unintentionally perpetuate. My privilege means that I can write a self-indulgent blog post about my own experiences and convince myself I’m doing something productive.

But I am doing harm if I only take up the hashtag, “Black lives matter!” in these unavoidable moments.

Tonight and every night, I am complicit. I must confront my complicity in this moment and all those innumerable moments that do not headline the national news. As a white American, I must find a way to use my position to confront what I have contributed to creating. Because black lives matter, tonight and every night. Black lives matter beyond a Twitter hashtag, and we must learn how to enact that belief. I don’t have the answers and I am finally realizing that I haven’t even been listening to the questions.

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Casual Racism and Cinco de Mayo

I hate when we refer to the US as a “melting pot”. The Schoolhouse Rock song Great American Melting Pot sounds horribly racist as an adult. That phrase is meant to illustrate how accepting and diverse this nation is but what it’s really saying is, “Assimilate! Melt into our dominant white culture!” Mainstream United States culture is white.  There are cultural centers and ethnic grocery stores, little outposts of culture that are erased in the mainstream. We try to make up for this a few times a year by wildly celebrating “cultural” holidays.

Do Irish people appreciate American St. Patrick’s Day? Do any Mexican people appreciate American Cinco de Mayo? Has anyone ever felt honored by being worn as a Halloween costume? Probably not. Gustavo Arellano, who writes the awesome Ask a Mexican column, shared his views on Cinco de Mayo or “Gringo de Mayo” on CNN’s In America blog. Spoiler alert: he thinks it’s pointless.

Pointless? But we’re so excited to celebrate cultural diversity! Our good intentions are thwarted by a history of racism and ignorance, both of which are exacerbated by white privilege. We don’t even know we’re being ignorant and racist. This is because privilege is invisible to those who have it. White people generally can’t see whiteness, or how it constantly advantages us in society. I try to be aware of my privilege. I still mess up all the time. I make hurtful mistakes and throw around my white privilege, even when I’m trying to be conscious of it.

Just the other day, I referred to my friend as Mexican when she is, in fact, Hispanic. Those are not the same! I immediately followed this moment of racial misidentification by asking where her family was from. I was generally curious. I would like to know more about her family, about who taught her Spanish, what her experiences have been. But asking, “Where are you from?” is not the same as asking those questions. Asking, “Where are you from?” implies an inherent Otherness. My friend said, “My family is from the same state I am from, and we always have been. It was your idiot white ancestors who showed up, enacted horrific genocides, and still have the audacity to assume that any culture that isn’t your own must have come from somewhere else. Get out of my face!” …okay, she didn’t say any of that and was very kind about unpacking my moment of white privilege.

I had a moment of casual racism. It wasn’t overt or explicit- I wasn’t directly stating that I view Whiteness as superior. But that is what I was unintentionally implying. It’s hard to explain racism to white people, because we don’t recognize when we’re exerting our cultural dominance. We think that if we treat everyone the same and view everyone as a human not a race, we can’t possibly be racist. This results in a lot of really uncomfortable moments of casual racism. Those moments reinforce the dominant white narrative, and further marginalize and oppress every non-white person.

That’s why we need to be especially aware of our actions on cultural holidays. Today, Cinco de Mayo, will probably involve a lot of white people getting drunk on “Mexican” beer and eating “Mexican” food, and wearing sombreros and ponchos, never minding that most of the beer, food, and clothing are American bastardizations of an entire culture.

We need to pause when we think we’re honoring a culture, because most of the time we’re actually engaging in more of that harmful casual racism. Who gets hurt by our inaccurate and insensitive (though very enthusiastic) representations? At the end of the day, white people get to take the costume off. The sombrero and poncho get thrown in the closet, and we go on with our lives. Meanwhile, we’ve just reinforced a lot of stereotypes and historical and cultural inaccuracies that have real ramifications. Really, when was the last time you saw a Mexican wearing a sombrero or a poncho? This is the difference between talking about race (“I’m not racist!”) and acting race. For most white people, our actions and representations, which we don’t mean to be racist, show our ignorance about race.

The fact is: nobody ever dresses up like white people. There isn’t a holiday where we celebrate and embody stereotypes about white folks. This is because we don’t view whiteness as Other. In our minds, white is the de facto universal race. We see things through a lens of whiteness, which problematizes our attempts to ‘honor’ and ‘celebrate’ different cultures.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go ask my neighbors to kindly stop celebrating Cinco de Mayo by drinking Coronas and eating Taco Bell while making immigration jokes in bad Spanish accents.