Wednesday, January 7, 2015


“You’re from Occupy! You’re not from here!” a woman named Mary screamed at me on the street, in front of several dozen news cameras in March of 2012.

The first part was incorrect. That I was part of the Occupy movement. The second part, however, was true. We were in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. I was not born or raised there, nor had I ever lived there. 

Mary directed her frustration at me because I’d spoken up and said something when it wasn't my place. We were at a press conference following the killing of Kimani Gray, an East Flatbush teen who witnesses say was not holding a gun when he was shot by police who claim that he was.

In the aftermath of the killing, a number of youth took to the streets. Some rioting ensued and several dozen protestors were arrested. A claque of national media descended and put local leaders on the defensive. A dozen clergy and community leaders pinned the riots on “outside agitators,” sharply condemning those responsible, demanding that the youth remain peaceful. Meanwhile, a man named Jose, one of the "outside agitators" referred to at the presser, was busy making plans to march another contingent of two or three hundred youth into the jaws of a police line later that night. Tensions were high, and more arrests seemed certain.

During the presser there was judgment and no alternatives. Not one church was made available. Not one community space was given to the youth to vent, and strategize, so that instead of marching into certain arrest and gaining nothing strategically, save maybe a much-needed release of frustration, they might devise a more strategic plan. Arrests are finite in quantity. You only get so many.

“Where and when are they able to vent, then?” I interjected.

At this Mary beelined over to me, to put me in my place. A crowd of reporters crushed in, to get a taste of what they they'd come for, finally. Division. Trauma. Insiders vs. outsiders. Us vs. them. I quickly apologized and tucked tail home, so as to honor her wishes, and make peace, without giving the vultures what they wanted.

I’ve been wanting to write something about the experience ever since that day, but there are so many reasons why not. The main one being that being an ally means knowing when it is not your place to speak. And knowing that it belies all credibility to sit down at the table with people you've been feeding shit to for centuries, only to turn up your nose when your steaming portion arrives.

Yet turn up our noses we do. It’s how we’re programmed to act as white people in America. As the dominant people group we have weapons at our disposal and we use them. This is why Piers Morgan made a grand ass of himself when Janet Mock insisted that he’d caused her offense. It’s why Vicky Beeching (who I’ve since learned a great deal about and like very much) fell into the same trap. It’s why people freaked out over the #cancelcolbert hashtag and tried to bludgeon Suey Park into submission.

It’s hard to blame white people for reacting this way. In our minds, and hearts, this is how we respond to challenge. We use our weapons, and our privilege, to fend it off. Defame me and I will sue you. Criticize me and I will tear you apart. By responding to people of color this way, in our minds we are treating them as perfect equals. It’s how we treat everyone else. Colorblind. Post-racial.

This is, of course, where things get tricky. With white people this is fine, so long as they’ve not been systematically or individually denied use of the same weapons. But with people of color it’s a different story. It’s perhaps the pinnacle of inequity to wield an arsenal of weapons against people that have been structurally denied access to the same weapons. In such situations, the proper response is to put down your weapons, sit at the table, and be quiet. Listen. Hear why your actions caused offense, in spite of your intentions, and strive to avoid committing reoffense.

In my case, with Mary, I strived for months to understand her point of view. Intellectually, I understood it completely. I was a white man, not from Flatbush, asking questions that it wasn’t my place to ask. I should have kept my mouth shut and watched. I knew this then and I know it know. At least intellectually.

But here’s the thing. While I agree that it wasn’t/isn’t my place to speak up, is there, at some point, a tipping point? Is there some point, in the escalation of a situation, or in the strategy involved, a time when it becomes appropriate to speak up? Does at some point the need to be strategic as a movement supersede my primary role as a quiet, supportive, bystanding ally? As the conference was ending, there were still no alternatives on the table. Should I have talked quietly with some of the clergy members, and asked them to open up a space for the youth, or should I have honored Mary's wishes and gone home? 

In the two years since that day, it seems my question has been answered. Emphatically. In May of 2014, a guy named Alex Hardy wrote a piece about White Saviors, and how it is our role to shut up and eat shit. Many others, most of them far less biting, followed. In response to Alex's piece, I was tempted to pull a Piers Morgan. I was tempted to tell him—you see, I’m even tempted to do it now. But that would make me a bad ally. So I remain quiet.

But should I? Is there some point at which I should push back, as someone that knows the heart of white racism inside and out, because it's who I am? Shouldn't I tell Alex that I've been amplifying the voices of people directly affected for over a decade, and that my people can't hear them. Can't see them.

Shouldn't I tell him that the social and geographic distances that white people have created have precluded the ability of our empathy to reach back across. That in order for it to cross this chasm, which is, admittedly, a problem of our own doing, I have learned, after years of trying, that the great majority of white people must see and hear from their own, and observe the system's abuses vicariously, before they can firstly believe they are real, and secondly empathize with those harmed. 

Should I point out, tactically, that any chance we have at extirpating the racism and fear that have supplanted the Constitution as the driving force behind American democracy depends in large part on successfully recruiting this silent white moderate, frustrating and downright painful as that may be? Should I push back and tell Alex that I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to reach this contingent for years, and when I finally found something that worked, he piped up told me eat shit?

In November, after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the officer that killed Eric Garner, a number of hashtags popped up on Twitter. Some to mourn. Some to vent. One, #crimingwhilewhite, started trending, and white people began using it to explain to their own that they’re able to get away with crimes that black people could never dream of getting away with.

Right away the calls came out to be quiet. Now is not the time. Stop showing off. Stop performing your privilege. Which brings up my next question: Is there ever a time? Will people of color ever be able to watch white people school their own, using the only method that seems to work – personal, vicarious examples that evoke empathy – and allow us to continue, or will it always be too painful to watch? Getting white people to acknowledge the structural forces that their forebears expertly programmed into America's systems, in order to "dismantle the power obtained through our privilege" (which the author of the above article posits is the one true goal) contradicts the hardwiring installed in us at birth. Reversing the programming of white supremacy, I have learned, is perhaps the single hardest thing to accomplish on earth. In order to convince people like me, in places where I grew up, to do this, you must first convince them that their privilege is real--no small feat.

The author above makes the mistake of imputing her evolution to the rest of the white race. What I have learned over the last fourteen years of trying is that the overwhelming majority of the white race is nowhere near this level of race consciousness. I once invited every white person I knew--family, friends, and colleagues in the criminal justice system--to go down to City Hall and refuse to leave until the mayor stopped trampling the United States Constitution. Not only did not one of them join me, but they told me I was nuts. Throwing away my future. For nothing. To finally see a hashtag that pierced through this denial, to show them that I wasn't nuts, and that our privilege is/was very real, only to have it criticized as yet another selfish performance, was maddening. 

The final straw, which made me break down and finally write this piece, happened yesterday. Ava DuVernay, the director of the new film Selma, was criticized for her depiction of President Lyndon Johnson. She responded that she did not want to focus on the White Savior angle, and that Johnson had been a “reluctant hero,” if at all.

I think that this reveals something important. Something that shows that this movement has become dangerously splintered. Ms. DuVernay surely has every right not to focus on the White Savior angle. Indeed, she could have left out Johnson entirely, if she’d wanted, and instead focused on Mayor Joe Smitherman, or Sheriff Jim Clark, Selma’s true foils. Instead, the film turned Johnson into an antagonist of sorts, which is an epic historical distortion. 

Johnson’s entire southern voting bloc, specifically on account of his positions on civil rights, defected from the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party at the GOP convention in 1964. Such an en masse political defection was, and remains, unheard of in modern history. Ronald Reagan, who was working on segregationist candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign at the time, introduced him as the GOP candidate for president as the new converts erupted with racist jeers and applause. It was one of the most shameful moments in American history, proving that LBJ faced catastrophic political fallout for his positions on civil rights. Yet he stuck with them. 

If you don’t want to focus on that angle of the story, because his courage detracts from that of the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, then by all means don’t. But if you smear him, and distort history, you may as well stoop to the level of the textbooks that cravenly omit this sordid chapter from American history altogether.

Which leads to my last question. Must white people, including the ones that wish to be allies, be turned into villains to move forward? Does history have to be distorted for commiseration and healing to occur? Do white people need to go through the same hell we put others through before we can work together? Do we need to sit down, and shut up, forever, to make a pluralistic, multicultural nation work?

If the answer to these questions is yes, it will surely be warranted. Deserved. And then some. Hell, we insist upon rule of law, in a nation of laws, and yet we have never, not once, come face to face with our nation's racial crimes--the height of hypocrisy. But is it possible, knowing all of that, and knowing what we do about human nature, that we can strive for accountability, restitution, and progress, together? That we can come to an understanding that when I am trying to reach my people, in the only way that I have found works, I might be granted a little bit of latitude? And that when you are trying to teach us, converts and not-yet-converts alike, and heal from the trauma that we have caused you, might we agree that there are times and places (many, many, many times and places) when it is our place to sit down and shut up? That in such situations, on both sides, we might give each other the benefit of the doubt, in the name of strategy, to move forward, ever mindful of the past, while striving to make things right? Without wagging fingers? Without patronizing? Without derision, deserved as it may be?

If the answer to these questions is no, then I, personally, will try and learn to live with it, as will many others who hope to stand united against oppression in all of its forms. But before I do, I need to have an honest moment with the members of this movement. What this will mean, tactically, in terms of numbers, is that this movement, at this moment in American history, is doomed. If we distort history in an effort to commiserate, if we tell people to eat shit as a matter of course, in order to heal from the many traumas visited by white supremacy, if we masquerade as allies and use the word as a pretext to rip each other down, while the liars that insist on the status quo maintain a heavily armed, completely integrated, unified front, then from a demographic, moral, and strategic standpoint, this movement is doomed for another three decades, at least, until the majority in America tips. And what then? 

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