"Mademoiselle," he asked, "How did slavery just end? Weren't the black people angry? Did any of them try to seek revenge?"
It was a pretty heavy-hitting question from an 8-year-old. And I wasn't sure how to answer. What I said was that slavery may have ended on paper, but the mistreatment of back people didn't just go away and that that wound of oppression was still fresh and not scarred over. That was a heavy answer for a class full of 8-year-olds.
Race relations and discrimination are heavy topics. That's probably part of why people deny the issues or avoid real discussions. Although denial and avoidance are themselves manifestations of privilege; people of color can't take a break from being themselves and the daily struggle of existence.
Denial is evident when people try to find fault with victims, like Eric Garner or Michael Brown, and search for any excuse that will deflect from the fact that they were killed. Because I am female, it made me think of the criticism and victim-blaming that come up when a rape victim comes forward.
Being female helps open my mind to the experience of people of color. It doesn't make me fully understand them, because the experiences are not the same. That's the problem with taking #BlackLivesMatter and trying to turn it into #AllLivesMatter. All lives do matter, but black people, specifically, are hurting. Black people's voices need to be heard.
I consider myself to be very lucky in having many friends who are active and principled. I see them sharing useful articles and photos from protests on Facebook. I admire their commitment. Some of my friend are white, some are black, some are mixed, or Asian, or Hispanic, or Arab. It's important for all of us to come together, to hear what black people are saying, to try and understand what is going on, and to work to create a better, more equitable society.
I think it's helpful to pass along something a friend shared. People get very hung up when privilege enters the discussion. They protest loudly that they are not bad people, don't have bad intentions. That's missing the point on what privilege means. It doesn't mean you are bad person, deliberately, intentionally hurting people who are different from yourself. What it does mean is that a system exists; a system that privileges some people while it disadvantages others. What that means, is that while laws are supposed to apply equally to everyone in theory, their application in practice is unjust.
A lot of focus in the debates has been about police. The state authority that the police represent can be problematic when large groups of people don't feel that it is legitimate. When people are angry about the actions of the police, it also doesn't mean that policemen are irredeemably bad, bloodthirsty racists. However, they are tools of a system that is disproportionately harsh towards people of color.
Something important to realize, for observers as well as the police, is a point in the guide my friend shared:
Do: Help white people understand our “mutual interest” (ie what is our stake) with POC in overturning a racist, oppressive system.
Don’t: Tell white people that they are “helping,” “supporting,” etc. POC.
The continued oppression of people of color is something that damages our entire society. When our system holds people back, and prevents them for achieving their full potential, we will all eventually pay the price. There are, unfortunately, people who are actually dangerous and malicious in our society. And we also need to deal with our terrible gun violence problem. These problems feed off each other. But in order to deal with them, and for the police to fulfill their mission to "protect and serve," we need to establish a baseline of trust.
If our ears and our hearts are open, we should be hearing what black people are saying; that they can't breathe. That the problem is so bad, and so pressing, that it takes their breath away. Justice is recognizing that everyone deserves to be able to breathe.