There is some serious shit happening in Ferguson. The serious shit isn’t really about this one black kid named Michael Brown being shot by this one white police officer named Darren Wilson. Truthfully, the serious shit isn’t even about a black kid being shot by a white police officer, or a kid being shot by a police officer, or, to be really truthful, anyone being shot. The shit in Ferguson is about racism and generation after generation of lip service to an ideology about racial equality that is nothing more than that: lip service. It’s about the difference between telling your child that the handicapped kid is just as worthy as they are and them believing it. Ferguson is the conclusion to a very long, very political experiment about whether you can force equality through legislation instead of education.
Ferguson is also about white people like me, white people who are “totally not racist.”
So you had a black friend in college, eh? Or maybe you had a black nanny or house keeper and y’all were totally tight and you loved her like a mother. You work with a guy who is black, right? I bet you’ve been to lunch and drinks once or twice. And you’d totally sleep with Taye Diggs or Zoe Saldana. Hell, even Djimon Hounsou gets your blood racing. Wait, fuck that. YOU VOTED FOR OBAMA. You’re a naturalized lover of the entire African American community.
Except the part where calling someone African American references them being black by way of the continent of Africa, a general reference to American ties to slavery. Technically there is a ground zero ethnicity argument to be made, but it’s listed right next to “We’re all brothers from Adam” below the part about the Seven Dwarves. African American is a continental classification. Forget their country. Salma Hayek just became North American. Ryan Reynolds too. It’s not wrong, *technically* but it’s not exactly hitting the nail on the head.
But putting aside for a moment the “totally not racist” white person’s inability to say the word “black,” or the underlying ignorance that fuels our nomenclature, or the fact that no one calls me European American hundreds of years after my ancestors left the continent (which, was actually the country of England….), TNR white people are actually a huge part of the problem.
I read a great article on Quartz recently about racism, education, white people, black people, Ferguson– the entire cornucopia of buzzwords du jour was there. What struck me was how deeply my subconscious “me” vs. “them” feelings ran. Despite my “totally not racist” attitude towards the black community, I realized that I saw the entire Ferguson thing as another ignorant small town display of racism. Thank God I live in the city. Thank God I don’t have to worry about that shit here. Maybe I’ll go sit on a bench in Harvard Square and feel good about the number of white-looking African American kids I see roaming the Harvard campus! Yeah for me and my “totally not racist!” self!
But then I had time to think about. (Because, as you may recall, I have taken temporary leave of my employment responsibilities.) I have this small boy, you know the one, and I am constantly thinking of the million and one things I don’t want to fuck up about him. It’s bad enough that he is showing unprovoked signs of being a sociopath, I don’t need him to be a homophobic racists too. But what does that mean that I have to do differently over the next 20, 30, 40 years? What does that mean the country has to do?
Sometimes people of my generation celebrate the openness of the world we feel like we’ve helped to create for the next folks. We’ve fought for gay marriage and now my son can marry a boy and register at Bloomingdale’s and live happily ever after! THE END! But let’s take “the gay thing” and play it out like we did the “African American thing.” The constants are pretty much dead on. In addition to being “totally not racist,” I am also in the “totally love the gays” camp.
So now what? Totally loving the gays is enough, right? Ehh… Nope. I don’t think it is. And that’s the problem. If thirty years from now I continue to introduce Author to men (or women) as gay, I’m putting a subconscious qualifier on my introduction and my feelings. As long as I tell a story and say “this black guy” when I would never say “this white guy,’ I am creating a division between people. If I refer to “the handicapped girl” instead of the “redhead” or “the girl who played the mouse in the Christmas pageant” I am subconsciously teaching my son to identify and objective people by attribution. A little by little he separates himself from them. If he is black, then I am white. If she is handicapped, then I am normal. And when he is asked to pick a team on the playground, he’s going to see that if he wants people “like him” he better choose white kids and normal kids. (Though to be fair, he’d have to be mature beyond his years to pick the handicapped kid to be on his kickball team, so I’ll let that one pass.)
The Civil Rights movement (for blacks) marked an incredible advancement in theoretical social equality, but it didn’t mark an authentic chance in sentiment across the vast majority of “totally not racist” white people. We’ve continued to pledge our sincere devotion to anything that promises to eradicates racism, but we haven’t done the simplest things. We haven’t made an effort to confide in a black man or woman what we’re curious about, what fears we have, what we want to know. We’ve left questions unanswered and assumed that our differences are too great and our heritages too far apart. So while we are “totally not racist” we’ve created a divide so deep that we do nothing more than wave from a pedestal and feel intellectual outrage at a white cop shooting a black teen.
And truthfully, I bet Darren Wilson was “totally not racist” until he confused his misunderstanding of the clothing, the walk, and the lingo of the unarmed African American kid with that of a thug. A dangerous gang banger.
And he shot him. And it proved he was a racist.