BLACK LIVES AND WHITE SAVIORS

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Submitted Date 06/04/2020
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I know I'm treading on dangerous ground. Race is never an easy topic to discuss. But, that's all the more reason to discuss it. In recent years, racial tension in the United States has changed dynamics. Racism has gone from more subtle forms of discrimination and hidden atrocities to blatant and rampant disregard for black lives. In some places, when once, if a person had racist beliefs, they kept them hidden, they now shout them aloud. Racism has existed in this country for a long time, it's only the landscape that has changed. It's gone from slavery to abolition, from civil rights marches in the '60s to riots in 2020.

From studying anthropology and biology, I know that race isn't based on any sort of biology or genetics. Yes, there are variations between people in the levels of melanin in their skin, susceptibility to sickle cell anemia, and bone structure. However, a room full of people labeled "black" has a tremendous amount of genetic diversity. There isn't enough genetic similarity within groups of any color to be able to segregate them into "black" and "white" based on their genes alone. Race is something we've decided to have as a culture. Race happens when one group of people say, "those people are different from us." It is not biology, it's sociology.

When I hear the phrase "Black Lives Matter," I understand it to mean, not that only black lives matter, that black lives matter more than other lives, or that white lives don't matter. I hear it as, "black lives are human lives," "black lives deserve respect," and "black lives are important." This is not a shout that's come from a privileged sect of our country who have decided to persecute another. It comes from a part of our society that has been persecuted and needs to be heard. Is there anger? Yes. Is there hatred? Yes. Is there fear? Yes.

As a white woman, I struggle with how to respond to the recent turmoil. I had no choice when I was born, in the color of my skin. I had no choice in the economic status I was born into. Yes, I do enjoy privilege as a white person that I often take for granted. But, I still struggle to survive, to feed myself. My family did not keep slaves. They were, in fact, slaves themselves, in another country. I am not personally to blame for the discrimination and marginalization of black lives in our society. Or, am I? There are ways, I'm sure, that I'm guilty of it and don't see. But, when I'm told to "park my privilege," I'm not sure what that looks like for me.

I can't, ever, claim to know what a black person goes through in this country. I can listen, I can empathize, I can try to understand. But, there is no way I'll ever know what it's like to be beaten by police just because I'm black. I still don't think anyone should ever have to know what that feels like. I don't want that condition to exist in America. If I were walking down the street and I saw a group of white cops brutalizing a black man, would I step in and do something? I want to say 'yes.' I want to say I'd jump in, regardless of the consequences, and try to stop it. In reality, I think I'd be at a loss for what to do. I couldn't call the police. Should I risk being beaten too? Maybe I should.

I had a conversation with another white friend recently, one who wants to be an activist and join marches. Because I know them, I know that we're on the same side of this issue. This person knows what it's like being part of a marginalized group. They know what it's like to be denied their rights, or be legally vulnerable to persecution. When I learned they didn't have the same protections I enjoy, I was ashamed. I was ashamed of myself for my lack of awareness and ashamed of my society for its slow progress. I will not let that shame transform into hate. I will turn it into action and education.

As similar as we are in other ways, we couldn't seem to get through to each other when it came to the recent race violence. More specifically, how to offer effective help to the people who are fighting. I am very wary of "white savior complex." This is defined on Wikipedia as, "[...] a white person who provides help to non-white people in a self-serving manner." I told my friend that we cannot fight for black people. I said we can fight with them and we can be supportive, but we can't do it for them. It didn't translate well. I failed to explain what I was trying to say. I came off as sounding like fighting for the rights of black people wasn't worth doing.

"Agency" can be described as a person's ability to act. When you rob someone of their agency, you take power from them. Or, you fail to recognize their own abilities to act. It's the equivalent of treating them like a child who's too young to do something. It's like walking into someone else's community and telling the people in that community what their needs are. That's not the right way to get things done, in my opinion. Who would I be to strut into the room and start giving directions, without being asked, without knowing what the real problems are? What I would do, ideally, is sit down with these people, learn who they are, ask what their challenges are, and then ASK them if they need my help.

That's why I told my friend that I can't "give" black people their equality. That's why I said I can't fight for them. What I need is first to listen. I need to listen to what the true problems are, what the real concerns are. If I hear cries for help, it's my job to ask, "how can I best help you?" It's not up to me to determine how to help. This is not my fight. This is the fight of a group of people I don't know intimately, but who I believe deserve to have their needs heard and addressed. So, I can listen and I can hear what's being asked for and I can act in ways that help them achieve their goals. I can play a supporting role, with members of their community leading the way.

What I can't do is stop being white. I can't. To pretend I'm part of another ethnic group would not only not change my "white status" but it would be ethically unsound. When I hear anger directed at white people, it's easy to become defensive. But, I can't say that I blame black people for being angry. If my friends and family were being shot, tortured, dragged to death, hung, and beaten, I would be angry too. I would hate the group that was responsible.

This is a difficult situation to navigate. My first response is always education, whether that means I need to educate myself or help someone else get education. Right now, I'm the one who needs information.

 

*image: troops sent by President Bush to quell the riots in LA after the Rodney King verdict. Robert Couse-Baker from Sacramento, California / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

 


 

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