My experience as a mostly white woman at a Black Lives Matter protest.
It has been said that Mr. Rogers, the archetype of human kindness and neighborly acceptance, spoke most clearly through his example. I believe that to be true of all people. The truest conversation then becomes a matter of how we conduct ourselves.
There are five of us in the car, moving at a pace so slowly we could have been going backward, which is the most appropriate metaphor for this particular moment, this snapshot in time that so emphatically reminds us that we are barely not going backward in time. Traffic is heavy, but it’s welcome. The heavy traffic is a preview of the heavy foot traffic to come. It’s symbolic, as thousands of us inch toward one street corner in Northeast Oklahoma City, which is soon to feel like the intersection of solidarity and hope.
As thousands of us inched ever so slowly forward, anticipation filled the car until the air was so thick with it that we had to open the doors to relieve some pressure. We let the kids out — the twenty-three year old kids. The twenty-three year old kids, activists in the making, step out and walk away, leaving us, the forty-somethings, the adults, to barely breathe. The twenty-three year old kids, activists in the making, disappear into the crowd and I note the significance of these steps, these steps of young people still figuring out how to be who they are in their own white skin so they can fight for others who don’t have the luxury of doing so without repercussion. We, the adults, the forty-somethings, turned into the neighborhood so that we, too, could park the car and step out of the thick anticipation air. We wanted to breathe freely, as horrifically ironic as that is, so that we could join the fight for others to do the same.
This is new for us, new for me. Protests are new for me. I’m usually an activist in a less visible, less overt way, which is to say that I have signed petitions, written letters, and attended council and board meetings; but to stand alongside the oppressed and share in their hurt, their anger, their fight is new.
Do I speak up? Is that amplifying the demands for help or is that drowning out the voices of those already fighting for air?
This was weeks ago, and I still don’t know the answer.
We walked toward the corner of solidarity and hope to also disappear into the crowd. I half expected plaintiveness, and I can’t articulate what the other half of my expectation was, but what I saw, or what I felt, rather, was hope and solidarity. I also saw, also felt pain and love, sweetness and passion. It was a rainbow of skin colors and a gathering without age limits. I was moved by the adults, from the greying ones donning tired eyes and a weary smile to the twenty-three year old ones still too young to be anything but charged; but it was the smaller ones that got me. It was the tiny humans out there, the ones with chubby legs who only have a few hundred words and indiscriminate affections to offer, that stirred the emotion. It was the tiny humans, the ones with chubby legs and indiscriminate affections, out there unknowingly fighting for justice, for equality, so that one day, their tiny humans won’t have to, that held my gaze long enough to see through the rainbow of skin colors to get to the people.
We look for our own kids, our twenty-three year old activists in the making, but only briefly. They don’t need us. The tiny humans need us, and the tiny humans’ families need us, so we stop the search only to find ourselves walking away from the corner. We are in step with the rest of the rainbow, and thousands of us are now filling the streets. We don’t know where we’re going, my protest partner and I, but we don’t care. This moment, these moments, are about connection and solidarity and goddam humanity, so we walk, proud that even the snipers planted on the bridges and buildings couldn’t lessen the protesters’ resolve.
Our feet moved like drumsticks — rhythmic and purposeful. Our words matched. Or their words matched, rather. I was silent with awe and unknowing. The chants, the cheers, they were also rhythmic and purposeful, and stopped only for the few moments one brave black man with a megaphone led the marching crowd in song before asking us all to “say his name.” He was indefatigable. He was heroic. In those moments, I was grateful for the sunglasses I never remember, as they hid the desperate, unearned tears.
We walked, rhythmically and purposefully, for an hour. Maybe it was more. Maybe it was less. The time is far less relevant than the intention, and our intention, as it turned out, was to get to the Capitol. We arrived, our human rainbow, and crowded onto the steps. We crowded onto the steps until we overflowed onto the lawn. We overflowed onto the lawn until people had to stand in the surrounding streets — a veritable sea of humans with a charge of energy so strong it seeped into the crevices, refueling the chants heard across the city that day.
It felt obfuscatory. It feels obfuscatory, much like the first time I realized that racism was a thing. The year was 1986, and I was nearing middle school. I’d just moved to rural Southeast Texas — a town with one two-lane highway, countless dirt roads, and three hundred and five people, most of whom were white farmers and sawmill workers. We were reading Brighty and the Grand Canyon together as a class, when the principal brought in a new boy. He was beautiful with big brown eyes, shiny black hair, and milky dark skin. He was biracial, and in rural Southeast Texas, a good ol’ boy place new to me and new to this kid, gestures of welcoming were replaced with cruelty and chastisement. This was new and uncomfortable, sad and nameless. He became my first friend in our new town, and though he probably knew what was happening, it would be years before I heard the word ‘racist,’ because, as I’ve learned, racists often don’t like to use it.
They say that the first step to correcting a problem is to acknowledge that there is one. This makes the issue of correcting racism spectacularly difficult, because, as I mentioned, racists often don’t like to use that descriptor. It is hard to look at oneself and hone in on the ugly parts, the unsightly, desperate parts that we erroneously use to elevate ourselves. It is even harder if, like me, you learn that the facets of racism are plentiful and include more than conscious hate, and realize that complicit silence can be equally damaging.
As Audre Lorde says, revolution is not a one-time event.
I fear that this will be a movement of impetuous enthusiasm; or not even impetuous, really, but a singular, short-lived spotlight sort of enthusiasm that brings attention to the insidious cultural disease of racism, only to have it overshadowed by something less tragic. Imagine, if you will, that if this is my fear, a forty-something, mostly white woman, how horrific, how abhorrent the fears are of the black members of society. We have a chance to hold space for each other in a brave and beautiful way; and we have a societal obligation to fearlessly and clearly speak out through not just our words, but our actions, our example, to cut through the dark, and include black people in that space.