THE BLOG
08/28/2014 10:34 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

What We Do When We Don't Know What to Do

Thomas Sauzedde - idirectori/Flickr

It's a confusing time, as we move tentatively into the aftermath of the dramatic events of these past few weeks in Ferguson, Missouri. As we enter this new time, we are choosing to whom we will listen, deciding what accounts we will believe. These times can be transformational -- these times when something new has happened, or something old has been seen in a new way, and the official story hasn't yet been written. These times of not knowing.

I don't know about you, but times of not knowing aren't my favorite. As a white person, I am used to feeling in charge. I like to feel well-informed and smart. And it is particularly unsettling to realize anew, almost every day, how deep my unknowing goes. Right now a lot of white people are saying, when conversations begin to get tense, "Let's just wait for the experts to tell us what really happened. There's no point in speculating." I recognize their impulse: To find someone impartial and fair, who knows the truth, so that we can know what 'really' happened.

Pew Forum statistics about differences of perception depending on race show that 76 percent of Blacks don't expect official investigations into Michael Brown's killing to be of any help, while most whites think they will help.

How do we move forward, in a nation with statistics like that? For me, it is becoming increasingly clear that what I need to know -- consistently, not when I occasionally think of it -- is that I don't have any idea what it would be like to be anything other than white. I simply don't have any idea who I would be if I were not white. The concept of race may be an artificial construction, but meaning making about racism and white superiority is more than skin deep.

This is not a new realization on some levels. But while I've said it before, I have quietly and perhaps unconsciously also presumed that I do, pretty much, know what it's like to be Black (for instance). I was raised in a good liberal family and weaned on songs like "We Shall Overcome." Some years ago, I interned in a church that was predominantly African-American, and then I even figured out that I had a particularity of knowledge and perspective that was white (and not just "universal," as I'd always believed).

So I walk around feeling pretty smart, as white people generally do, and then I hear a story like the one an African-American colleague told me last week, and I am stopped in my tracks, recognizing anew how totally and completely I will never know anything but my own (white) experience. This is the story she told me. This is her first memory of any kind, her first conscious memory of life on this planet.

She was 3; she was trick-or-treating with her two brothers. One was 5, the other was 14. The 14-year-old was in charge of the younger kids, and he -- just like every other kid -- wanted to get to houses with bigger candy bars. So he took his younger siblings about eight blocks from where they lived, where the houses got bigger and fancier.

Suddenly police pulled up, grabbed this 14-year-old, handcuffed him and hauled him away in their car. Leaving my friend, aged 3, and her 5-year-old brother, in a completely strange neighborhood. She said she still remembers her shame and fear, because she peed in her pants. Her brother hugged her and they stood there, with no idea of how they would get home. Knowing only that something was terribly wrong and that they were suddenly and completely on their own. Eventually, she said, a neighbor saw them and took them home. Her father, ordinarily a loud and jovial personality, went quiet with anger when he heard what happened. He went to the police station, returning with her 14-year-old brother a few hours later. It seems a 30-year-old African-American man had committed a crime and the police had simply arrested the first Black male they saw.

My colleague remembers that her father sat her and her siblings down at that point, which would be the first of many discussions about dealing with the police. He told them to treat police the way you'd treat rabid dogs. Don't look at them, don't initiate any contact, don't move towards them or make any sudden movements at all when they are around. In later years, he would add to never, ever leave the house without your school or state ID, but do not ever reach for it.

I've been sitting with that story ever since. That happened when she was 3. From that moment on, in every other memory she carries, she has woven in a lack of safety and a constant threat that I can never imagine. Because she is joyful and generous, because she lives with a giant heart and spirit, I presume that she and I more or less inhabit the same planet. And then I hear just this tiniest formational sliver of her story and I realize I haven't the faintest idea how she professes and lives her theology of love for people of all races.

The gift of not knowing, of knowing we don't know, can motivate us to learn. Here in Minneapolis, long-time activists against police brutality -- primarily people of color -- say they are heartened by the large numbers of white people who are suddenly coming to meetings and demonstrations. Maybe in our time of not-knowing, we who are white can realize that we should not try to be in charge for a change, that we should support the leadership of people of color, the experts in this movement. Maybe we can try to take a few steps forward together. I don't know what will happen, but I'm willing and ready to enter a new day.