I haven't written much about race issues, mostly out of respect for the black community. Even this term sounds wrong as I type it out. Is there a single "black community"? Is there just one "gay community"? Sure, if you are talking about the Castro in San Francisco, Chelsea in New York City, or Hillcrest in San Diego. But are all LGBT people in America one community? No. Neither, I suspect, is there a single "black community," unless we are talking about a particular area, like, say, Ferguson, Missouri. So out of respect for black Americans, then? After all, what the hell do I know about being black in America?
On the one hand, zero. I am not black. I am one of those Americans who tell people they're Irish because it sounds more interesting than "white." I knew I would go to college. I can reasonably believe that if I work hard enough, I will be successful and can support a family. I don't have to live in fear of the police stopping me as I drive home to my nice, predominantly white neighborhood. When I go into a shop, I don't have to worry that the employees will follow me around on the suspicion that I will steal something. Even with my mohawk. Zero.
On the other hand, I experience being "otherthan" each and every day of my life. Otherthan being married to a man, because I am a lesbian. Otherthan being like "every other lesbian." (Do all lesbians look alike except for me?) Otherthan looking like a "regular, normal" woman, because I am too tall, too big, too masculine, too butch. Otherthan identifying as a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, because I am an atheist.
Is any of this like being black? No. No. No. A hundred times no. I offer these otherthans only to say that, within my white privilege, I experience daily "otherness" that might give me some hint of what black Americans face each and every day, at least as far as being otherthan white. I don't feel like I'm part of the big, white, oppressive system -- and yet I am. I've had amazing friends in the past few years who have helped me see this better; while it might not be my fault, I definitely experience the privileges that come with being white, middle-class, and educated.
But in my privileged, albeit otherthan, place, I have been profoundly affected by the killing of Michael Brown, the grand jury's decision not to charge Officer Darren Wilson with any crime for the death, and the reaction afterwards. As a lawyer and a former prosecutor, I am trying to understand why the process worked so differently for Wilson, a white police officer, than for otherthans accused of similar crimes. As an intelligent person who understands the system, I cannot fathom how the prosecutor could have handled the case in the manner that he did, nor why he did not recuse himself. If ever there was a time for the process to be fair and as impartial as our system will allow, this was it. But it wasn't.
As an otherthan white person, I am trying to understand. Trying to process. Trying to synthesize my feelings. I hope this does not make me sound ignorant about race in America. I do not believe that I am; that education started for me many years ago. I distinctly remember an accomplished black lawyer telling me he got hassled by the cops, routinely, in his Brooks Brothers suit. Upper-class black girlfriends of mine share stories of being profiled as potential shoplifters by retail employes, and of the repulsive comments they receive from strangers at a shockingly high frequency. I know about the way my friends whose families are not all-white or all-black are treated. There are so many of these stories that anyone who listens to them gives up the naïveté ("That still happens in America?" asks the wide-eyed white child) immediately.
I note that my black friends and family are not speaking out much on social media. They are silent. I imagine the pain is too much. I haven't reached out because I don't especially like it when straight people reach out to me after a gay hate crime or injustice. It is not my friends' job to help me understand. It is my job to gain understanding. So here I am, part of the problem, I know, but not feeling quite like that.
I want to be part of the solution.
What can I do to help? What can I do to combat racism? How can I make a difference? I'm not stupid; I know that the civil-rights movement needed white Americans to see and abhor what was happening to add weight to the fight. A minority cannot win rights from the majority without some help from the majority (basic math). So it was in the '60s, and so it has been the past decade with gay rights. We wouldn't have gay marriage in 35 states and D.C. if it weren't for the support of our straight friends. (Thank you, by the way.)
But as one person, what can I do to help? This is my struggle. I realize I have a tiny podium to share things and try to impact others. I have done that. But what about as I move through the world? As I handle my daily life? How do I say to the black and white Americans I come across that I abhor what is happening and want to be part of the solution?
Last week I read the "Other America" speech that Martin Luther King Jr. gave at Gross Pointe High School in 1968. This is the speech where he says riots are bad but he could not condemn them without also "condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society." It has been cited a lot in the last few days. In it King calls for an acknowledgement from all Americans that we have a race problem in America.
Well, we have a race problem in America.
We do. We have a system that is skewed. The cards are stacked against black Americans, and the statistical proof of this is sickening. But many people do not (cannot? will not?) see it. This was never more apparent to me than in the past few months. I have spoken to otherwise intelligent, wonderful people who did not hesitate to disparage an entire race. I have moved through work afraid to say anything about Michael Brown for fear that my colleagues might say something to make me respect them a little less. I scroll through Facebook nervous of what I might see.
But how does an otherthan effect change? We can't wait for voting; besides, basic human rights are not to be voted on. We need "the people" to agree that the system and the rules of the system are geared toward protecting whites, ensconcing them in privilege, supporting them, and helping them flourish. We need the people who don't see the problem to read and see, to listen and hear.
The laws need to change to provide protections. We need race training for all law enforcement, though I'm not sure how we teach someone that all life has equal value when that idea should be innate; an end to racial profiling; the demilitarization of our police; and lapel cameras on all law enforcement officers.
All these things need to happen, but before they do, the opinions of the majority must change. Right or wrong, it works this way.
So what will I do? I will keep using my podium. I will continue to teach my children about equality, that all stereotypes are bad, that they should question a system that benefits them solely because of their race, and that they should choose friends based on the quality of their character rather than the color of their skin. I will share with the people in my life. I will do so gently with people I like or love, and respectfully with the rest. I will not stop loving or liking them just because they might need help to understand. If we only talk with people who agree with us, we are preaching to the choir. When I pass black and white Americans on the street, I will look them in the eye and smile. I will continue to look for biases inside me. I will keep reading. I will listen to anyone who tells me I am missing something and read things that people suggest I read.
If you have any suggestions for what else I can do, share in the comments. I am listening, as are a lot of white Americans today (and, hopefully, tomorrow and always).
It is butch to stand up and say, "Enough! This otherthan wants to be part of the solution rather than the problem!" Be butch!