This week’s post comes from Taylor Campbell, a Christian writer and activist living in Brooklyn, New York. Taylor is a friend and respected brother in Christ. I asked him to write a post to the white evangelical community regarding their engagement (or lack thereof) with the issues facing people of color today.
“I know people are upset, but there’s no need to take it out on motorists by blocking traffic. They didn’t do anything to you. They’re just trying to get home in time for dinner.”
It was the day after a grand jury declined to indict Daniel Panteleo and I was in a meeting that had yet to officially begin, listening to a coworker vent. He was grumbling about folks demonstrating—peacefully, albeit vociferously—outside his Midtown apartment the night before. “They’re so disruptive. That’s not the way to win over white people.”
I had been one such disruptor that night before, leaving my pregnant wife in our apartment to protest in the streets of Manhattan for five hours with other disaffected New Yorkers. Eric Garner’s killer going free, of course, incited our action, but a related factor also motivated many of us: we ourselves, or someone whom we loved dearly, had literal skin in this sordid game of police brutality and impunity. That is to say, the victim of such violence could have been any of us—me in East New York, my cousin in the Bronx or my then-unborn child in seven years. Still only a pop question over which news panels sometimes bicker, such a truth is incontrovertible among communities of color. I marched with like-minded strangers of every ethnicity until 2:00 in the morning—from Union Square to Columbus Circle to the West Side Sideway to Grand Central.
Permit me to digress here: Every person protests for a different reason, but the historic import and impact of peaceful protest is articulated well by the oft-misunderstood, mishandled and misquoted Martin Luther King, Jr., in his civil rights primer Why We Can’t Wait. If you haven’t read the book in its entirety, frankly, you’re ill-equipped to assess protest as a political and social locomotive. But for only $9.99, that can change.
What my coworker failed to understand is that our protest was neither about nor for him. Our aim was not to “win white people over.” And when he asserted that the demonstrations had made him care even less about Eric Garner’s death, I could only shrug and tell him, “I’m sorry if someone was an hour late for dinner. We protested because someone never made it home for dinner.”
The above exchange rushed to mind on the day I was invited to write this exhortation. It is also the reason I was reluctant to oblige—I have grown weary of conversations about race with white people. The task before me feels mildly akin to Frederick Douglass’ when he, a former slave, was asked to address the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in 1852 on the topic of the 4th of July. His indignation is palpable in the speech he ultimately gave, posthumously titled “What, to the Slave, is the 4th of July?” He asks, “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? Am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?”
The ignoble spectacle of chattel slavery in a nation supposedly founded upon freedom and justice loomed large. And while Douglass found himself addressing a society of avowed abolitionists, he still seemed to wonder What is there to say?, asking his audience if it truly expected him to argue that man is entitled to liberty, that he is the rightful owner of his own body? That it is wrong to make men brutes, rob them of their freedom, beat them with sticks, hunt them with dogs and sunder their families? “No! I will not. I have better employments for my time and strength than such arguments would imply,” he proclaims. “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.”
What I am inclined to say here now regarding the issues facing people of color in the United States would be a stating of facts so seemingly basic and obvious that to do so would be to make myself ridiculous and to offer an insult to your understanding, to borrow Douglass’ candor. His assertion bears repeating as a refrain and as a kind of thesis: “The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.” These “blessings” are not complex, like your annual salary or the particular square footage of your summer home—they are basic: justice, due process of law, the presumption of innocence and other apparent luxuries.
Must I, then, truly undertake to convince you that the pain of black and brown folk matters? That excessive police violence against people of color is the most imminent form of terrorism in our nation, against which we all must rail? That the animosity I encounter on a “Christian” college campus, from snide comments about my full-tuition scholarship to “nigger” and “I like your slave pants,” are not accidental but symptomatic of hostile academic environs? That my neighbor’s perpetual decision to slam the entrance of our apartment building closed in my face and ask, through glass and metal, if I belong inside reeks of something more than mere rudeness after nearly two years? That people’s celebration of my biracial daughter as beautiful because Oh, Look How Light Her Skin Is will someday hurt her as much as it hurts my wife and me?
No! I will not.
There’s an old church proverb which warns that the best way to assist the devil is to act like he’s not there. The same is true about racism.
When I told a classmate that my boss was racist, he didn’t believe me until I explained that she sent me out of the office when clients visited, instructing me not to be seen on my way out and not to return for an hour, and allowing her white staff to stay. Another friend rolled his eyes when I told him the management at a restaurant where I bussed tables was racist. He didn’t believe me until I told him about the general manager’s warning to us dark-skinned busboys at the end of every shift meeting: “If a customer tries to talk to you, tell them ‘Me no speak English.’ Then go back to the kitchen. Don’t talk to my customers.”
When I explain my experiences as a black man to white people, I am usually met with veiled skepticism and a squinted eye. They act as racism referees, interjecting “Are you sure?” and “How do you know?” Think about this: Nine black people were murdered in a historically black church by a white man who reportedly told victims “You rape our women and are taking over our country, and you have to go,” and people hurried to argue the crime wasn’t racially motivated. Only the shooter’s own manifesto, in which he said he wanted to “start a race war,” could set the record straight. Now you understand why I’m weary: only white people get to decide what is and what isn’t racism.
This inability to acknowledge racism and to stare squarely in its face—a willful oblivion to the some of us that never made it home for dinner—empowers racism to thrive. It is alleged blindness to race and to color which impedes progress and derails critical conversations. That is, it’s easy to espouse colorblindness when you aren’t the one being stopped and frisked on your way to school on a Tuesday morning. A person’s color, and the prejudices or privileges he or she is accorded as a result of it, is a non-negotiable reality. In a nation whose institutions have historically demonstrated themselves to be color-conscious (read: slavery, segregation, redlining, anti-miscegenation, mass incarceration, etc.), it is reductive, irresponsible and naive to suggest that disavowing color will end racism. Au contraire.
How, then, shall we live? Allow me to humbly submit to you the solitary counsel I offer my white friends when they ask: Listen. Just listen. Everywhere, there are black and brown voices mourning, protesting, advocating, entreating, elucidating, venting—listen to them. And when you are inclined towards disbelief, suspend it. Open your ears and your eyes and close your mouth. Rather than objecting or correcting or judging or condemning, listen. Never tell people of color how to cope with injustice. Never police our pain. Embrace every opportunity to learn. Don’t solicit short and sweet synopses—sip from the firehose. See color. Do the work. Click the links. Read the writings. Watch the clips. Don’t avert your eyes from the realities with which we have no choice but to live. Let yourself be uncomfortable. Perceive that the blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.
Taylor Campbell studies politics, philosophy and economics at a small, private liberal arts college on Wall Street. He lives with his wife and daughter in Brooklyn.