There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
This blog isn’t a place for me to stand up on a soapbox, and this essay isn’t supposed to be that. A few different things got me to sit down and write this thing. First, there’s been a lot of stuff in the news in the past few months that is beyond troubling to me. When I first got this idea, it was during this summer, and I had just watched the video that Philando Castile’s girlfriend posted on facebook. I could go on and on about the different events of the past year, about but I’m not gonna. I’m going to talk about how that video made me feel.
I feel sick about it. The way that Diamond Reynolds kept calling the officer sir, even after he just shot her fiancee in front of her daughter. Her disbelief. The way that Jeronimo Yanez was so obviously horrified by what he had just done. How Castile couldn’t do anything, just was slumping slowly over, sheeted in his own blood. Sick, and sad, and worried about the future. The Dallas shooting a few days later was just as frightening. The part that hit home worst about that tragedy was how it mutated news sites’ comment sections into ugly, hateful echo chambers.
People don’t like to talk about this kind of thing, and I think that’s a problem. It’s such an open, glaring, oozing sore in modern society, that’s so ugly that people only refer to it obliquely, or shy away from the topic altogether. I think that’s wrong. I think you should always try to talk about the hard stuff, the issues that fester if you leave them alone, even if by talking about them you fuck up or sound like an idiot. That’s been my personal experience, and even now I find it hard to lay my heart on the table like this, but I believe that’s how we find our own true worth.
So those images have been lurking in the back of my mind over the past few months, which brings us to this morning, when I watched the first episode of Donald Glover’s new series, Atlanta. First, I’ve gotta say that if you haven’t watched it yet, you should, it’s funny and real and kind of a downer all rolled into one, with a side-dose of the absurd. But the most striking part about it was the overwhelming sense of fatalism, that Earn, Glover’s character, was slated to lose and give until he’s consumed. And then, after I watched the show, I read some article (I’ll find it later and link it) in which Glover was saying that white people don’t know everything about black culture.
I don’t know that much about black culture to begin with, and I don’t know how much of Atlanta is hyperbole, or stereotypes, or what. So I tried to read between the lines, and look deeper, and there were so many subtexts about homophobia, police tension, violence, just lurking under the surface. And it got me thinking about the experience of the black people in my life, and how different their experiences might be from mine.
I don’t want it to sound like I’m trying to speak for anyone else, brown, black, white, or blue, because I can’t. All I can do is talk about me. Media talks about white privilege and white guilt a lot. I don’t feel privileged, even though, intellectually, I know I am. I don’t feel guilty for the advantages I have, I’m grateful for them. I grew up in neighborhoods where nobody locked their doors. I went to private schools until my parents split up, when I was 10. I’m a middle class white male.
To illustrate the environment I grew up in, here’s a little anecdote. This August, I went up to Pennsylvania to visit my grandparents, who are devoted Catholics in their 70’s. While me and my mom were having dinner with them one night, the conversation turned to the school integration programs in the 50’s and 60’s. My grandma, who was just getting over a lumpectomy surgery, and was on some painkillers that may have erased her filters a bit, said something like: “Those people were coming from Philadelphia, from an hour away on the bus, and were changing things here so fast. It didn’t make sense, and it was destroying the town.” There was more, all in this awkward, embarrassed, apologetic tone that made me cringe.
On the drive back home from PA with my mom, I brought up the conversation that had made me feel so uncomfortable. She was surprised.
“Really?” she said. “That was them being open minded.”
When I was in high school, in the most diverse school in the county, I didn’t think about race much, if at all. But now I’m going to a predominantly white college, and the issue keeps bubbling up in my mind. I can’t claim to have many black friends, but I was close with one guy in high school who I still regularly hang out with today, and he’s black (he’s “Will” in Chewing the Fat). Being in a city school, such as it was, I also was close with a bunch of black guys during my time playing football, including some of the coaches, who are among my personal role models. The man that looms largest among these, literally, is C.J., or Chris Johnson, my lineman coach through most of high school.
C.J. isn’t my role model because he’s perfect. He has a bit of a checkered history involving the school system and marijuana, but that doesn’t matter that much to me. I admire him because he helped me become who I am today, saw something in me that I couldn’t. Somewhere between all the cussing, joking, cutting up, conditioning, and camaraderie, C.J. taught me something about what it means to be a man. To respect myself, to recognize that life is a process, and to push the boundaries of what you think you can do. And it kills me that someone like C.J., that anyone at all, that it’s even possible for someone to be killed, let alone be treated unfairly, because of the color of their skin. It kills me that it could have been C.J.’s wife taking that video, and his son sitting in the back seat of the car.
That’s what I know for sure, that what’s happening to black people in America is wrong. All the rest of it is bullshit, background noise. What really matters is that we confront the issues in front of us, evaluate them as we know how, and then have the integrity and courage to speak them, rather than remain mute bystanders.
So if that’s the conclusion, what’s the policy solution? What can the average person do? As an aspiring political science student, those questions come right on the heels of thinking a problem through. On the policy level, I think the first step is to bring these kind of issues into a more spirited national debate. On a Congressional level, change starts with passing some legislative measures to assess and control policing, and provide legal precedents for prosecuting officers who are involved in extrajudicial deaths. Some examples of bills like this are H.R. 1933, which deals with racial profiling, and H.R. 5283, which will tighter enforce due process. But since when has government made changes in the hearts and minds of the people on the street? I think everyone who lives in America owes it to their country to do some soul-searching, and to make an informed and moral judgement on race relations. This is our nation, and it’s only as good as we make it.