“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
On June 17th, 2015 a white supremacist gunman murdered nine African-Americans in their place of worship in Charleston, South Carolina. The national response questioned the flying of the Confederate battle flag and even Wal-Mart banned sales of the battle flag. Alabama and South Carolina have since taken measures to remove the flag and the nation has celebrated some imagined milestone towards eliminating racism in America. And so we allow ourselves to be distracted by conversations of symbolic progress while police, policy, and vigilantes continue the destruction of Black lives in America.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded in 1816 in the slave trade capital of the nation. For 199 years it has provided a safe haven as a black space in the midst of a society transitioning from selling black bodies to excluding black people from restaurants, waiting rooms, and bathrooms to the continued resistance of integrated housing and schools. Spaces like Emanuel AME foster community building and empowerment through fellowship between worshippers who share the experience of oppression in America. They are places of refuge and safety in the midst of a city that has normalized the exclusion of black residents from the economic and civic opportunities enjoyed by its privileged residents. On June 17th, the safety of Emanuel AME was shattered by the undercurrents of hatred that have never respected the boundaries it created to keep its citizens separate and unequal.
One week after the Charleston massacre, I joined Derrick Johnson, Mississippi State President of the NAACP at a local branch meeting in Meridian, Mississippi. Similar to Emanuel AME, the NAACP in Mississippi has long served as one of the only spaces for African-Americans to speak freely about the injustices faced in their communities. Even this space was often not safe. Known NAACP members were consistently targeted in the 1950’s and 60’s—fired from jobs, beaten, and killed by white Mississippians fearing changes to their ‘way of life’ in southern comfort. As a white male similar in age to Dylann Roof [and the only white male at this NAACP meeting], my mind flashed to images of Charleston’s tragedy as I entered the room and caught surprised glances or suspicious stares. I realize that much of this interpreted suspicion was only in my head. But after all, this is Mississippi.
Within 10 days of the Charleston massacre, 8 southern black churches had been burned. Fourteen days and 23 miles from that Meridian NAACP meeting, Jonathan Sanders was strangled to death by a white police officer while riding his horse. On the day that we held a prayer vigil and called for the Mississippi State flag to be taken down, a TV advertisement exclaimed that Confederate battle flags were “going fast! As the last supplier in town, get yours while supplies last!”
Since I arrived in Jackson—a predominantly African-American city—I have been more aware than ever of my skin. Everyday I consciously question what it means for me to be in an organization of people fighting for their humanity against a ruthless power structure that looks like me. When I hold community meetings in the Delta in rural black churches, I wonder how I can possibly call upon people to question and challenge their local leadership that looks like me. On the weekends, I find myself on a barstool listening to the sounds of a beautiful culture that has preserved 20 generations of Africans forced to work for the profits of men that look like me. In a conscious effort to prove that, “I’m not like them,” I find myself distancing myself (‘other’-ing) white Mississippians and the racist pundits that educate our society from local and national media outlets.
I’ve realized that this is just as problematic as Northerners pointing fingers at “the South” in order to not deal with the consequences of their own racism (Dear Boston readers, see the recent Color of Wealth Report). It is just as problematic as Bernie Sanders supporters booing #BlackLivesMatter activists in Seattle while declaring themselves in solidarity with the movement from the comfort of their blogspots. If this last year of police brutality, racist killings, and mass protests have taught me anything, it is that white folks cannot excuse ourselves from our personal role within a system of racism and oppression that kills black and brown people and preserves our own privileges and comfort.
I waited a long time to put this post together because I somehow thought that I would have a profound moment of revelation to explain my role in working in a black space and what it means. I haven’t. Being white in a black space, in the end, is a lot like being white in America. It is to live without fear for your life in a country that instills fear in all marginalized communities that have been welcomed/coerced/forced into the streets of America. The difference is your degree of comfort in living with that fact. The difference is whether you are working towards a society in which Black and Brown lives matter as much as White lives. The difference is your ability to ignore the American history that has created the stark reality of racism and inequality of modern America. The difference is how often your heart calls into question the decisions you make.