Part II: Race: Thoughts from a white kid from Appalachia
“Race doesn’t really exist for you because it has never been a barrier. Black folks don’t have that choice.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
To my white friends reading this, has any of what I stated in the first part of this blog happened to you? I don’t mean once or twice. We all know there isn’t anyone immune to police brutality if you find yourself being harassed for no legal reason by a brute with a badge. Do you live in fear every day you’re in public that you will be stopped, and perhaps frisked, by a police officer? Do you have that fear driving? I get a bit nervous but then I check my speed and know I’m not breaking any law. It ends there for me but not for many others. Could any of you ever fathom that you might ending up hanging in a jail cell like Sandra Bland? Did your parents ever have a talk, a serious one, about how to interact with law enforcement? I’m guessing there’s not many. I am also guessing that there are many people of color in this country that would answer “Yes” to every one of those questions and many of them probably have multiple stories that the rest of us should listen to and learn from. That’s one thing I have learned working in african-american communities. While you and your buddies may have a story dating back to your high school days with a “run-in with the law”, every single person of color I met had more than one, regardless of age or gender. It’s not the same and it’s not an accident.
I have never been stopped by an officer walking in any neighborhood I have worked in including many in several states working voter contact operations. I could see myself living the next 50 years without a single incident like that. That’s probably the case for many of my white friends reading this too. I’ve only been pulled over three times in my life: once for speeding when I was 19, once for expired sticker in 2012, and once for expired tags in 2015. I had pleasant experiences and didn’t even get a few tickets I could have. I understand that when an officer pulls someone over and has general concerns that a simple traffic stop, or approaching someone on the street, could get ugly and very dangerous. That’s especially so with the gun culture we live in today and the members of law-enforcement that we have witnessed do atrocious things with their power. What I’ve learned, a little about, is that people of color have those same fears too but vice-versa. They know they have a gun and they don’t know what type of person it is who is carrying it. I’m not talking about the nervousness you get when you’re pulled over for a ticket and or when you may get nervous talking to person of high authority. I’m talking about a very real fear carried by the citizen of color, that an officer may fear because of their color or for whatever reason, approaching a vehicle during a traffic-stop. That person of color may also always be thinking that this could get ugly and very dangerous but not because of their actions….but of skin-color, ignorance, and baseless fear this society churns out for white consumption.
To make matters worse and to compound the ignorance, the lengths people will go to to deny that such a society exists is another reason why this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Some will deny it because they just don’t believe it and have never experienced it. Some will deny it because they live in some alternate universe where minorities have all of the rights and they’re the ones really being oppressed. Others will simply deny it because they know it exists and that’s exactly how they want it. When you hear these typically white, and typically conservative, folks pining for the “good old days”, this is what they mean. They want minorities to occupy a lower place in society and always know their place in “our” country. They want people of color to know their place, period. They want them to stay with their “own kind” and not to mingle with whites more than “necessary”. They should always keep their head down and whatever they do, don’t ever date their children. Those are the simpler days they ache for and when they say “take their country back”, they literally mean to a time when they had more control and power was handed out almost entirely by race. It’s like that in many areas in this country. It’s just like when they fight to discriminate against LGBT citizens or “keep the Mexicans out”. It’s all the same white-supremacist mindset. They want their life to reflect a 1950′-60’s sitcom where the characters were white with an occasional person of color in the background, always silent.
There’s nothing more threatening to a white, particularly older conservative, person than a minority having an opinion and having the nerve to speak it. But I can’t just pin that on the right as us on the left can be just as bad with our “whitesplaining”. It’s a threat to everything they know and the order of the society they want. They think that when a person of color, or a member of the LGBT community for example, speaks out against discrimination, it will somehow turn into discrimination them. When they speak, whites feel like their voice and cries can’t be heard. Of course this is all nonsense. It’s not a legitimate concern to any rational person, obviously, but more of a reaping of what our ancestors have sowed perhaps. When someone gains their rights and becomes freer, it doesn’t take anything away from anyone else. If someone speaks out against blatant injustices, whether you acknowledge it or not, there’s no dark hand that appears over your mouth to keep you silent. Stop pretending there is and understand that sometimes, you should shut the fuck up for a minute.. You’ve always had a voice. Some of our voices have been taken by politicians and corporations, but we still have one. Others, however, deal with those same suppressions while also having to deal with the heckling and calls for silence from the white crowd that just don’t like what they’re saying.
After writing all of this I’ll still readily concede that I don’t know what it’s like to be anything other than a white male in this country. I never will. A better understanding as I grow older, learn, and listen more is what I can hope for. I don’t know if society will progress as much as it needs to, or even come close to it in my life time. I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know what else to say, but what I do know is that those who don’t understand, including myself, need not say anything sometimes. We just need to listen. Since the events in Ferguson, and long before that I’ll add, we have learned a lot. A litany of truths about our society have come out and are staring us in the face. The racism and ignorance we thought died decades ago, buried under white robes and sheets, surfaced soaked in blood letting us know that it never, ever left. We need to listen, acknowledge, and learn. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll begin stepping in the right direction again. It won’t be easy. The same types of people that stood in front of the doors in Little Rock or hurled disgusting threats at freedom marchers are still there. They now have another platform, the internet, to do it as well. They won’t stop and they won’t learn. We just have to march past them and leave them behind where they belong. I hope I’m walking. I hope I’m walking in the right direction. I do know that if I am, I’m on the right side stepping in the right direction as they take the lead.
So, there’s what little I do know and all I don’t learning little-by-little from the POV of a white kid from the mountains of Central Appalachia. I also know that whenever a white kid like me from my part of Appalachia goes on some facebook rant about how people should think and feel after the deaths of people like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, or the dozens of others, it shows how far behind the youth in this area are and I’m sure all across the country. It’s a warning sign that racism and ignorance of these issues will be carried on for generations to come.
Here’s some personal advice for those particular people who seem to think they understand racism or the issues surrounding this string of deaths the past few years: Shut up. Your opinion is likely derived from how little you know, not what you do know, and what you do know comes from people who only root for black and brown people sitting in the stands of a sporting event. People of color around here need more, and truly genuine, support than the kind they get under Friday Night Lights. Not the kind that would only argue unfair treatment towards a person of color only if a yellow flag is tossed or whistle is blown. Those are the only “fouls” you are aware of or choose to acknowledge. You live in a place where you can literally go months while attending school, going to the store, and all of the other normal daily activities and never see anyone that isn’t white. Stick to talking about what you know at that age: Carhartt jackets and bragging about how you get to miss school come deer season. And if you think I’m just talking about white males around here, I’m not. The “my daddy would kill me if I dated a black guy” crowd should probably keep their very uninformed opinions to themselves as well. You wouldn’t believe how many girls I have dated that shared that fun-fact with me when I was much younger and ignorant. I’m not taking shots at Appalachian youth to degrade them. I’m commenting on them because I am one and I grew up surrounded by the same mountains and ignorance they are growing up in. The same kind of ignorance you can find in far too many parts of this country. Go out into the world, those “big cities”, and leave your prejudices behind in the hollers and mountains. I love these beautiful mountains but they shelter us from the real world. Learn from people who aren’t like you, or I should say people who don’t look like you. You might just learn something.
I did and will never stop trying to.