I entered the latter half of my twenties in the sticky cicada hum of August, consumed in a life I hardly imagined just months prior. I spent that birthday hosting the farewell celebration of a friend headed off to a year long adventure teaching in the country of Malawi, one of the poorest countries in world. That evening I hosted that party with my four month old baby on my hip laughing and talking with friends I made when I was a 19-year-old kid barely hanging on.
This occurred just days prior to restarting the pursuit of the social work degree I had to abandon because of a difficult pregnancy.
This occurred not even two weeks after an 18-year-old unarmed kid was killed by a police officer.
These moments appear, on their surface, unrelated. They seem unconnected points, especially because I did not know Michael Brown. We are, for all intents and purposes, stars galaxies apart.
Since that time, I have watched the burning searing pain of communities boiling over the top. Their hearts so full they are shattering. They shake with anger and mourning deep in their bones. Tonight I ate dinner while Baltimore burned on the news, young people so unsure of what to do they turn to destruction, to stealing, to looting. What kind of pain and anger and chaos brews in people to make this happen?
I sometimes get asked why I went into social work. I find I often have different answers for different crowds, but if I’m really honest with myself it’s because I am haunted by the ghosts of those questions. It’s not because I’m a good person, or because I have a big heart. It’s because there is something in me that sees things like what is going on in Baltimore; the mess and the anger and the hurt of what humans have done and are doing to each other, and their very core is lurched out of equilibrium. I think this is more common than we think. I think this is why people and pundits try to explain it away, try to blame it on individual responsibility, and try to suggest that it is due to something innately wrong in those perpetuating it. They condemn it entirely on the basis of their own experiences and understanding. I think they are lurched in their very core too, and they are trying to dispel the nausea and the fear of it. They are trying to find something they can hold onto that stops the room from spinning.
Oh friends, I relate to that so deeply. When I have seen these things, I have struggled to understand them too. The truth is, me in my living room and the people on the streets of Baltimore raging and raging at the pain of their existence…our experiences and our stars are galaxies apart.
It is not that I haven’t experienced sadness or rage or fear or anger or any of those things. I have, but I haven’t experienced them in the context of oppression because of my skin color. I haven’t experienced the weighted blanket strangling me while I scramble for air that rests on the shoulders of people of color, particularly black people. I haven’t had a need to fear the police or fear for my loved ones in their custody based on their skin color.
My favorite book of the Bible is Job. It isn’t an easy book. It’s a lot of rhetoric and argument and fighting between people of what they think God is and wants. But my favorite part is the friends who come to visit Job. At first they lament with him, they sit in the dust and dirt and the pain Job is experiencing and they are sad for a time too. They wail and beat their breasts. But eventually they start in on him. They insist he must have done something wrong, and that thing is so wrong he deserves all this punishment. God is just, they insist. God is merely acting on the things Job has done, he obviously must have cursed God, must be unworthy in some way. Job brought all of his anguish upon himself. They can’t explain what Job is experiencing, it’s too much, too scary to think that the answer might not be so simple. They blame Job because he’s the easiest scapegoat. He’s the target that’s tangible and present and nearby. Their blame is an easy out to not have to think about suffering anymore.
I am not here to tell the stories of the black community. That isn’t my place. I am here to say that we (white people) should be doing a better job of listening to them. Like Job’s friends we want to find an easy answer, we want to make people responsible for what happens to them, we want the answer to be “you” not “me” or “we” or have no answer at all. We want to pick it up when necessary and put it down and walk away. We want to hold on tight to our own experiences as universally true. I wish I could take my experience in my little galaxy of stars and apply it across the universe of experiences. I want to talk over those ghosts, over those things that don’t seem right. I am Job’s friend who wants to explain away the suffering. I want to right the world on it’s head. I want to have the answers and I want to determine who is righteous.
Michael Brown was a black man, barely out of boyhood, on the verge of continuing his post-secondary school education. I am a white woman in the latter half of my 20’s, hold a Bachelor’s degree, am pursuing two masters. We are galaxies, galaxies apart. But we have also been stars in the same universe. We were born out of the same dust. It would be easy for me to say “You, star, you have caused your own light to go out.”
My privilege is that our stars were never on equal footing to begin with. My privilege to forget that whenever it is convenient. My privilege is that the galaxy I was born into, the circumstances surrounding me, they let me choose whether or not I engage in the conversations, whether or not I challenge myself to be conscious of my skin, my heritage, my body as one that is inherently valued more than others. My experience, from the experience of a person of color is galaxies, galaxies apart.
I took my one-year-old to the zoo today. We looked at squabbling flamingos so pink they were almost on fire, cheetahs lounging in the finally warm sun, a sloth yawning in a tree. This place felt almost sacred for a minute. A break from the things weighing so heavily on my heart. I realized as we headed toward the exit and he slept in his stroller, that this same release of breath was going to be available to him one day too. Because the soft unblemished skin that I smeared with sunscreen earlier in the day is a pale and milky white.