As protests rage across American cities against the heartless and sadistic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I think how impossible it is for anyone with white skin to know what it is like to have brown skin in the United States.
There’s no way to keep up with the news right now. All I can do is worry about friends in some of the cities that are on fire. The United States was on tenuous ground long before the virus hit us, and now it is cracked open.
I think of how COVID-19 has afflicted communities of color far more deeply than it has the community of white people, how health outcomes for people of color are worse no matter what their socioeconomic status is, how our criminal justice system has imprisoned more Black men than slavery did.
I think of how hard it is to know how to be a White ally in a time of great pain and suffering.
I think of how insidious White racism is, how if you are a Black American you are born with it inside your body, and how if you are White you can never scrape off your skin and stop being White, how you’re stuck with it.
The protests and fires hitting the U.S. across cities from Denver to New York — in Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was murdered by police, and in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed — will be quelled eventually by military force, as similar outbreaks of rage and sorrow were in 1967 and 1968 in places like Detroit or Newark, or as the police managed to finally tame the 1994 Los Angeles riots before they reached Beverly Hills.
Most reasonable people don’t want to set things on fire. But as a White liberal married to a reasonable Black American woman, I don’t know how to watch the deadness in the eyes of the White police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck — even after he was handcuffed — until he died.
It makes me want to set things on fire.
* * *
A Black American friend who works on issues of social justice wrote this last week:
“How I feel about what’s happening — I just wanted to share it with you. I feel like if we could get something in the paper about what’s happening, it would be good.
“Stop asking me If I’m OK. Stop asking me. And do something. What happened to George Floyd has been happening, this ain’t nothing new for the Black community and we are angry. But now you wanna ask if I’m OK. I’m not OK. Until this stops.
“Stop posting things you know nothing about but what you saw on the 10 o’clock news when you have done nothing but blast Black music and date or befriend someone who is Black. It doesn’t make you a part of the fight — doing something does.
“So stop asking me if I’m all right and use your White privilege and educate yourself and others instead of letting your Black friends do the work.
“Dear White American who say they not racist and liberal and say they care and this ain’t right: use your voice, because Black America is tired.”
* * *
It is a truism within critical discourse about race that it should not be up to Black people to educate White people about race. We must do the work ourselves, talking to one another as people with white skin.
We have no real platform to do that. It is not like there is some school you can go to where you get a degree that says you’re not racist anymore. Being married to a Black American woman does not make me less racist, any more than being raised in the 1960s in a White civil rights household does.
The pain I feel right now is only empathy, while it is written into the blood of my wife’s ancestors and borne by her in her DNA.
My wife cannot look at me now without seeing a White person. I can’t scrape my skin off. I don’t know of any system of exorcism or work of contrition to change that for all of us.
* * *
One recent night, we were in a Zoom session with some fellow poets from my Harvard days, the class of 1979. Soon after that, one of them, our dear friend Cynthia Gomez, a stonecutter’s daughter from Montpelier, told us about the murder that had happened just a few blocks away from where she lives now in Minneapolis.
She’s tough as nails — her husband is African, and her daughter is a councilwoman in that city — but we’ve been worried about her, and things are really bad there. How could they not be?
It is impossible to look at the murder of George Floyd on tape and not see a depth of White evil that is so rending that it makes it hard to breathe. Racism is ensconced in the presidency — a sick man who can tweet that if there is looting there will be shooting.
It opens the ruined heart of the United States for everyone to see.
“We are experiencing the convergence of an authentic uprising against police violence,” Gomez wrote on Facebook, “and a coordinated right-wing attempt to start a civil war.”
She described how, in Minneapolis, White supremacists are seizing the opportunity to add to the chaos and burn buildings down. We already know how well-armed and angry the white militias are, and it seems that this uprising against racism provides an opportunity for them to foment further violence.
* * *
These are hard times. More than 100,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the past three months in the United States. A huge number of Americans are either unemployed or working jobs where they face a constant risk of infection for low pay.
The collective trauma the nation is suffering is real. Wearing masks when you go into a supermarket is bad enough. Having to wear a mask all day when you work in the heat of a carpenter’s job is just hard.
Within the context of White privilege, the cities have emptied into the countryside, and the virus hits hardest in places where population is most dense — prisons, the military, and small urban apartments, where it is impossible to self-isolate and where more people generally have no choice but to go out to work.
The pressures on all of us are intense. Just to be a college professor in the time of COVID-19 has its difficulties, but it is nothing like what most people in the United States are facing right now, and I know that. It is a privilege just to be able to have a laptop and a safe place where I can write these words.
Within this context, the fault lines that have always been part of American society are magnified. And now, it is like tinder has been laid and a mere spark will set off the rage and sorrow that have been ingrained in us as a nation over centuries.
* * *
Racism and the genocide of the Native peoples are the original sin of the United States. It was a marvelous thing to be the first nation ruled by law rather than men, but let’s remember that Black slaves had no legal right to their own bodies, that a Black woman could be raped, or that a Black man killed without impunity — apart from paying compensation to the owner.
If there are fires burning in America right now, there is good reason for it, even though violence never has solved anything, and when you curse something you must know that the curse may come back to you.
Most people, no matter the color of their skin, want to do the right thing. In my travels through life, I have found that people are mainly decent and kind in their nature, and that malice is something confined to a small number of people.
Ignorance is a different matter. The racism of ignorance is pernicious and mild, hard to see and always present.
Racism is intrinsic to American society, our deepest fault-line as a culture, and to answer the question “are you racist” with the answer “no” is like answering the question “are you asleep” with the answer “yes.”
The fires are burning now, and they may still burn throughout the tragic summer that lies before us. They will burn out eventually. All one can possibly hope is that we learn something from them.
The violence that White America has exerted on the Black body cannot be overlooked or misunderstood. It is real, and if a police precinct burns in Minneapolis, we must know that there are reasons for it, even if there are no excuses.
These are hard times ahead. They just are. There is no way around it.
* * *
We need to listen to the fires in the neighborhoods, we need to pay attention to the casual violence that is exerted against the Black body every day.
We need to understand the fear and pain involved in what it means to bear brown skin in the American world.
We need to find some way to join in the anger while helping to temper the violence.
It is up to White people to face racism, to see how the world is arranged for people with brown skin, and to try to do something about it. But I just don’t know. It is 400 years of history to try to walk back, and nothing absolves our sins.
We need to see whether it would ever be authentic to convey some hope that someday things may be better — like what the fuck would that take, to be White and convey any sort of authentic hope that the Black body will no longer be violated as it has been throughout our history as a nation.
Fires are burning.