I can’t breathe.
Surrounded by 5,000 strangers in the frigid downtown Manhattan air last Thursday night, I felt for a moment like I couldn’t catch my own breath. I instinctively put my hand over my heart to steady a skipped beat, but was unable to control my tears. I managed to get myself together moments before we began to march, fanning out all over the city in our shared rage and grief.
We can’t breathe.
It’s the rallying cry, the most powerful chant of all the searing, wrenching chants bellowed over bridges and highways, in Apple stores and train stations, shaking us out of our complacency and forcing us to face ugly, old, entrenched truths. It’s easy to pretend that systemic racism isn’t real, especially since we elected a man with brown skin to lead the country a few short years ago. Until now, it’s been quite manageable for white people to coast on the idea that we’re past prejudice, living post-racially. To fail to notice that our communities and schools are mostly still segregated.
When I arrived at Foley Square that night, I met the gaze of a woman carrying a sign that said “Telling me that I’m obsessed with talking about racism in America is like telling me I’m obsessed with swimming when I’m drowning.” She posed stoically as I took her picture. “That’s beautiful,” I told her, because I agree with the sentiment so fundamentally. But it’s not beautiful. It’s soul-crushingly sad that more than 250 years after the Declaration of Independence was written, more than 150 years after the Civil War was fought, and 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was signed, black bodies are still very much in such peril.
Despite this, in just 24 hours, I’d transitioned from intense rage to something that felt like hope. When the Eric Garner verdict was first announced on Wednesday afternoon, I’d just gotten home from yoga and was readying myself to sit down and work. Alone in my apartment, I unleashed a stream of expletives at the television. My Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded in almost universal condemnation—it was a WTF moment for what seemed like everyone—even Glenn Beck, Bill O’ Reilly, and John Boehner would publicly come out against the non-indictment.
The consensus, at least amongst my immediate cohort, seemed to be that we’d reached a tipping point—there was no way, after a week of obscene miscarriages of justice starting in Ferguson a few nights before Thanksgiving, to go back to the way it was before. We were now in a seismic moment bonding all bodies, white, black and brown, together at the holidays. As the Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis wrote last week, it felt like we’d been “cracked wide open around race.” It was long overdue.
I’ve been to my fair share of protests; my first was a march on Washington for abortion rights in 1992. Many others followed: for the environment, against wars, and a few years ago, for Occupy Wall Street. But this nascent movement feels unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. To start, it’s organized and efficient—more so than other activist enclaves I’ve been in—but so very raw. We’re all exposed skin, walking out there in the cold, our throats burning from screaming so loud, because we feel like we have no other choice.
In all the cities where protests have erupted somewhat spontaneously, soldered together by social media, the marchers are tireless. In New York City, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles—cities that make the demonstrations look like a map of the Great Migration—protestors have staged die-ins, confronted police at barriers, and shut down major arteries. After I returned home from marching on Thursday night, I read that some of my fellow NYC protesters had lain down in the middle of Broadway for 11 minutes of silence—the number of times that Eric Garner said “I can’t breathe” before his body went limp.
#Black Lives Matter
An equally stirring mantra emerged after Ferguson: #BlackLivesMatter. As Roxane Gay tweeted with agonizing clarity:
The insanity of having to articulate that black lives matter.
— Roxane Gay (@rgay) December 4, 2014
Until George Zimmerman killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, I didn’t quite grasp the gravity of this. As knowledgeable as I thought I was about all manner of important causes, I’d never fully confronted how it must feel for a black mother, father, or grandparent to watch their little boy leave the house for even the most ordinary activity: to play with friends, to go to the store, to walk to another relative’s house. To know that once the door shuts behind your beloved child, he is a target in ways children with white skin will never be. That anticipatory anguish must create post-traumatic stress disorder the likes of which I cannot even fathom.
After Trayvon, I woke up to the reality of “The Talk”—the dreaded conversation black parents must have with their boys when it surely feels like they are still babies. This conversation, about keeping your hands out of your pockets, dressing a certain way, always being extra polite when cops (inevitably) stop you, not making any sudden moves, is absolutely necessary for survival. If you were forced to send your child into war, you wouldn’t do so without proper training and protective gear. “The talk” is the only armor black families have in a world in which their children are always unsafe.
It was only then that I faced my white privilege in a way I’d never been forced to do. I’d always felt like an ally. In 1999, after Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by cops for a wallet they thought was a gun, I went to Al Sharpton’s rally downtown. But until I was emotionally gutted by the realization that little boys—fragile, beautiful, innocent little boys—have to learn that the world sees them as dangerous and demonic, I hadn’t truly confronted my privilege. If I had an almost 12-year-old biological son, his biggest worry would likely be memorizing prayers for his bar mitzvah. The child of a black parent has no such luxury, no matter where they live.
The interminable heartbreak and despair of my black friends in the wake of all the deaths of just the last few months speak volumes. After the news came through about yet another unarmed black man’s death (this time in Arizona), one of my friends remarked that it was “open season” on men of color. It’s hard not to feel that way, when these stories arrive fast and furious in your feed. The night that Ferguson burned in rebellion, the story of 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of a Cleveland cop came over the wire.
Moving Toward Empathy
So what does it mean to be a white ally when we can never truly know what it means to navigate the world in black or brown skin? At some point I realized that attending rallies was merely talking the talk, not walking the walk, and I had to accept that although I’ll never know what it feels like in my bones, I must always be moving toward empathy. And doing that requires listening above all. Just listening. Even when I think I know, just listening.
White people like me take up a lot of the space in the rooms we enter, because we’re used to being seen first. Even on the day of the Garner verdict, a well-meaning hashtag, #CrimingWhileWhite, began trending on Twitter. It was an attempt to humorously illuminate white privilege—but it ended up temporarily surpassing #BlackLivesMatter. At that moment, people of color and their grief should have trumped even sympathetic white people’s jokes.
My attempt to be an ally is an ongoing project. I didn’t just go and see 12 Years a Slave with my family last Christmas, I asked them to engage with me about the ways in which we’re still grappling with the legacy of slavery. Last summer, when I read Ta-Nehesi Coates’ seminal essay “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, I brought it up as often as I could—with white friends. People sometimes push back, and they sometimes respond with blank stares or direct challenges (mostly on Facebook), but until we live in a world that treats black bodies with the same love and respect as those with whom I share my skin color, it’s really not too much to ask.