As I watched the “Breaking News” Monday night, and listened to the long introduction that offered increasingly obvious clues that the grand jury had voted not to indict the white police officer, Darren Wilson, in the shooting death of the young unarmed black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, my thoughts turned to my first year at Harvard Divinity School, now many years ago—when I first became aware of all the things I hadn’t known about the day-to-day experiences of black people in the United States.
The unrest in Ferguson, after all, is not just about the tragic shooting death of a young unarmed black man by a white police officer. As horrible and appalling as that is, Ferguson is also about the regular injustices that are part of the lives of black people in the U.S. – that white people either cannot or will not recognize.
I entered the Div School in the fall of 1989. During my first year, I lived “on campus” in the hallowed hall of Divinity Hall, where major thinkers had walked the halls and had preached in its chapel, Ralph Waldo Emerson among them.
I shared that dorm with many other students, of different ages, genders, nationalities, religions and races. Div Hall had three floors of rooms, doubles and singles, and a large shared kitchen in the basement.
Many different kinds of conversations took place in the kitchen. Most of those conversations were not especially remarkable, as we talked about classes and field education experiences, and the latest gossip. Occasionally, though, conversations turned serious, thoughtful, provocative and even heated. It was in the kitchen in the basement of Divinity Hall that I learned my first lessons about what it meant to live as a black person, especially as a black male, in the United States and in Cambridge, Mass. No day seemed to go by without some indignity taking place. These graduate students—most of them in their twenties and thirties—couldn’t do much of anything without being noticed. They couldn’t walk around the Harvard Coop (the large department store in Harvard Square), for instance, without being followed by security. And, at times, they were asked to leave the Coop without any clear reason given.
At first, I found these stories hard to believe. I had grown up in a predominantly white suburb of Boston. I had gone to college in Maine, where I was surrounded mostly by other white students (a couple of black friends I had in college were South African; they had grown up under Apartheid, so a very different experience). To be blunt, I was naïve.
But, after regularly hearing stories in the Div Hall kitchen, I started paying attention. I started to notice that security guards did indeed hover close to black customers, especially black men, in shops in Harvard Square. I started to notice the suspicious looks of shopkeepers and restaurant personnel.
And, then one evening, I was the target of a racial epithet. I was walking down the street in Harvard Square on a warm weekend evening, with two black women. A white man, who was walking toward us, drew closer and closer to me and when he was next to me, he hurled an ugly phrase into my ear, commenting on my choice of company. I shouldn’t have been, but I was shocked.
Now, I’m living in Maine, the whitest state in the country (not exactly by choice; employment brought my husband and me here), but I’m not completely shielded from the small, regular acts of unfairness that black people experience. A few black friends regularly share stories of things that are said to them, or the regularity with which they are pulled over by the police.
We may have a black President, but racism is alive and well.
When I see the violence expressed and displayed in Missouri, I can’t help but feel deeply and frustratingly moved by the notion that many white people simply have no idea of the humiliating experiences that many black people endure—on a regular basis.
On college campuses and in other places, this is referred to as “white privilege,” but I’m not sure this is the best way to talk about this issue. Although it may be a problem itself, many white people do not consider themselves “privileged.” For those who are working class and lower middle class, that may indeed be true.
But story after story, and certainly shooting death after shooting death of “unarmed young black man,” should indicate to us that all is not well in how our society and culture is assembled. How to respond in meaningful ways, in order to develop more meaningful approaches to helping people understand the experiences of another is profoundly important, yet so very difficult too.
The old adage about “walking in someone else’s shoes” seems more important than ever. It’s simply not enough to assume that one’s own experience is universal, especially for most white people who can go into just about any store or restaurant without being followed, looked upon with suspicion, or harassed.
We must find ways of sharing experiences, and opening ourselves to the realities of others. We must all seek to understand, while also refraining from language and concepts that shut the conversation down before it even begins.
What is happening in Ferguson, Missouri belongs to all of us. Thoughtful people, especially thoughtful people of faith, ought to find new ways of responding, trying to build bridges of understanding, and doing so with renewed purpose. Let’s not allow Michael Brown’s death—nor any of the deaths of other young, unarmed black men whose names we do not know—pass us by without realizing that we have a problem, a large problem, that demands our attention.