The Friday Photo
July 8, 2016
Deafening Silence: White Silence and Alton Sterling
Ryan Williams Virden, Form Follows Function
I want to start by being very specific about who I am talking to; this post is meant for people who look like me, those of us with white skin.
Many of you woke up this morning and heard the news about Alton Sterling, the 37 year old man who was shot and killed by the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The sickening feeling in your stomach probably hit you hard as you watched the cell phone footage of a police officer charging and tackling Sterling to the ground. You knew what was coming next. And, within seconds you saw it: the police officer mounts Sterling like a UFC fighter. There is no confrontation. No struggle. Sterling is subdued and then another officer yells “Gun. Gun.” The officer on top of Sterling pulls his gun and within seconds fires multiple rounds killing Alton Sterling.
This morning my Facebook feed is full of yet another hashtag, #AltonSterling. So many of the Black and Brown people I’m connected to have no need to see the video. They say as much. They already know what happened, and, sadly, how this will play out. There is outrage; there is disgust; there will be calls for patience and to let the system work; what there won’t be is justice. And this is where I find myself this morning. Pondering my role in justice. What I’ve come to is overwhelming in its simplicity and crushing in it’s complexity. We are responsible for justice.
I don’t mean we in the vague and generalized sense that it is often used. I mean we, me and you, people with white skin. The reason this genocide against people of color continues is because far too many of us remain complicit in our silence. I thought about not writing this this morning. I thought about just retreating in my feelings of disgust, outrage, and grief. But that is not my job. Every time I, or anyone of you, retreats into silence we breath life into the killing machine. Every time we urge restraint or make apologies, or rationalize this brutality we are degrading our own spirit. And make no mistake this is a spiritual endeavor. Our souls are being crushed under the weight of whiteness. How much longer can we take it? How much longer can we acknowledge how broken our world is and ignore the weapon used to break it?
I also don’t mean justice as in jail time for the police. Though that would be something, I think. I mean justice as in creating a world that truly values the lives of Black, Brown, Asian, and Native people. I mean a justice that leaves no need for an Ethnic studies curriculum because truth-telling is already the curriculum. I mean a world where #BlackLivesMatter and Native Lives and Latinx Lives and Asian Lives. I mean a world where Donald Trump would be embarrassed to show his face, and my students wouldn’t chuckle at the idea of not having to struggle. I mean that kind of justice. We are responsible for ushering that world into existence.
The first step to creating this justice is to understand how it was sidelined in the first place. We must understand the way that whiteness — fitting into the Anglo-Saxon archetype –has been valued historically via formal avenues such as legislation and school curriculum as well as informal ones such as social customs,traditions and practices. Because much of this is passed down through generations, or happens away from public scrutiny, or is largely implicit it is necessary to learn and then unlearn this sordid history and way of being. Once we can come to grips with the ways whiteness keeps us from our own humanity and strangles our souls there is no other choice then to struggle for this justice. We won’t struggle because we are trying to help anyone else, or feel bad for them; we will struggle because our own freedom, our own humanity, is tied up with everyone else’s. As we continue to bear witness to whiteness destroying communities of color while cannibalistically devouring those of us with white skin this unlearning is the only choice we have if we ever hope for peace.
This last week a petition went around calling for the firing of Jesse Williams because his speech at the BET Awards was “racist.” When Shonda Rhimes heard about it she shut it down quickly, this is positional power, and it’s a real thing. Well, white folks have positional power in society. Once we have unlearned whiteness (and even before that) we need to be using this power not to simply name our privilege and then cower behind guilt, that is about as weak as weak gets; we need to use it to stand up and demand fundamental, radical, structural changes. To fail to do this is to betray humanity, it is to betray ourselves. There must be no compromise here. There is no compromise with the humanity of our brethren. This is especially true on days like today, days when whiteness has taken another life. Left another family fatherless. Left another community in mourning trying to survive loss. These are the days when our voices need to be the loudest, they must be clarion voices calling for the dismantling of whiteness.
The silence is deafening and it must be broken. Lives, ours included, depend on it.