• The Elephant in America’s Living Room

    By Dirrick Williams

    Recently, during a conversation regarding the events of Ferguson, Missouri, a white friend asked, “Why do YOU GUYS always do that?”

    A hurtful question.  To me a stupid question. I have come to realize questions such as these cannot be answered but must be addressed and overcome. This question is in line with questions like, how does it feel to be black? What do “you guys” like to be called? How come black people can’t swim? Can “you guys” get a tan?

    I was stuck on what he meant by “you guys.” I wondered if he truly indentified with this sense of separation and implied superiority. And I was offended by his use of the word “always.” “Always” means in the past, in the present, and in the future. “Always” is an extremely powerful word; and in this case it is filled with judgment and condemnation.

    I wanted to reply belligerently, “Yeah, you’re right WE always do that,” “WE” always behave “that” way. Instead, I politely re-directed our conversation. I am sure he was completely unaware or too insensitive to consider the full impact of his question.

    With this in mind, I did what he could have easily done to answer his own question (if he actually cared enough to do so). I googled ‘race riots in America,’ and damned if he wasn’t right.  As far back as 1866 (I could have gone back further but I didn’t have the time) African Americans have displayed what has been deemed repulsive and criminal response against what were/are the norms of social behavior and government-sanctioned policies.  As far back as 1866 and it seems not much has changed.

    A few days later, I sought out my friend and re-opened our conversation. I asked him, “Why do YOU GUYS always do that?”

    “Do WHAT?” he asked.

    “Why do YOU GUYS always ask why WE always respond the way WE do, rather than ask WHAT it is WE are responding to?” He stood there and said nothing.

    I continued. After the Memphis riots of 1866, a time when lynching African Americans was a legal and common practice, through the Reconstruction period, during Jim Crow, throughout the Civil Rights era, in the midst of the LA riots of the 60’s, after the beating of Rodney King, the death of Trayvon Martin, the death of Michael Brown, and now after the death of Eric Garner, Why do YOU GUYS always do that?”

    “Do WHAT?  Enforce the law?” He asked forcefully.

    “No.” I said.  And then I repeated the question; “Why do YOU GUYS always ask why WE always respond the way WE do, rather than ask WHAT it is we are responding to?”

    I could see the wheels turning in his head.  His brow wrinkled up like a Shar Pei puppy, eyes staring at the floor, his mouth shut in silence . . . just standing there.

    I said, “If we agree that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, then the elephant in the room is not what WE always do but rather WHAT WE are responding too.

    He replied, “Oh there you go, gonna play the race card!”

    I was dumbfounded, confused, and angered by his response. I was dumbfounded because of a growing feeling inside me that wanted to slap him upside the head, after all, all I did was ask him the same question he asked me a few days ago.  I was confused because of the emerging realization that I needed to further explain the reason for asking, and I was angry by his defensive attempt to dismiss my concerns and reasonable dialogue.  But I have come to realize this is what happens when “they” are pinned between the rock of accountability and the hard place of privilege and entitlement.

    My choices are to knock some sense into his head or thrust more black history data points into his imagination, both of which would only cause him to clam up or walk away. Instead, I risked asking this simple but very direct question, “When will YOU GUYS stop killing black people?”

    With some angst and even more anger, he looked me in the eyes and said in a loud voice, “Dude, I haven’t killed anyone!”

    To which I calmly replied, “Dude, I have not rioted.”

    Check.  Willful ignorance and stupid question addressed. Checkmate if I turn and walk away. But this is a friend (?) whose vulnerability presented us with opportunity, so I made a move. I took the chance that he might listen if I revealed a little of my own black history.

    I began with the story of my grandfather whose land was taken from him.  How my mother and her siblings posted shotguns at their doors and windows.  As children, to save their own lives they were told, “If the riders come, shoot to kill.”  I told him of my father, a right-handed black man found with a white sheriff’s bullet hole in the left side of his head, his death listed as suicide.  I told him about my Uncle Andrew, a black man given a position of authority in a Louisiana shipyard but was eventually murdered by white subordinate workers.

    I told him about my mother’s family who fled the heat and hatred of Mississippi for a better life in California.  I spoke of the insults I endured in the late 70’s for being black while wearing a United States military uniform.  I told him about the jobs I suspected were not given to me based on the color of my skin.  I vented about OUR prison system… a SYSTEM where 75 percent of the people imprisoned are people who look like me, because they broke laws specifically written against people who look like me.  And I asked about the practice of not selling homes to, and  the denial of standard education for people who look like me.

    On and on I could have gone, but I stopped because his burden seemed too heavy to bear.

    That’s when he lifted his head and looked at me, part amazement part disbelief. For a brief moment, I think he actually began to understand . . . something.

    He said, “Dude, I’m sorry.”

    I said, “Thank you for the apology but there is no need.  In many ways, you had nothing to do with this.  However, there is one thing you can do that would make me feel better.”

    “What is that?”

    “Stop asking stupid questions.”

    I could see he understood what I meant. I was certain in this moment he felt the pain, denial, and judgment of racism that I and many others like me feel every day. I think he understood that for people who look like him it might be time to start asking better, different questions… better questions about the hard-earned histories and daily lives of those who do not look like him.

    Dirrick Williams was born and raised in Pacific Grove and graduated from Pacific Grove High School. He served in the Air Force. For many years he wrote a motivational column for Cedar Street Times, and is currently on a haitus to write another book. His first book, Principle Living, is available at http://www.xulonpress.com/bookstore/bookdetail.php?PB_ISBN=9781609578121. It is about Christian spirituality.

     

    posted to Cedar Street Times on December 16, 2014

    Topics: Dirrick Williams, Front PG News, Opinion

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