|By Jamelle Bouie [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons|
But the riots were happening and because of my job teaching high school English at an inner city private school, I was about to enter a world I did not understand. My students were mostly black, a handful lived in Ferguson, and many were siding with the Brown family against the police.
I remember sitting silently in many teacher meetings as we hashed through race issues, safety policies, concerns for our students living around Ferguson, and concern for parents who were police officers.
|By Loavesofbread (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons|
Then Myers, a black 18-year-old was shot and killed by an officer a few blocks from my school. Anger erupted and this time it was my school’s neighborhood that was overrun by volatile protesters.
I realized very quickly how little I understood the situation. I was a white girl from nowhere Idaho whose school hadn’t allowed Martin Luther King Jr. Day to even be celebrated. (Why? Because he was black? Because of the communist rumors? Because he wasn’t our stripe of Baptist? I still don’t know.) But what I did know was how thoroughly uneducated I was. I knew only cursory details about black history. I felt so terribly white. I felt white because of my willful ignorance of black history. White because of my relative affluence. White because of my position of authority in my classroom in direct contrast to my lack of knowledge and experience. I realized that passively I was part of the reason that Ferguson erupted. The protesters were protesting something—someone—they were protesting me.
I thought for a long time about the Michael Brown case. Were the protesters right to protest? This question seems to be missing the point: it’s not their response that matters, but rather my response. So here are the basics that I pulled away from my first year in St. Louis.
(1) My viewpoint is not the only plausible view. Truth is not relative; however, truth is intertwined into stories of history that are told by raconteurs each with his own bias. I take those stories and interpret them by my own limited experiences, discarding what I believe to be superfluous or unbelievable. So when I am told that black communities have become ghettos that raise boys to become gangsters, this all may fit within the history I have been told and my own bias, but that doesn’t mean that that viewpoint is the only viewpoint. Nor can I assume it to be the correct one. My version of history is simply that, my version.
(2) Therefore, I must listen. The protesters may be telling a version of history that I don’t like and that I don’t agree with, but I must still listen. Listening is a basic human dignity. To give weight and time to people who come from a different stratus of society is to give acknowledgment to their worth as human beings.
(3) There is more than one black response. This seems so obvious on one hand because of course black people do not all see the world through one perspective. They have individual experiences and biases which lead them to respond to events in different ways. Just like ALL people do. However, it’s easier to get angry at the riots and the damage they did to property and conclude that that’s just how black people respond. No. It’s how some responded. Other black community leaders vocally decried the violence and argued for peaceful protests, one of which I was a part of. What happened in Ferguson is a difficult and complex issue, and therefore I can’t settle for simplistic or idealistic conclusions.
(4) Finally, there is no shame in being born white. In my classroom every day of this past year, I was reminded how very little I knew about anything “non-white.” From Maya Angelou, to Beyonce, to Mayweather, I had one steep learning curve. But still what I had experienced that set me apart from my students, also made me as human as them. Their world is often as one-sided as mine was growing up. It’s mutual respect, not conformity that opens up community to healing.
I don’t understand what happened in Ferguson. But I feel a sense of urgency that the church—especially the dominant white church—take a second look at what happened in St. Louis, and what is happening across the nation. How can we respond as people of faith that believe there is one God over all people and all time?