Opinion

A white staff member’s reflections on our “Listen In/Speak Out” about Ferguson

Emily Perl

Contributor

Dear Goucher Community,

On Friday, September 5, a loose coalition of faculty, staff, and students, led by Assistant Professor of English, Turtle, and Assistant Professor of Peace Studies, Ailish Hopper, held a “Listen In/Speak Out” session on the events of Ferguson, Missouri and cultural bias. Over 100 Goucher community members attended.

     Listening to all that was said was hard work: the kind of listening where you truly take in the brutal facts, the pain, the daily experiences, and the various perspectives that were shared. At the end, I was drained. And happy. Happy that the Goucher community had come together so thoughtfully and respectfully. The realities of racism in our society, and on our campus, are multifaceted and complex. Our community began to explore some of those complexities and uncover some hard truths on that Friday afternoon. But there is still work to be done. We are nowhere near the finish line.

      At many points during our conversation, we talked about fear. To paraphrase Assistant Professor of Art, Laura Burns, “The events of Ferguson show us that white fear trumps black humanity. And that makes me sick.” Many African American members of our community shared the daily fear they experience around the possibility of a run-in with law enforcement. Black males, in particular, feel that their safety is compromised, rather than protected, by the presence of law enforcement officials. Several white community members responded to this fear by vowing not to pass white fear of black men onto their children.

     Here’s where my inner dialogue got really difficult. I consider myself to be a “good” white person – a person who actively looks for opportunities to work against racism. But I’m pretty sure I’ve already passed on a fear of black men to my child.

     I’m a single mother of a 12 year old (Asian) daughter. As the head of my household and as a feminist, I pride myself on my autonomy as a woman. My daughter and I live just inside the city line. I go to an increasingly multi-racial church, and have put my daughter in educational settings where she can experience diversity. This summer, she attended a four-week camp that was predominantly populated by African-American children. She was one of only two non-black students in her grade. I was so excited for her to have this experience, and she thrived in the program.

     Living in Baltimore, you will find that the neighborhoods are very segregated. My neighborhood is predominantly white. We can walk about six blocks, however, and be in a predominantly black neighborhood. We often walk to Belvedere Square, a retail and restaurant development just about a mile from our house. The shortest walking route takes us through a park that is often empty. This park is just far enough outside our own neighborhood, that when we do encounter folks there, they are strangers to us. On a couple of occasions this past summer, we walked by a group of young black men congregated around a bench in the park. As we approached the park, I told my daughter, “Walk with a sense of purpose and look straight ahead. Let’s put our cell phones in our pockets, out of sight. Walk quickly, and we’ll soon be there.” It gave me a knot in my stomach to say these things to my daughter; I knew the good and the bad connotations of what I was saying. But my need to keep both of us safe (while not giving up our right to walk, rather than drive, to Belvedere Square) was more important to me in that moment.

     As we left the park, my daughter said, “You said all those things because they were black, right, Mom?” I didn’t lie. I said yes. She responded: “Well, that’s racist.” I clumsily acknowledged that may be so, while asking her to consider that certain behaviors might keep us safer when we come upon a situation like this.

     Would I have said the same thing if it was a group of white men gathered?  Maybe. Clearly, an element of this is our safety as women, and it is likely my “safety radar” might have gone off if a group of young white men had been there too. Like most people, I do make judgment calls every day based on how people are dressed, their age, their behaviors, and the mere fact that we feel outnumbered by their presence. But there is something in me, in the ways I’ve been socialized and the news I see every day, that does make me more fearful of a group of black men. And clearly, my daughter’s socialization has been a bit different than mine.

     So, yes, I’m teaching my daughter to challenge racism and to adopt racist practices, all at the same time (despite her resistance). And, yes, it makes me sick, and it makes me confused about the right way to parent. Did I share this story during our community “Listen In/Speak Out” on Friday, September 5?  No. I couldn’t come up with the right words. I wasn’t sure how others would react. I was afraid.

     

     Here’s where the work we still need to do as a community comes in. At a recent follow-up meeting, Ailish Hopper said:  “We don’t need safe spaces. We need brave spaces.”  I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who was thinking of stories, but wasn’t brave enough to share them. How can we create more brave spaces, where people like me can share my story?  Most especially, where white people can share their own struggles toward adopting an anti-racist life, without asking black people to sit through their confessions. In a recent article by Janee Woods from The Root, she lists “12 Ways to be a White Ally to Black People.” Point #8: “Find support from fellow white allies. Challenge and encourage one another to dig deeper, even when it hurts and especially when you feel confused, angry and hopeless, so that you can be more authentic in your shared journey with people of color to protect principles of anti-racism and equity.” I challenge the white students on this campus, as well as the white faculty and staff, to come together in separate spaces to have these conversations. Of course, our students, faculty, and staff of color need their own spaces for support and discussion. And interracial/cross-cultural dialogue is important too; we all need to learn from each other.

     But when are the whites on this campus going to get brave enough to form our own spaces for sharing and stretching ourselves on the topic of race? Why isn’t there a “white students against racism” club (which like Umoja, HOLA, and LOTUS, would need to be open to everyone)?  And when do white faculty and staff who believe in racial equity get together for support and learning?  Care to join me?  Let’s be brave together.

Emily Perl

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