White people need to find empathy and educate themselves that humans all deserve equal treatment, and equal privileges. And the number one privilege Americans are not greedy to demand is safety in their homes and communities. Whether it is because of police violence or street violence overlooked by law enforcement, black children are dying and we should all demand better from our country.
Below the narrative, you'll find ideas for what we can do to make a difference and change our communities through conversations and actions.
In that moment, my first thoughts, all at once, are these. It’s not easy to feel the pain of this boy, 16 years young, experiencing the loss of a friend for the 7th time since middle school. It’s not easy to feel what I have never felt, but so ardently wish they didn’t have to, ever again. I can’t relate to this pain, but I do my best to help to heal it, with kindness and a listening ear. My empathy seems born for these experiences, in these moments.
It’s also not easy to be the comfort for them when these children tell me their stories so openly, from wounds so fresh. It’s not easy to be their rock, their support, when I want to cry and scream at the world. Instead I have to teach, and hide that worry. I worry least of all when they’re in school, and particularly my classroom. I call to mind images of driving through the city, passing sun-bleached teddy bears and deflated balloons tied to street corner light poles in memoriam. I see rag heaps that may or may not have a person inside of them, victims of strange fates, inexplicably tied to violence in this city. I picture the future of many of my students, and fear for them, worry for them.
Then I picture Malik’s mom. Mrs. Jones is a single mother, with two sons in high school. The feelings of worry I have are multiplied a hundredfold in her, no doubt. Her experiences of Baltimore are greater, growing up in the drug wars and deep gang violence of the 1980s and 1990s. She has achieved what many in the city would deem impossible simply by raising such good boys, and to such an advanced age, who are not involved in the violence. She has even been able to send them to a Baltimore County school, outside the realm of the violence of that city. And now, regardless of that intensely hard work, violence is still threatening her boys.
With this imagined image of her worry-stricken face, I turn to Malik from my frog-like stance, squatting next to his desk. I meet his eyes, and he stops twirling his pencil. “I’m so sorry, Malik. I can’t tell you how much I wish you didn’t have to feel the pain of losing so many friends. Your mom is not punishing you, she is terrified for you. She loves you and your brother more than anything on this earth, and you have to let her feel like you are as safe as you can be. Do it for her, and think of her when you feel angry and trapped inside, or at the malls. I’m so sorry, Malik.” He looks at me, and the vacant expression in his eyes is replaced with a cloud of pain. Just pain. He looks empty, and yet overflowing with emotion all at the same time. He is defeated, trapped, and angry, but he looks resigned behind it all. I give him a small smile. He returns it with his eyes and says, “Can I go to the bathroom?”
I know he means he needs a walk. “You can walk around in the halls as long as you need,” I respond heartily. “School is the right place to go walking,” I say as I quickly write him a pass for the period, so glad he could suggest some small way I could help him. As he walks out the door with his shoulders bowed, carrying the weight of a thousand sons who didn’t come home from the street, I do my best to clear these emotions for the time being and focus on the lesson I’ll teach, when the bell rings. Like a switch, I’m in teacher mode and at the board explaining the lesson. But in the back of my mind, I’m angry and tired all at once for Malik and all the boys I teach who have lost, and could be lost. I say a silent, mental prayer for this city’s violence to just stop.
Active Bystander - How We Can Heal
As white people, we need to use our privilege to protect those around us and stand up for injustice when we see it. We need to look out for each other, sign those petitions, and have open, honest conversations with our students, friends, family, and children about the necessity of equity in our country.
More than this, we need to have a policy (ideally upheld within our police forces) and in our actions that denies the opportunity for violence against people of color. Active bystanders are the future of change. Walking back from the bar and see a cop outside? Just keep your eyes peeled that the group of black women gets past them safe. Sitting on your balcony at home and see a lone black woman at the bus stop? Just keep an eye that no one messes with her. In any of these situations all you have to do as a white person is say "hey, what's new? Haven't seen you in forever!" And start a fresh conversation with a positive tone.
Calling out racist behavior for what it is may not always work, but being a positive light in a situation will make the racists look like fools and back down. Be an open ear for people of color: listen! Why do they feel that way? As human beings, we have no right at any time to tell someone else they aren't feeling what they are. Oppression is very, very alive in this country. There has only been 50 years of "equality" since the end of segregation, and 300 years of bondage through slavery before that. Racist attitudes will not die easily. We have a lot of work to do, but we CAN do it. White people, use your privilege to disrupt the systemic oppression -that is how we ultimately dismantle it.