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Bursting the white bubble; raising the white shield

Locations: Opinion Published

About a week ago, a local lady, Marlene, asked online: “If I may, I have a question for anyone with a workable answer? Those Black people who have attained some degree of education, wealth, influence… Why don’t they organize, reach out to their fellow man…?”

My friend Ron Kokish was gobsmacked. Echoing my initial reaction, he posted: “Your question is filled with unsupported assumptions too numerous to go into!” 

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The fact that Marlene doesn’t know about decades of black organizing speaks to a key issue: It’s possible for whites to grow up in a bubble. Kids of color — especially black boys like Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin — can’t afford that luxury. To ensure survival, black moms overtly teach their kids to read white body language and how to act if stopped by the police. 

Whites, by contrast, can arrive at adulthood wholly clueless. They “don’t see color” because they’ve learned a whitewashed version of American history: They have no idea they’re living on stolen American-Indian land. They haven’t seen people of color because their neighborhoods, unbeknownst to them, were redlined years before their birth. 

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White folks often know little more about black history than the oft-repeated myth about Rosa Parks: that she was an apolitical seamstress who, out of sheer exhaustion, refused to give her bus seat up to a white man. In fact, Parks’ grandfather, Sylvester Edwards — a man who sat up nights holding a shotgun in case the KKK came by — taught her about black heroes like Crispus Attucks and Harriet Tubman. Prior to her arrest, Parks trained in civil disobedience. She was also secretary of the Montgomery National Association for Colored People (NAACP) — and had been for 15 years! In posthumous papers, Parks wrote that it took a “major mental acrobatic feat” to survive as a black person in the United States.

My earliest awareness of race offers quite a contrast. While visiting from Chicago, my grandmother took me to Denver’s Museum of Science and Nature. I was hanging on a banister when she hissed, “Get your hands off that! [Racial epithet] have touched those!” Huh? Growing up in Aurora, then a treeless suburb freshly carved from ranchland (originally Ute land) I’d never seen a black person. I gathered that if I met one, I might catch some disease.

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Despite having a fairly progressive mom, despite hearing almost nothing about race at home, I was nonetheless exposed to the virus of racism. By middle school, I knew to avoid Denver’s Five Points. I had learned to fear “racial violence” from black males. (In hindsight, that’s statistically poor advice. Over my 60-some years, I have suffered violence from eight white males, but only one black one.)

Given my experience, I decided to view Marlene’s post as a “teachable moment.” I posted back links about mainstream black civil rights organizations: the NAACP, the Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, SCLC, CORE, SNCC…

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I didn’t mention the Black Panthers, or my arm’s-length brush with them. In 1971, at CU extension in Denver, a black classmate brandishing a gun pulled me into a one-walled, open stairwell. As others gathered to watch from the gallery below, Bobby gripped my wrist and babbled semi-coherently: The cops were hunting him. They’d confused him with an Oakland Black Panther wanted for murder. I gradually realized that Bobby was far more frightened than I, and using me more as a shield than a hostage. (When campus cops showed up, Bobby bolted, leaving me unharmed.)

Later, while chairing the National Organization for Women (NOW) in San Francisco, I met and marched with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dolores Huerta. I began to glimpse the fear that people of color experience. I began to wonder why we whites are so cruel, so selfish, so dangerous. (I still do.) Slowly, it dawned on me that asking black people to fix racism is like asking the downstairs renter to fix the plumbing when a pipe breaks in the landlord’s upstairs apartment.

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Last week, I saw a photo of white women in Louisville lining up to shield black protesters from police. NOW was protesting police brutality in the killing of Breona Taylor; white sisters were putting their bodies on the line. What’s more, at recent Black Lives Matters protests, organizers have started calling out “white shield,” asking white allies to move to the front, knowing that they will suffer less at the hands of the cops.

Frankly, I think that’s what’s going to have to happen if we’re going to really confront racism in the US. White adults are going to have to risk physical and emotional hurt while confronting white power. Just as little black boys have done for decades.

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