On May 25, a black man named George Floyd was detained by police. They laid him on the ground on his stomach, and one of the officers put his knee on his neck for over eight minutes. Mr. Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe. The people around them pleaded for the officer to move. He did not. Mr. Floyd died. On the morning of May 26, I saw the news story shared on Twitter. I didn’t know the person who had shared it, the story it seemed too extreme to be real. I checked the publication, then Googled to see if other sources confirmed the story. They did.
The realization was like a jolt of electricity going through me. On top of the report about the killing of jogger, Ahmaud Abery, only a week before, on top of Eric Garner, who had also said he couldn’t breathe. On top all the others on the list that keeps getting longer. My eyes watered. My chest felt tight. Each of the other times I had felt… but this time felt different. After the fact now — in the wake of the outcry and the protests, I know this visceral reaction, the feeling of electricity — was shared. So often I feel witness to as opposed to part of, but in this case I was part of, without knowing, a pervasive a reaction that people felt, that would lead to protests across the country.
At this point, however, the world still seemed quiet. It was morning. No one else on my feed had mentioned the story. I hit “retweet,” knowing the news needed to be shared, but stopped short when it came to figuring out what I should say, what I could say — about this.
Any version of Beyond belief or This can’t be happening seemed specious when Black people in America live with the reality every day. Any version of horrible or awful, felt insufficient, like those of a distant speculator not that affected (which, it could be argued, I was). But to scream — to express the rage I was feeling — seemed performative, like the casual acquaintance who shows up at a funeral and cries on the shoulder of the widow. If I wanted to scream, how must Black people in America feel? Still, I knew it needed to be said, in some way, that I see this and this is wrong.
In the end, I posted whatever I posted, which in the scheme of things is unimportant as I have no Twitter engagement and soon enough social media exploded with many people who had more better things to say.
But, along with following the biggest issues at hand — those of police violence and systemic racism — I couldn’t help tracing, across the various platforms I follow — a hopping conversational thread where the voices in the world echoed the conversations inside my head. Calling out those who remain silent and are thus complicit, those who join in without understanding for cluttering the airwaves, those who hijack conversations and explain when explanations are not needed.
In general, I am probably guiltiest of the first, of silence — perhaps because I am scared of being tone-deaf, of making a mistake, of getting “yelled” at. This is not an unusual response for a white woman, and it certainly describes me. There is also the fact that when surrounded by many voices– regardless of topic and regardless of venue– I tend to “go quiet.” That feels like a sorry excuse in this case and I know it. I see the privilege and frivolity in taking this moment to claim that HSPism and introversion make it almost impossible for me to do otherwise. Am I saying I’m not white fragile I’m just fragile and hoping that makes it better?
And yet, there is part of me that resists eating this narrative whole. After struggling for much of my life to overcome the outward presentation of my interior qualities, I am learning to assert — at least to myself — that I believe those interior qualities have value. Going quiet means I am listening, that I am processing, and that eventually I will react. Granted, when it comes to injustice, there is such a thing as reacting too late… but the sad truth is that the world is so rampant with unfairnesses that a slow reaction for one event might be ready just in time for another.
Quick, reflexive soundbites are not my strong suit. But I hope my tendency to gather what to some seems an overabundance of information also can have value. My years of study are what I mine when I help other people tell their stories that are different from my own. I’ve seen my ability, in that context, to dive deep, to analyze and empathize, to provide a sounding board and suggest a framework, that I know that is a contribution too.
I am still going back and reading and watching the various articles and media posted over the last two weeks. And of course –no surprise — I’ve joined a book group that I’m very excited about — with a year-long reading list ranging from Souls of Black Folk, from the early 1900s, to White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-racist.
BLACK LIVES MATTER. This has never been a question for me. The questions, that I have asked before but now arise anew, lie in how that belief should impact how I move through the world and how I relate to others.