Since coming back from Mozambique a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been asked over and over, “How was it?” It’s a question I’ve never known how to answer because you simply can’t parse complex experiences, people and their stories into a quick sentence. I landed on a mantra of “it was amazing and complicated and depressing and inspiring and frustrating and beautiful and enraging and full of hope and optimism — all the things, all the feelings.”
I witnessed, as I have so many times in my life, the stark constrasts between wealth and poverty, between knowledge and ignorance, between opportunity and obstacles. I kept coming back to a single question — when are the mothers of Mozambique going to get angry? Behind that question is my firm belief that when people have information and knowledge about how things could be, about what their rights really are and how far their leaders are from keeping the promises of those values and rights, righteous anger and democratic process can change societies.
I’ve been mulling on that belief as I consume so many traumatic stories from around the world. I am an optimistic person. I rarely experience depression. I am resolute in my conviction that despite evil and hardship, the world is a truly wonderful, hopeful place. It is filled with good people, mostly trying to do the right thing.
And yet these past few months have been crushing.
One thread running through some of the world’s toughest stories is racism. There is no such thing as color blindness when it comes to skin. We can pretend all we like that we don’t see difference, but society doesn’t play by the same rules. With recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, I am intent on listening, learning and paying attention to the stories of black America.
I’m learning from brilliant writers, many of whom I get to call friends. But there’s one lesson I didn’t need them to teach me because I’ve known it for such a long time. When someone tells you they are hurting, you believe them. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand why. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think they should hurt. It doesn’t matter if you completely disagree with how they express that hurt. It is a basic human desire to be seen and heard. And believed.
When I was giving birth to my third child, I kept telling the medical staff that I felt the need to push. In their minds, the last time they’d checked me I was only dilated 4 cms and it was too soon. Finally I got in the attending doctor’s sight line (because he would not look at me), and inches away from his face I begged, “Why won’t you believe me?” He immediately packed up his things and left the room. I knew exactly what was happening inside my body. I just needed someone to hear me so I could get the right support to deliver my baby as safely as possible. I ended up giving birth to that child alone. When help finally did arrive, it was awkward and honestly a bit useless. When my baby emerged, I roared, scooping him up and demanding “give me my child!” because all trust was gone. I hadn’t been heard.
When friends of color tell us racism is real and they experience it on a constant basis, we have to believe them. When black co-workers share they are frightened for their children, especially their sons, we must hear them. I don’t for one minute agree with or condone the raging and looting in Ferguson. But when you’re pushed and pushed and pushed again, and no one will believe you, it explodes. Many communities have experienced moments where frenzied youth decide to smash windows and burn cars – often over matters like a sports team win or loss, or pumpkins. I have no words for the vitriol and hatred I’ve seen in my social media channels against black youth doing those same things because they are sick and tired of not being believed. They are sick and tired of not being heard.
We must challenge our filters. We must examine our biases. Do we have friends with skin colors of hues not the same as our own? Do we have friends of different political and social persuasions? Do we have friends with varied religious backgrounds? Do we take in information from news sources we don’t agree with? We can and must do better at seeing, listening and hearing each other. We must not only start seeing color, but we must call it out when we don’t.
Please don’t respond to this essay with “but what about black on black violence?” unless you’re truly ready to grapple with why it exists in the first place. Do you really think black communities in this country aren’t heart-sick and weary of dysfuntion and senseless violence in certain neighborhoods? Do you really think mothers of color aren’t grieving when their children are shot by other members of their community ? Do you really think those communities aren’t doing everything they can to try to solve these crises? The issues are interconnected, deeply rooted in history, and until there is more listening and hearing and believing, we cannot ever be the truly equal and free society America claims to be. Don’t post quotes from Martin Luther King calling for peace and love, unless you’re also willing to acknowledge he died a violent death for daring to believe black men and women were equal to white men and women.
As I answer those asking how my recent trip to the third poorest country in the world was — a country decimated by the racism of colonial past and a civil war egged on by external players interested only in preserving white supremcy — I echo those same sentiments for the state of race relations in my beloved America. I am angry, I am hopeful, I am frustrated, I am encouraged, I am heart-sick, I am learning, and I am ultimately optimistic that as we start hearing and believing each other, we can change our society. We can change all the things. All the feelings.
Kelly Wickham, 13 Essays on Race, especially Explaining White Privilege
Kristen Howerton, Why the lack of indictment for Mike Brown’s shooting is a devastating blow.
Heather Barmore, Why Don’t My White Friends Talk About Race? Here’s What They Told Me
Rebecca Woolf, Protest is Exactly What We Need
Amy Mascott, Something has to change, and it must start here – with you and with me.
Jennifer Borget, Police and Black Men Are at War, and the Two Men I Love Are on the Battlefield
Gina Crosley-Corcoran, Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person
K J Dell’Antonia, Talking About Racism With White Kids
Jamie Utt, 8 Things White People Need to Know About Race
Denene Millner, 12 Year Old Shot By Police. No Safe Place For Black Children.
Important links via Gabrielle Blair, on getting a job, being 21 more times likely to be shot by police, or shopping while black.
4:15pm 11-28-14 Edited for minor punctuation and grammatical corrections.
5:55pm 11-28-14 Edited for additional recommended reading.
I am a communicator, an agitator and a mother. Subscribe via email. Or follow on Twitter or Facebook. What will you do today to wake up the world? Share your thoughts, your action and your heart here.