I’ve never given much thought to having a black roommate. Not until a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri didn’t indict Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. Not until my half white and British, half black and Ugandan roommate came back to our shared space shaking with shock and fury. As a student at a prestigious institution, I’m fed the message of diversity that our citadel proudly spreads across its promotional brochures. Living in a dorm with a perfectly selected, racially diverse group of intellectuals makes it easy to complacently believe in the myth of post-racial America.
But here I was, seeing her across an abyss of race that I couldn’t cross. When I looked over her shoulder at the Ferguson news and tentatively attempted a comment, she turned to me and said, “You can walk outside these gates right now and not worry about being shot by the NYPD. Not me. They don’t serve and protect me”. While the tension between the New York Police Department and minority communities has never been a secret, I had never seen it as a difference between her and me; it was always between the intangible concepts of “blacks” and “whites.” But she was right; the difference was personal, and it ran much further than skin deep.
Put simply, I am white and I enjoy the privileges that come with that status in America. While I’m not going to discuss white privilege, race does matter in this discussion in light of Ferguson. She, while in reality biracial, is considered black and therefore afforded none of those privileges. What could I, so far removed from her experience and the experience of so many others, have to say about Ferguson? How dare I try to talk? I can’t empathize with being discriminated against on a daily basis, far from it. While we both disagreed with the Ferguson verdict, felt anger over how police handle race, felt the larger conflicts of race within our society, and wanted things to change, that divide hung in the air between us. By all accounts, we should have been able to stand together in solidarity. Instead, the divide of race was amplified by our silence as we watched Ferguson burn.
In fear of being seen as a “white savior who doesn’t understand the black experience, » it’s often easier for whites to ignore the reality of race conflict in America than clumsily attempt to address it. Perhaps the worst thing a white person in the liberal melting pot of New York City can be called is racist. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to believe in the idealized view that race no longer matters, or more accurately, that it no longer matters to white people. Fear of sounding ignorant kept me silent. “Do I have any right to post something too?” – a worried white friend texted me as her multiracial friends posted long Facebook statuses condemning the Ferguson verdict. Does she?
I didn’t know what to tell her. Even writing this piece, I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say. Put in the context of a society still engrained in the aftermath of slavery, I don’t condemn the rage of the Ferguson protesters. I’m just not sure if I’m allowed to be angry either. If those in power see Ferguson as a “black iss ue, »as evidenced by the crowds of predominantly black protesters flooding the streets of cities across the country, they shut off. The largest hurdle the activists drawing attention to Ferguson must overcome is human apathy. Since the default emotion of those in power is indifference towards the plights of minorities, the movement inadvertently alienates its greatest allies by shutting the group of privilege and power out of the conversation.
Excuse me for co-opting the term ”ally” from the LGBT+ rights movement, but its effectiveness has a subversive quality. Being an ally allowed the non-LGBT+ population to support without patronizing, to express solidarity without discrediting the disenfranchisement of the population they aligned themselves with. It allowed the outside in, and the movement strengthened for it. The black community can do the same by strengthening its voice with support from their non-black allies. While blatant racists still do exist in the world, a large group of whites ignorantly live their lives in their privilege while admonishing that they are not racist. These people are the pool of potential allies. They want to help; they’re just not sure how.
On the night of the Ferguson verdict, I didn’t know how to help. Instead, I sat in my ivory tower as the sounds of sirens and helicopters and protesting voices filled the streets. I was angry. I wanted to walk with them. “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” These words Martin Luther King Jr. said forty-seven years ago were echoing only blocks away from me, and they felt like a poignant dig at my inaction. Was my silence betrayal of my roommate, my friends, even my humanity? Maybe. But without a way to share my voice, silence still seems like the only option.