I can tell two stories about the first 26 months I spent in St. Louis, the time period I now think of as “before Ferguson.”
The first is that I loved St. Louis, with its countless amenities, all easily accessible and well utilized. The cost of living is great. The people are friendly, forgiving of things like the chaos of too many small children. So I dove in. I said yes to everything. I organized, hosted. Like magic, a reliable and loving community seemed to form around me.
Granted, these friends were different than the ones I’d had in Philadelphia and New York, more religious, more conservative. I learned to filter my comments because I could no longer assume that most would agree with just anything I said. For many of my new friends, being gay was a sin (love the person, hate the sin). So was all abortion. So was premarital sex. Obama was a hot topic. Obamacare was an even hotter topic. I started thinking about things I’d never considered before, like what is the polite way to inquire about the presence and security of guns in other peoples’ homes before arranging play dates?
But that was a good thing, right? Wasn’t I growing as a person by embracing these differences? I read Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion” to help me understand the “very nice” people whose views were so different from mine. I deepened my appreciation for religious perspectives, for the pro-life point of view. I got off my east coast high horse and realized just how great life can be when you don’t spend half of it in traffic.
The second story is that it’s hard to live in a place where the predominant values are incongruous with your own, and in St. Louis, the cultural warning signs are anything but subtle.
My unease, five days after moving, when I registered as a democrat at the DMV on a screen easily seen by the person working at the counter, a self-consciousness I was not yet used to.
My surprise when my new neighbor, hosting us for dinner, asked me if I was “really cocksure that there was no god” after I said I didn’t attend church.
My disgust when the second contractor I encountered from the suburban town of St. Charles reported that his family “used to live in Webster,” itself a suburb, “but moved further out because all the niggers were changing the neighborhood.” (Not that it should matter, but Webster is 93% white.)
My fury when my 12-year-old neighbor shot me in the ass with a BB gun as I was hauling UPS packages from my front porch, just before Christmas, 7 months pregnant with three- and two-year-old kids next to me.
My fear when I later found BB pellet holes in the outer windows of my kids’ bedrooms.
My pangs of claustrophobia when I noticed during a preschool “open house” that three-quarters of the moms in the room were wearing the same brand of shoes, playing another round of the “same game” whereby we all squeeze ourselves into such a narrow standard (of beauty, normalness, success, habit, preference, belief) that we begin to blur together, otherness handicapping while conformity propels.
My despair when the genetic tests for my pregnancy came back with concerning results, and as I cried every day for a week awaiting amniocentesis results, I told only one of my many “close” friends, sure no one would understand if I chose to terminate my pregnancy, and many wouldn’t forgive.
It was all of these things among others that, for 26 months, taught me to bite my tongue. Then Michael Brown’s body lay dead in the street.
When I heard the news, I felt sick. I couldn’t shake it, the thought of him there, out of the reach of his mother. For hours. The thought of a loud confrontation, shots, skin and heft hitting the pavement and then just nothing. No ambulance, no attempts at revival, no movement, just caution tape. I remember standing on my porch, teary, watching my own kids play, trying to imagine my two-and-a-half year-old son as a teenager being gunned down on my street. It was unimaginable to me because it would never happen to him.
All around me, I overheard the racist hum. “He was no angel.” “I’m sorry, but when you’re that big you are a threat.” “Why can’t they wait to hear what the report says so they know if there is actually something to protest?” “Why are they destroying their own neighborhood?” “Why are they coming all the way over here to protest?” Sympathy was reserved for the small business owners, the policemen, and especially for Darren Wilson.
Such sentiments bothered me, but more upsetting was the silence. My family never asked about Ferguson. Locals largely didn’t mention it, except perhaps to say, “Can you believe all this?” The topic was banned on my town’s informal, locally-moderated Facebook community page, while in my online world (well populated by my East Coast friends and colleagues), Ferguson was all I heard about. I started feeling stifled, claustrophobic, and scared. I started thinking a lot about times in the past when I had felt the same way.
Growing up, I’d spent two years at a southern boarding school, dominated by good ol’ boys and southern belles, with a handful of local black scholarship kids, international students, and northerners thrown in. Confederate flags were popular dorm room decorations. I had classmates who chose colleges based on marriage prospects, others who would over-salt and pepper their food so they wouldn’t eat too much. I learned the phrase “war of northern aggression”. I learned of the phrase “niglet” to refer to young black children, who were “just so cute!”
I spent a few months calibrating my prospects at this school and I (unfortunately) decided that if I wanted to have any friends at all I’d have to make some compromises. I turned a blind eye. I chose popularity over principle. I let my peers unwavering confidence and borrowed entitlement unseat my concerns about what felt right. To be sure I didn’t have it figured out. I suffered from my own entitlement and “benevolent” racism, and instead of listening to my doubt, I shooed it into hibernation for fear of being ostracized.
During these years I was told that if a white girl dates a black guy then she’s tarnished forever and no other white guy will ever date her again. I was also asked more than once if I myself had “jungle fever” because I attended the same college with one of the popular black basketball players and we drove down to a homecoming together. This was other people’s way of saying: “we are watching you.”
I was surprised when these memories returned after Michael Brown’s death. Had I really traveled so far only to end up back in the same place? Had I learned nothing?
When an organizational board I belong to suggested that we organize outreach to support the police officers who were having to work really long shifts, I suggested that unless we were also going to support the protestors it was inappropriate for us to deliver goodies to the police. I was the only person who voiced this opinion. The meeting became tense, and several “acquaintance-ships” haven’t been the same since.
One night, I sat down and began to write. I wrote about the person I wanted to be and the person who was all tangled up with silence. I felt better. Without letting myself think too much about it, I shared what I’d written on Facebook. I went to bed feeling alive and terrified, a fear equally invigorating - I was willing to publicly out myself, stand up for my beliefs, and take whatever blowback came my way - and humiliating - the bravest thing I had mustered was to write a blog post and share a link.
The feedback was not what I expected; many reached out to say, “well done!” I struck up exchanges with unexpected people. Friends began sending articles and books and podcasts they had not yet talked to anyone about. I was giddy with these connections, and eager to do more. A month after I started my blog, walking through a local park with my kids, I saw a Black Lives Matters sign. Why I didn’t have one in my yard? Actually, why didn’t anyone in my neighborhood have one? If I put one up, would others be more willing to do the same? My mind leapt forward and I decided I’d get a bunch of signs and put them all in my yard, an offering to the neighborhood.
That first night the signs were out, I thought about moving my kids out of their bedrooms and to the back of the house (after all, there are still BB gun bullet holes in their windows). I didn’t do it, but the fact that it crossed my mind is evidence of the reality of my fear.
What would people think? Did I have the right to bring politics into our neighborhood? Was I picking a fight? Would I spoil the congenial feeling of our block? Would they ostracize us? Would they help us in an emergency? What would our landscaper, mail carrier and babysitters think? What would our local police think? Would they still help us if we had an emergency? Could they refuse to help us? Could they give us a hard time? What if someone stole or vandalized our signs? What if they vandalized our house? What if they did something that hurt us?
My husband was scared for us. My mentor of 15 years was scared for us. My mom suggested we make our own signs and draw pictures to make them “more friendly.” (I did end up having the kids make a mural as well.) This, in our “nice” neighborhood, chosen because it is so “safe”.
My fear startled me. I hadn’t been explicitly taught to fear white people. I had been taught that we weren’t the dangerous ones. We didn’t live in communities of crime. We had a low incarceration rate. Recently I’ve read many articles that claim white hesitation is about an aversion to making (other white) people feel uncomfortable. This is a partial truth, a polite truth. The ugly truth is far more horrifying: white cowardess is mostly about fear of predictable, irrational, defensive, devolved, merciless, and brutal racism itself. We whites know how deep-seated and pervasive racism really is. We’ve bathed in it all our lives. We know how quickly and reliably the presence of black folks changes the conversation. We know how well hidden bigotry can be. We know how staunchly the color line is held. We know how common the casual racist joke is. We know the stereotypes inside and out, and we know how to exploit them. We are the ones that extend the benefit of the doubt in only one direction. We lock our doors in the city and change sides of the street and cut in line and fail to extend a welcoming attitude and question “agendas”. We understand racist micro-aggressions, because we are the perpetrators. Baseless hatred is a very scary thing. And it’s fear of that – racism - that helps to keep us, inert, in our place.
Recently, two former members of the military, each of whom has served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me I was brave for writing my blog. That’s how scary racism is. They’ve risked their lives for their country again and again, but somehow I’m brave.
Now, a year later, we are still in the midst of horrifying racist violence. I spend my days teetering between my glass half-empty and glass half-full perspectives. I wonder if we even have a chance. What’s the half-life of a 500-year history that is seethingly racist? Will it take 250 years for us to repair our wounds and atone for our sins? Have we started yet? On the other hand, I see more and more white people talking about race and racism. More and more of us slowly rousing to a reality that we’ve blinded and exempted ourselves from. And with eyes wider open, many are asking “now what?”, sometimes with exuberance and sometimes with despair. On my most hopeful days I think: the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one, right?
But it’s hard to feel satisfied with the small steps, especially as the news continues to runneth over with one atrocity after another. Yet it’s some of my smallest steps that have also seemed the most meaningful. In my white house we now talk about race and racism frequently and much more comfortably. My preschool-aged children know about Sandra Bland and the AME church in Charleston. I have integrated our bookshelves and media. We have chosen new activities that put us in touch with a more diverse community and allow us to more accurately live our values. My children and I have participated as activists several times. They are proud of their Black Lives Matter signs. My greatest recognition of my own progress came the other day when I started our conversation with my children about Sandra Bland with these words: “Remember when….” Police brutality for black people wasn’t a new topic. Racial injustice needed no preamble. I am choosing to raise children who are not blinded to racism, who possess a more accurate version of history (even if I need to counter their future U.S. history textbooks line by line), who know that silence isn’t their only option, and who aren’t fooled into thinking that likability is worth the price of humanity.
Adelaide Lancaster is an entrepreneur and author of The Big Enough Company. In the wake of Brown’s killing, she began blogging about race and equity at Parenting While White.