I Was Complacent in My Whiteness, Until I Couldn’t Breathe
The crowd was dispersing and fleeing. We were trapped. We were all cramming together, trying to get to the gate that was holding us in place. Tear gas was everywhere. I kept hearing bangs behind me, knowing that more was being deployed. People were scrambling. I could feel my eyes and face burning. I tried rinsing off the chemicals the best I could and rinsing those around me with the spray bottle I had. Amazing humans were putting themselves at risk by helping to hoist people up and over this 10 foot fence that stood in our way. And that’s when my chest started to tighten. I was 4–5 people back. I heard more bangs behind me. More tear gas. Less air. Certain I was dying, I made eye contact with a man and cried out desperately:
“I can’t breathe…”
Unwittingly, the words of Eric Garner and George Floyd had echoed out of my mouth. For a moment, I was connected to these men in their final moments.
The overwhelmingly crucial difference is, of course, that I’m still here. That I’m able to write these words.
That I was eventually able to escape and to continue to breathe.
Protesting in Philadelphia
Yesterday, I participated in a peaceful protest in the streets of Philadelphia. A protest that was organized to give voice to the voiceless. To demand change. To cry out and grieve the state-sanctioned violence against PoC (especially black people). To stand up and disrupt the status quo.
We marched. We chanted. We said their names:
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Trayvon Martin. Philando Castile…
At the beginning of the march, speakers urged participants to remain calm throughout. To not incite violence or condone it. And it stuck. I have seen no talk (other than from officials covering their asses) of violence. I saw no one throwing rocks (which is what officials are now claiming… even though there are no rocks to be found at that area).
We made our way down onto an expressway. Traffic had stopped for us. People in their cars were applauding us. We were still peaceful. We were still chanting.
I was under an overpass when the tone shifted faster than I could understand. It went from singing, chanting, and celebration to fear and panic. People started sprinting in the opposite direction. At first it was unclear what was going on. There were no communications to us to disband or move along. No calm police officer letting us know what was about to happen. So we regrouped. And we knelt down. We were not inciting violence. We were actively displaying our nonviolence.
It’s unclear what happened first, but about the same time, tear gas started to be fired at us from all directions. Literally. There was even a helicopter dumping it on us from above. We were trapped. We were trying our best to disperse. To run away. But they kept firing. We were helpless. There was no need to continue to exert force. We were not a threat.
My wake-up call
It’s a humbling experience to understand that yesterday was only the first time in my life where I felt like my life was threatened by police officers. The first time I honestly didn’t believe they were there to protect me.
Because that’s what my experience of living as a white person has been in this country. That police officers ultimately want to help. They might be hardasses, but they are ultimately there for me. That they put their lives on the line to protect me and the people I love. When I was a kid, my parents would always tell me that if I was lost or in trouble to seek out someone in uniform. And they would help.
And that has been a privilege I have relied on for decades. Because, alternatively, black parents have to sit their black children down and tell them the exact opposite. They have to tell them not to trust the police. They have to warn them of what police do to people who look like they do.
I, as a white person, have been safe. I am ashamed to admit that I have been comfortable and complacent in my safety. That I’ve relied on it. Telling myself in my head that I wasn’t racist. Because I was a good person. I wasn’t the one implementing the racist policies. I wasn’t (egregiously) actively discriminating against PoC.
Even up until yesterday, I was still pretty comfortable. I was angry. I was upset by what was happening. I showed up to protests. But there wasn’t a visceral understanding in my body of what was at stake. Of what was happening unjustly to fellow human beings. Who deserved to be treated as such.
I’m ashamed that I needed this experience to understand an infinitesimally small fraction of what black people endure in this country on a daily basis. What their families and ancestors have experienced. What inherited trauma they bear. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t angrier before now. I’m ashamed that I’ve allowed my voice to go soft as soon as the news cycles forget the most recent murder of a black person at the hands of a police officer.
It took me experiencing a brief moment of not being able to breathe. Of thinking my life was legitimately threatened. Of seeing human beings around me panicking, scared, and unjustly harmed to really start to understand the true evil that is at play.
Physically, I’m fine. Physically, I’ll be fine. But I’m not okay. You shouldn’t be okay. None of us can be okay while this continues to happen.
So use whatever power or voice you have to challenge the status quo. To challenge that racist uncle. To protest. To show up and donate. To provide whatever services you can provide. To amplify voices, especially black and brown voices!
And especially for my white friends: your silence is violence. Speak up. Please. Say something. Do something. Anything. You don’t have to go to protests. You don’t have to put yourself in physical danger, if you’re not able to. I get it. There’s another pandemic going on, lest we forget. But please challenge your white friends and family.
And most importantly, challenge your own white self. Take a good long look at how you’re contributing to this system. The privileges our skin has afforded us. And how you can now wield that privilege and power for good.
Resources to educate yourself and others:
Actions to take:
Below is a guide copy & pasted from social media
If you can’t be on the front lines… SUPPORT IN OTHER WAYS
- Donate to a BAIL FUND in your area or around the country (phillybailfund.org is my local one)
- Donate MEDICAL SUPPLIES to people working as medics at the protests
- FEED PEOPLE — buy food and water, or make food, and donate it to those who are part of or affected by the protests
- VOLUNTEER at non-hot zone areas to supply food and water
- Continue to EDUCATE the people around you — this is also emotional labor
- PICK UP people from the hot-zone if they need it
- Offer to WATCH KIDS if their parents are organizers and need to be on the frontline
- CONFRONT RACISM wherever you see it, online and with family/friends
- SHARE LINKS to every resource for protestors you can find — bail funds, information for those arrested, safety precautions, updates for those in your area, etc
- DONATE directly to frontline people and organizations
- WRITE articles and blog posts in support of the ongoing protests
- ORGANIZE on your jobs and in your communities for fair and equitable practices
- REST is revolutionary and inherently anti-capitalist too, so do your best to rest when you can, and take care of yourself and those around you as much as possible.