On the second Tuesday of May I finally made it to my first meeting of S.U.R.J. Buffalo. They are an organization of white folks showing up for racial justice. Since I first heard of them some months ago, I’ve wanted to make it to one of their meetings to find out who they are and what they’re about.
They are an organization of white people who acknowledge that while their experience may be completely different, they nonetheless have a place, an obligation, to be actively mobilized toward the cause of racial justice. I was greeted very warmly, as if I was a visiting ambassador. People just wanted to acknowledge that I was there, and see to it that I didn’t feel out of place as any good host would. I appreciated that, but didn’t want to attract too much attention to myself. Remembering one of the principals from my high school science classes; there is a certain amount of impact that being observed has on the observed in and of itself. I wanted my presence to minimize that impact as much as was possible to do so.
One of the first things they did was read the names we know about of unarmed blacks who have died at the hands of police or in police custody in the past few years, and allow a moment of reflection about them. Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Philando Castile, Buffalo’s Wardel Davis, and others. To my surprise, many of these white folks began openly sobbing and weeping. In that moment, I realized I’ve never allowed myself to cry openly for these people. And for the first time, I found myself wanting to cry.
When a loved one dies, those around the family left behind are expected to be strong to leave ample room for the most immediately impacted to experience their grief fully. Everyone can’t fall apart at the same time. At best, none of the practicalities would be seen to, at worst anarchy would ensue. So the rest of the black community holds it together while the deceased one’s mother, children, sister and wife are free to experience their full range of heartache.
I said surprised earlier because I expected to find among this group hippy white folks who saw racial injustice as scant more than an abstract, and these dead men as “cause celebre du jour” receptacles for their impotent white guilt. These people cried like any one of these men could have been their neighbor, their son’s best friend that they watched play in their yard when he was knee-high-to-a-grasshopper, their niece’s baby daddy. Seeing them truly shoulder the load of what’s going on today as if it is their own too finally gave me room to fully experience my own fear and sadness. Black folks need that so that we can get up everyday, continue seeing the injustices, and keep going without losing our minds all together. We need others to say “yes, we see you, and we suffer too. Your sorrow is our sorrow.”
To black folks, I want to say to you that we have sincere white allies out here. Sometimes they don’t always know the right thing to say or to do, but they’re showing up. And they’re trying, they really are. These folks could have been at home helping their kids with their homework on a weeknight, ironing their clothes for work tomorrow, or just chillin’ on the couch watching reruns of Friends on tbs, but they were in the city braving the notoriously bad Elmwood Ave. parking trying to figure out what they need to know in order to do their share.
To white folks still wondering “what am I supposed to do?”, start with seeing that black struggles are American struggles, period. We are American citizens, we are your neighbors, your family, we are you. And if the state and the markets can find something as fickle as the color of our skin to justify denying us rights belonging to any and every citizen, begin to disengage yourself of the capricious fantasy that having the correct skin color and following all the rules just so keeps you categorically safe. During last decade’s mortgage crisis the banks and the entities that govern them didn’t care what color you were, but you mattered little enough for them to rob your house out from under you just the same.
Once you really, really see that we’re all in this together, what needs to be done next will show itself to you. I promise.