I did not always have ears to hear.
When people told me that young black men were sometimes shot in this country by police, I would respond with a small shake of the head. How sad. But in my heart I would not really believe. That could not possibly be true. Police are here to protect us. This is America, this is the twenty-first century. People do not simply get gunned down for being black. That is history. That simply does not happen anymore. In my heart of hearts, I am very ashamed to admit, there was a tiny whisper: Surely they did something to deserve it.
I did not always have eyes to see.
People tried to tell me that this lens I see life through is a white one. But what did they know? They did not know about me and my struggles. White kids could grow up poor too. I was disabled for goodness sake, okay. I knew about teachers treating me poorly just because of my body. I knew about having it rough. How dare someone tell me my life was privileged. Didn’t they know just how hard I worked?
I did not always walk humbly.
I knew. Okay? I got it. I was an inner-city teacher. I was saving the world. Racist thoughts, racist ideas? Not me. I was better than all of that, and I proved it every day by teaching at a black school. I was down.
But then my husband got a job coaching speech at a historically black college. And when I traveled with the fine men of Morehouse, some of the brightest in the country, I got asked if I was okay. More than once I got asked if I was okay. Because surely a white woman traveling with a bunch of young black men is in danger. Because surely young black men are dangerous.
But then I started working at an all black high school. And when my darkest, dread-locked student went to grab a pencil, there was something in my mind that told me I was in danger. For a split second I was sure it was a gun. Because somewhere in my own mind and heart, something told me that my black boys were dangerous. Something no one had ever taught me. Something I had never wanted to learn.
Aug. 14, 2014 - Ferguson, MO, USA - Ariel Elliott, 6, of Ferguson, Mo., protests for her first time on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, in front of the burned out QuikTrip in Ferguson. Elliott was supposed to start her first day of first grade today at Ferguson-Florissant Schools, but the district opening has been delayed because of the protests. (Credit Image: © Laurie Skrivan/MCT/ZUMA Wire)
But then a student came to tell me that her brother got shot. By a cop, on a rural road in Georgia, and he bled out on her white dress while the cop sped off. She had to call 911 and comfort him as he died in her arms while the ambulance came wailing to her aid. There was never an investigation.
But then I got an email a few days before school started that one of last year's students had been shot. And there was no news story or vigil. There was no call to action or call to arms. Just an email. FYI one of your students has been shot. It happens sometimes.
But then I moved into a predominantly black neighborhood and some of my friends expressed fear of my neighbors. The neighbors who sat on their porch and fed my dog all day when we left our front door wide open. My neighbors didn’t want to shut my door, just in case we wanted it like that, so they watched it instead. The neighbors who have mowed my lawn, invited me to their birthday parties, held the packages that came to my house. And some people asked why I would live in the ghetto, and wondered aloud if I was concerned for the safety of my kids. Not because of the crime report (my neighborhood is very safe), but because they assumed that black people are dangerous.
But then we put our daughter in the neighborhood school, and people want to ask me about her safety. My four-year-old in a classroom of other four-year-olds. Who did they think was going to hurt her?
And I began to hear.
I began to hear that there was a distinct danger you face every day if people just assume that you are dangerous because you are black and you are male. And I began to hear the stories of police brutality, of unnecessary aggression, of my sophomore boys being treated like criminals simply because of their bodies.
I began to finally hear, that just because it didn’t happen to me did not mean it did not happen.
And I began to see.
I began to see that my skin granted me access to pretty much anywhere I wanted to go. I began to see how no one ever starts out aggressively toward me, because I am never seen as a threat. I began to understand that my students, my colleagues, my neighbors were not granted the same access, the same pass.
I began to see the injustice of this world, and the ways in which I was purposefully ignoring it.
And when I look back at how much it took to have my eyes open to see and my ears open to hear, I am ashamed.
I am ashamed that I did not seek to understand until I had to. I am ashamed that I did not choose to see until it was right in front of my eyes. I am ashamed, that until I had people that I loved who were being affected by racism, I was completely oblivious to its existence.
My heart was hard. I was only concerned with injustice when it was hurting people I loved. It should not have taken someone I know dying for me to care that innocent people were dying. It should not have taken me knowing them personally for me to believe that they were innocent.
I was blind, I was deaf, I was proud.
I am praying the people of this country have softer hearts than mine. I am praying that we are broken over Mike Brown and that brokenness is only a beginning. I am praying we listen when we are told that this is only one of many. I am praying we hear when brown mothers tell us they fear for their babies’ lives. I am praying we do something when our eyes and ears are opened to injustice. I am praying we speak out, we reach out, we educate ourselves. I am praying we care.
I am praying for eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts that are moved into action.
It is not enough to stand with Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin. It is not enough to feel bad about the black men and women being killed because they are presumed dangerous. It is not enough.
We need to open our eyes. We need to stop and listen. This is not the first time this has happened, and this is not the first time we have been told. May Ferguson be the catalyst for our hearts to move into action. May our hearts be heavy that it has taken this long.