On The Luxury of White Surprise
Content note: this post — and the links it includes — contain discussion of anti-black and anti-trans homicides, racism and cissexism in the prison industry, and domestic violence. Respect your spoons.
Photo Credit: Daniel Arauz.
The night the state murdered Troy Davis, the news hit me like a horse-hoof to the face. I couldn’t understand. …Just like I couldn’t understand the ongoing imprisonment of Marissa Alexander or CeCe McDonald; — surely, in another few days, they’d each be released. Surely, this couldn’t keep up. In another few days and another few days, they were both still in prison* and Renisha McBride had been shot dead for stumbling from her car to a doorstep. (Something I have done and survived.) In another few days, there were more names I didn’t know, to try and remember.
After Trayvon Martin was murdered, I shared everything I could — on his death and on George Zimmerman’s trial — everything short of the #WeAreAllTrayvon tags and the “I Am Trayvon” images. Those I left untouched. I am not Trayvon. I will never have to live with what he and millions of young people like him face daily. I don’t know how I will die, but I know I do not live with the threat that killed them.
I can’t imagine that threat. Can’t imagine. The same way I couldn’t imagine that the state would execute Troy Davis, couldn’t fathom how charges were so slowly filed against Zimmerman and Wafer, couldn’t conceive how those charges might lead to acquittal. The night George Zimmerman was acquitted, I did not immediately hear the news. A few minutes after the devastated, angry, (and godhelpus, the triumphant) messages started to pour across my Twitter feed, my girlfriend Melissa and I were still reading an outdated article about the jury’s request for clarification on the manslaughter charge. It was a good sign, the report said. It suggested the charges were being considered, seriously, that a full acquittal was unlikely. I leaned back against the pillows, cushioned from the wall and said, with utter certainty, “I can’t imagine how they could acquit.”
I can’t imagine. I said this, to Melissa, who agreed with a nod, even as she was seeing the first – unfathomable – reports that they had.
As a white person, I experience these crimes in a context of Whiteness, so often considered irrelevant, so often unconsidered, full stop. I’m explicitly protected, personally, from these kinds of loss. This makes them difficult to imagine, which makes me lucky. It makes me lucky in a way that makes me sick.
Because, make no mistake, my response to each of these losses was a White response. My disgust and my sadness and my heartbreak may be human, but my shock, my overwhelming shock, is colored White. It’s the response of a person raised to expect that, more often than not, the ‘justice’ system will live up to its name. It’s rooted, not just in disappointment and fury and grief, but also in surprise. The surprise of someone unaccustomed to attending funerals for family members not yet 21. Not accustomed to seeing those she loves profiled, threatened, and shot to death. Not accustomed to seeing their murderers freed and given back their guns.
(This is not to say that Black people have some superhuman strength that makes this bearable. That, too, is a White image. It’s to say that, socially, we have long since stripped them of the luxury of this surprise).
Because I am White, these atrocities enter my life as news stories — devastating news stories — but news stories, nonetheless. They enter my life as trending topics and headlines. I have the option to close the browser window or turn the radio dial to ‘off.’ If I were not White, I would not have the same out. I could, perhaps, move onto the topic du jour next week. I would probably not have the luxury to let this deep-seated injustice — racism — consume me. But without Whiteness, my life would not be structured as it is, in a way that encourages me to forget.
As it is, I can change my blacked-out profile picture back to my face and move forward. Forget Trayvon Martin, this one particular miscarriage of justice. Forget Marissa Alexander (whose name I just Googled. So easy. So easy not to remember). I can forget these names and all the others — past, present, and future–I can simply never learn.
The night George Zimmerman was acquitted, I turned off my phone and drew Melissa close. I kissed a line down her freckles, as I have a thousand times before. For the first time, it occurred to me, with a wave of relief, how lucky I am to be in love with someone who’s white. The thought — and the fact that I’d never had it before — scared me further. I worry about losing Melissa — to disease, to car accidents, even (yes) to homophobic hate crimes. But I’m lucky. We’re both lucky. Yes, we’re careful about when we kiss, when we hold hands, when we stare lovey-dovey-style into each other’s eyes. No, it’s not fair that we have to be cautious. But it’s a choice we can make, to protect ourselves. It’s a choice queer people of color make as well, even as they’re putting their hands outside the car to show a police officer they have no weapon. Melissa and I, we keep our hands in the car. We wear hoodies, buy Skittles, and have car trouble with immunity.
When I choose not to see that, I’m complicit in it. When I choose not to remember, I’m complicit. When I choose not to learn, when I choose not to act, when I choose not to fund, when I choose not to argue, I’m complicit.
I am not likely to make all the right choices, all the just choices, every day for the rest of my life. I hope I will have the strength to do better when I’m called out on the wrong ones. I hope I will remember, that we will all remember, what a lucky, unfair thing it is to have this awareness and this burden be a choice.
*CeCe McDonald was released on January 13, after serving 19 month’s in a men’s prison. Laverne Cox is currently producing a documentary that highlights CeCe’s story and similar experiences. You can help fund it here.