Why Ferguson Makes Privileged White People Uncomfortable and Why We Need to Move Beyond It
As the grand jury verdict about whether to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown looms over the community of Ferguson, MO, I have noticed less and less dialogue from white social workers, academics, and people in general. I sense that the discomfort is so thick in some schools, offices, and communities that you could cut it with a knife. Why are whites so uncomfortable with the events occurring in Ferguson and why has support for addressing racial injustice in Ferguson diminished in recent weeks, especially among privileged whites?
I think that as time goes on more and more information is being disseminated across blogs, television, and social media, and it is becoming more and more difficult to discern fact from fiction. I think that the newly leaked forensic evidence makes privileged whites who once rallied in outrage with the African-American community in Ferguson, take a gigantic step back from it. The reason being is that the once accepted scenario that a young innocent African-American youth, Michael Brown, was unjustly killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, while putting is hands up in the air from a safe distance away, is likely quite inaccurate. From the great many leaks it is becoming more and more likely that Michael Brown in fact did rob a convenience store, pushed a store clerk to the ground, and attempted to charger become aggressive towards a police officer. Now, this is all still heresy until the facts come out and like any other facts, the interpretation of facts can be quite different depending on who is perceiving them. Many privileged whites are thus thinking deep down inside, that all of the protests, demonstrations, and violence occurring over the incident of the perceived unjust killing of Michael Brown is for nothing, because the shooting may have been justified and at worse, that Mr. Brown played a bigger role in the event than was first put forth by friends, family, the media, and by some in Ferguson. What whites don’t realize is that regardless of whether or not the forensics demonstrate that the “hands-up” story was false, it still does not mean that the police officer was justified in his shooting of Mr. Brown, who was unarmed at the time. It also does not mean that the events that have taken place in the wake of the shooting and subsequent months including; leaving Mr. Brown’s body lying in the street for countless hours, a lack of transparency by police, numerous violations of citizen rights, and the potential for people to raise issues about evidence tampering due to the screw-ups by investigators and high profile nature of the case, are not justification for outrage by the community of Ferguson. What whites and outsiders also don’t understand is the killing of Mr. Brown was simply a precipitating event that set off a fire of racial difference and injustice that has been ready to spark for a long time coming. One of the worse parts is that privileged whites, when they feel uncomfortable, generally clam up and just stop talking about their feelings and thinking because they are too uncomfortable to talk about race and difference. Privileged whites are polite, we keep our most intimate thoughts about racial tensions and difference somewhere deep inside, and are careful to not approach the topic in the workplace, classroom, place of worship, or community.
What whites must also understand is that much of the violence seen on television is not reflective of how community members in Ferguson feel about the issue or what should be the appropriate course of action. Have you not heard the family’s many pleas for peaceful protest? Most of the agitators and those looting stores are not from Ferguson. Let’s give our neighbors more credit than that, the average African-American in Ferguson is not going to destroy a local business, harm a neighbor (white, brown, or black), or blame or hate all white people. Whites, even well intentioned and educated ones, are so uncomfortable still in 2014 when it comes to discussing race and difference, so many whites make the choice to say nothing. Well, saying nothing is not an option for us, especially those in education, social work, and helping professions. We have a responsibility as people with white privilege to not clam up, to raise issues, open dialogue, challenge irrational thinking, and continue to fight injustices within the systems that are behind the inequality in Ferguson and around our country. In the words of Desmond Tutu –If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. I challenge other whites to confront their own privilege and discomfort over Ferguson and other issues of race and difference by speaking about them, struggling with them, opening up dialogues in your spaces, and learning to accept that being in a constant place of discomfort is a good think when it comes to addressing injustice of any kind.