Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd. Three martyrs were born between February and May, 2020. Their deaths graphically highlighted the system of oppression and weak peace that exists in the United States of America. Their deaths have torched the veil of White American ignorance concerning inequality, police brutality, and institutionalized racism.
The resulting protests and booming voices erupting throughout American cities and towns have given White America a loud, shocking, and very painful kick in the gut demanding that we check our white privilege, mine the depths of our American conscience, and change.
Discussions of Black Lives Matter, of racism, and of police brutality in America confront us with the realities of white privilege. The freedoms we as white people enjoy and take for granted daily include: the privilege to sleep in our beds without being shot, the privilege of going for a run without being trapped and killed by men brandishing guns and weaponizing a truck, and the privilege of entering a convenience store without the fear of being accosted by police, having a knee placed on our neck, and dying.
These most recent examples of brutality against African Americans highlight the extraordinary privilege White America enjoys when it comes to death. By and large, White Americans are privileged with the assumption that we will mostly likely die from old age.
This is a blog about grief. Yet here I am writing about the privilege attached to White American death.
The African American community has had little choice in how they die since they were forcibly brought to American shores in slave ships four hundred years ago. Many died from starvation or disease on the way to the colonies. Those who made it to America and the islands died from perils associated with farming on cotton or sugar plantations, at the hands of the masters, during escape attempts, from malnutrition, and disease. Many babies born into slavery didn’t survive their first year because of malnutrition.
The life expectancy of Black Americans didn’t reach 70 years old until 1974 (for women) and 2007 (for men).
White America, on the other hand, has largely been allowed to live out our natural life expectancy. We were also privileged enough to be able to mourn our relatives, and to say goodbye to family and friends. White women reached the age of 72 by 1950 and white men hit 70 in 1977.
When we have had the misfortune to die by the hand of another, we have had support from local communities and sometimes the nation.
In the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries, after news-making deaths of African Americans, White America typically engaged in some form of performative justice and, more recently, enacted hashtag activism that promises Never Again. But once the dust settled, the majority of White Americans returned to a privileged life from which we admonished the bereaved, blamed the victim, shamed the community, and discussed what they could have done to prevent the outcome of the event. We clucked our tongues at the poor victims, shook our heads in disbelief, and shrugged our shoulders in a helpless way. What could we do? Things will change…one day. They will change things one day….
We absolved ourselves of responsibility to make things change within the community in which we hold the power.
In short, White Americans have been terrible grief supporters in the wake of four hundred years of trauma, premature death, and abuse the African Americans have suffered.
Upon hearing the death of Lazarus, in the Gospel of John, Jesus journeys to Judea and Lazarus’s tomb. He visits Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, and sits with the mourning family. John 11:35 gives us the shortest but, I feel, the most profound statement of love found in the New Testament:
Jesus didn’t cry momentary tears in sympathy with the family. Jesus cried in sadness, in empathy, and in solidarity. When Jesus finishes weeping he does not return to Jerusalem to take up business as usual. He did not encourage the family to move on from their grief. He did not tell them that this was just the way of the world. He did not tell them if they behaved more like him maybe Lazarus wouldn’t have died. Instead, Jesus went to the tomb of Lazarus and raised him from the dead.
While we cannot bring a person back to life, White America can exhibit the humanity and compassion of Jesus: we can weep with sincere empathy and then we can take action.
We can put aside our hashtag activism and performative justice, and stop engaging in Facebook arguments with unchangeable, bigoted people and say that we are “doing our part.” Hashtags, empowering posts, and fighting with your Uncle Joe don’t change the circumstances of institutional racism in the country.
Action does. Impact does.
What can White Americans do?
- We can do focus on making a lasting impact using the tools our privilege has given us.
- We can march and protest.
- We can refuse to work for companies that push an agenda of institutional racism and white supremacy.
- We can donate clothes, money, time, and services.
- We can invite people into our home and share our hospitality and our privilege.
- We can employ the unemployed and the underemployed.
- We can support Black owned businesses through purchases or donations.
- We can put our money in Black owned banks.
- We can push for curriculum change in schools, and develop classes that teach the legacy of slavery in America, the history of civil disobedience and noncooperation, the fundamentals of religious and racial tolerance, and the history of white supremacy in America.
- We can educate ourselves on the actual history of Black America from slavery until the present (not the white-washed version).
- We can teach our children to be anti-racist from birth.
- We can educate ourselves on America’s history of white supremacy so that we can better identify the causes and conditions that create it and prevent it from swelling again.
- We can join school boards and athletic boards and church boards and local business boards.
- We can establish quotas for our cities and towns requiring a specific allotment of positions to non-whites so that all voices are heard.
- We can demilitarize police departments and encourage them to truly live out the motto: “Protect and Serve.”
- We can focus on community building.
- We can encourage multicultural exchanges between city and town residents.
As grief supporters, the most important thing that we can do is LISTEN. We can listen without prejudice and without a self-centered agenda. We can listen and then DO what is asked of us.
Those who are grieving, those who have suffered ambush after ambush of emotional trauma, those who have spent four hundred years crying out in pain asking White America to remove its knees and nooses from their necks…they have never had a chance to heal. And that is our fault.
I am trained as a scholar of Theology and Religious Studies. I taught peace studies and conflict resolution. I wrote on the literary imagination’s response to trauma and suffering (or, how culture uses literature to approach and heal trauma and suffering). I put peace studies aside to focus on grief. I am writing a handbook on how to increase self-care after loss. I am proud of my new turn of research but I still feel called to my former topics.
My mission in this blog is to call for a more compassionate culture, especially when it comes to grief and loss. In light of the recent events and the country’s movement forward in addressing its weak peace and dismantling systems of institutionalized racism, I feel that I have to expand my mission to address the landscape before me.
I hope you will indulge my divergence, from time to time, into more academic discussions of loss and grief, in the historical, religious, and literary/artistic contexts. I am not abandoning my focus on grief, just adding to it.
The fight for civil rights is not over; the education of White America is just beginning. In an effort to help infuse compassion and love into society, I wish to share what I know and what I learn in my own reeducation efforts. Become change. Help today. Help every day.