It’s Wednesday morning. I sign into the eighth one-on-one student videoconference but immediately see that, on this call, with this cherished student, there’s no oxygen for talking about the final, mundane details of spring semester. The young Black woman looking at me through the computer screen is in almost unspeakable pain.
We are meeting less than 24 hours after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on all counts for the murder last May of George Floyd. Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. I always try to remember to include that because, in my experience, young people can’t forget it, and neither should we. It’s the very least we can do for Floyd and for Darnella Frazier, the brave 17-year-old Black girl who held up her phone that day and bore witness to the last minutes of his life. It’s hard for me to believe a person can watch even part of her 10-minute video and not feel something break inside.
The Chauvin verdict is an accountability, but it is not justice, my student says, and I agree. Justice would mean George Floyd was still alive and able to hold his 6-year-old daughter Gianna in his arms.
But this Wednesday morning is worse, so much worse, because minutes before the Chauvin verdict was announced, a 16-year-old Black girl named Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed in the street by a white police officer in Columbus, Ohio. An investigation is pending, but surely, I don’t have to tell you how that sounds to my student less than 24 hours later.
It’s too much on top of more than one can bear. My student, this talented and spirited young woman who has been such a fierce presence in my class, has no energy left to talk about what’s due by the end of the semester. She is the first of several Black women, current and former students, who tell me that day, without hesitation or doubt, “That girl could be me.”
I am a white woman who has never had a minute’s worry that the color of my skin would lead to the cause of my death. What is my role in this moment as a professor, a colleague, a friend?
I try to take guidance from Black friends, students and colleagues. The instruction is pretty simple: Shut up. For the sake of all that is right and holy, just shut up for a while and listen. To ignore their pain is to magnify our indifference, and filling this space with our words, our feelings, is just another way to say, “I don’t see you.”
If your daily life includes no Black friends, colleagues or neighbors, it is by choice. You can argue your “very good reasons” all you want. No one believes you, even if they like you.
Try explaining, for example, how your all-white neighborhood reflects your commitment to racial equality. I speak from shameful experience. When you don’t want to tell people where you live, it’s time to move.
There is one space in which white Americans should always be outspoken allies of Black people, and that is in the company of other white people. So often, our most uncomfortable moments are the most important ones.
For all of my 19 years as a columnist, there has been no rival for the hate mail about racism from people who look like me. The message, sometimes cloaked in Scripture but often just raw with rage, is always the same: You have betrayed your people.
If your primary requirement for love or camaraderie with another human being is a matching skin tone, your world is but a thimble bobbing on a wondrous sea. My mother would want me to pray for you, just as many of you claim to be praying for me. She’d want me to mean it, though, so I keep trying.
It’s Thursday evening now, and my mind is full of the thoughts my students have bravely shared in this sad week of never-ending pain. I am slowed by the weight of their words, struggling to imagine what it is like to be them right now.
I do not know because I cannot know, in this whiteness of being. But for them, I will keep trying.