I want to introduce this message with a lesson from historical fiction.
It's the summer of 1967 in Detroit, M.I. -- that is, on stage this past September at UNC-Chapel Hill's PlayMakers Repertory Company. In this world, tensions are running high between law enforcement and the black community, as they have been for the past several years since the successful congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act. For a brief moment it looked as though race relations would see improvement and that the city of Detroit would be lifted up, both culturally and in a business sense, by the black community which occupied so many of its neighborhoods. But instead, hostility is swelling and reaching a climax as black business owners are thrown curveballs by authorities, subjected to unfair searches and seizures, and prosecuted for crimes they never committed. White America is afraid and has reared its ugliest of heads; unprecedented violence erupts on city streets.
Dominique Morriseau's "Detroit '67" centers on Michelle and Langston, a brother-sister duo left with a considerable life insurance policy from a deceased father; they live comfortably, though modestly, in a home off 12th Street. Against a backdrop of 8-track motown rhythms and the occasional red-and-blue flashing lights, they debate their planned use of the money and schedule after-hours parties in their living room to bring in a bit more cash. The action is interrupted by the arrival of Caroline, an abused young woman who Lang rescues from an estranged drunken stumble one night on the side of the road. She has no place to call home and no assets to her name; mysteriously, desperately, she begs to be taken in for a week, promising to work for her keep and take a train out of town as soon as she can. Caroline, who is white, delves into political discourse with Lang once or twice; she is stunned by cops' treatment of him and his friends, and cannot at first grasp why her presence in their home is a dangerous liability.
There is a note of severe unrest in Caroline's character. While her story goes largely unexplained, it is revealed that she has been romantically and sexually involved with a married police officer whose unwillingness to take their relationship forward left her bruised and bloodied. She likes "Negro music" -- that is, she can name several black singers and describe their vocal qualities. She finds solace in dreaming aloud of happier times with the starry-eyed Lang, who begins to see her as more than a passing visitor. But the play is not a love story; it ends with Caroline's forced departure along with a dramatic increase in bloodshed. She has witnessed the effects of systematic racism firsthand and escapes their evils, in addition to her own demons, with a plan to cross the border into Canada and start a new life.
Race relations in America have seen some change over the past 50 years. I use the word "some" because while laws and certain institutions' adherence to these laws have reached better moral heights, plenty of people's attitudes have remained virtually the same. The number of innovations in technology and the types of work we do has increased dramatically, and many of us young people have taken this evidence as an automatic indicator that we live in an altogether different time. A few of of us use it in wholly damaging ways, declaring race issues moot, or at least wasted conversation. Plenty more of us do nothing at all, quietly thank the heavens for our whiteness and carry on our way.
My fellow millennials, please listen carefully: To stand on the sidelines as young white citizens and do nothing in the name of racial equality is completely unacceptable. When it comes to the killing of unarmed black men, to the indefinite incarceration of barely culpable young people of color, to the belittling and shaming of beautiful black women -- you no longer get a free pass and you do not get to make this about yourself. When you see and read things that make you angry or uncomfortable, explore those feelings and make your voice heard; do not retreat further into that which puts you at ease.
In essence, do not be a Caroline.
I want you to stop for a moment. Consider the number of times you have seen a comment on Facebook, or overheard a glimmer of conversation in which a white millennial dismissed the validity of the Black Lives Matter movement, or the destruction caused by the riots in Charlotte, or the worth of another black individual murdered. Ask yourself: How many times has this occurred this year, this month, this week, even? Who was around to hear it?
I personally see plenty of it -- on social media, especially. There is, more often than not, at least one "white crusader", there to bring intellectual "justice" to that particular thread, there to explain why your outrage is misplaced, why you haven't accurately assessed the facts at hand, why our society is actually more equal than you think. It is, more often than not, a straight white male. Funny, how it so frequently works that way.
TO THOSE PEOPLE OF COLOR WHO READ THESE COMMENTS, SEETHING, DEPRESSED AND DISHEARTENED: I SEE YOU. WE SEE YOU, THOUGH WE HAVEN'T BEEN FORTHCOMING ABOUT IT AND FOR THAT WE ARE SORRY.
As pointed out so eloquently in an essay by the writer John Metta, it is overwhelmingly easy for us white folks to take race-centered criticism personally and as a result, do nothing. We engage in political dialogue when it is convenient for us, and because we do not live it every day we miss out on the education and experience necessary to charge those feelings of outrage and embarrassment towards our current social state. Overall, we know better than to try and school people of color on the internet, backed up by random statistics and secondhand video footage. (At least, I'd like to believe we do.)
But we haven't done nearly enough in showing our support for the voices that do carry experience, that do carry the pain that we cannot begin to understand. We cannot continue to flip our political switches on and off like a finicky T.V. set, hoping someone will hand us the clear-cut opportunity to say or do something productive. We must ask questions when we feel lost or overwhelmed, and prepare ourselves to take this knowledge forward to spaces where black voices do not exist or are not welcome. This is by nature difficult, and we of all people are going to have to accept the challenge of understanding and becoming effective allies.
The American political system is deeply warped, and for the time being, wholeheartedly consumed by a greedy race between two powerful (and unequivocally white) individuals. Not all of us ordinary citizens are driven in our careers by matters of politics, and that is O.K.
But we are all humans, and the issue of treating every human with respect is not a political issue but a moral one. And so while every white millennial's situation is different -- this essay is not to say we are all bland and similar beings -- we must continue to bear in mind the validity of our black counterparts' modes of expression, and to do everything in our power to end the senseless "whitesplaining" of current racial issues. Most of all, we have to stop "checking out" of uncomfortable situations, which as we all know is so, so easy on the internet. We must remember that the Constitution guarantees all of us protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the basic rights of the accused and the security of liberty's blessings.
It is therefore important that we say: Black lives matter -- as do black voices, and the unwavering respect and support we show as white allies.