“A Riot Is the Language of the Unheard”

I make my living with words, but some things are so large and so awful, they leave me at a loss. The death of George Floyd, and what’s happened as a result, is one of those things.

But I should try anyway, because from the outside, you can’t tell the difference between silence caused by an inability to articulate, and silence from a lack of care. And even if my words are going to be inadequate, it’s my responsibility — it’s the responsibility of all those who care, but especially white people who care — to say something anyway. Because just sitting here feeling bad about things? Gets precisely jack shit done.

One of the things that really struck me in reading Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race was her metaphor of the abuse victim, replicated on a society-wide scale. It’s easy to look at many things abusers do in isolation and think “well, that wasn’t good, no, but it wasn’t that awful, so why are you making such a big deal out of it?” But looking at them in isolation misses the point. If my husband says something hurtful to me, I can cope because he doesn’t usually say such things, and I know he didn’t mean to hurt me, and I’m confident that when I say “hey, that bothered me,” he’ll listen and apologize and avoid that in the future. In the case of an abuser, though, it’s yet another blow landing atop an existing bruise landing atop deeply-buried scar tissue — and all of that damage is also the abuser’s work.

In this situation, the abuser is society as a whole, white society most particularly, and the victim is marginalized people. Particularly marginalized ethnic groups, but others as well.

Jim Hines posted a good quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., and I’ve taken my lead from him in using part of that quote as the title for this post. What we’re seeing right now is the result of centuries of abuse, and centuries of America — white America — refusing to listen. Of white America making changes here and there, sometimes big ones (abolishing slavery), but more often small, grudging ones . . . or no changes at all. Read Jim’s post for the statistics on what institutionalized prejudice looks like. If you’re white, imagine raising your son knowing there’s a 1 in 1000 chance that he will die at the hands of the police, and ask yourself how okay you’d be with that. Imagine this has been happening to your people for decades, and before that it was Jim Crow, and before that it was slavery. And the genocide of Native Americans and everything else white America has done to people who look different.

Imagine those blows hitting, again, and again, and again, and again, while people around you say “why are you making such a big deal out of this? Why are you angry? If you want to see things change, you should ask politely.” While continuing to ignore the polite requests you’ve been making for years and decades and centuries.

And let’s be clear: if you’re thinking right now “we’ve got to vote Trump out of the White House in November,” you’re not wrong . . . but you are woefully undershooting. We can’t wait five months to start doing something, and we can’t pretend that swapping who’s at the top will be enough to fix things. Change needs to happen everywhere. And it needs to start yesterday. Right now, do you have a little money to spare? Donate to Black Lives Matter, or the NAACP, or the ACLU. Write to your local lawmakers — city, state, and federal — to push for change where you live. Ordinarily I would encourage you to find a local protest and join it, but in these times of plague, I don’t think in-person action is the best idea.

And speak up. Say something. Even if your words are inadequate. What I’ve written here certainly is — but it’s better than writing nothing.

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