The recent verdict in St. Louis raised the alarm, once again, about race in America and the validity of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In anticipation of the ruling, the governor of Missouri ordered the national guard to be on standby, perhaps realizing that exonerating the white police officer who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith would reignite frustrations in a system that has failed African Americans.
This verdict arrived on the heels of much race-related activity. For instance, there is the disproportionate reaction to black athletes like Colin Kaepernick by the POTUS who called them all disdainful, unprintable epithets compared to his tepid and cautiously nuanced response to white supremacists who openly marched in Charlottesville in support of white nationalism.
The difference in these reactions should make us all ponder carefully and clearly. While the white nationalists, like the ones in Charlottesville, spew hatred for particular groups of Americans and seem intent on eroding the waves of progress gained painfully by so many Americans, black athletes are peacefully holding their country to a higher standard reflective of its aspirations as a nation where all citizens are valued.
These athletes, in their own way, are following in the footsteps of so many Americans who fought and sacrificed for the freedom of all Americans. So, who are the patriots? Those who want social justice for all or those who work to marginalize and oppress others?
The recent racist occurrences and outbursts are the tip of the iceberg, the most visible and public part of a deep and dangerous problem. But the part of the iceberg that lies hidden beneath the surface is much more dangerous and massive. It is that which is submerged that becomes the most subversive.
It is the story of the parents of the 5-year-old African American girl who was called an “ugly black witch” by the 5-year-old white boy in her pre-kindergarten class. It is the story of the two young black women who were pulled over in Columbia , Missouri for no other reason than the police having a suspicion that they might have weed. It is my student who was crossing the street and was almost run over by a white man in a truck who screamed “nigger” at her.
I know all these folks. I heard and understood their pain as they recounted their stories. These are happenings that occur every day, quietly adding to the subversive mass of dangerous ice below the surface.
It all seems hopeless, for how much chipping away can one group of people achieve against a system supported by the most powerful institutions and individuals? Until we are all concerned, even those of us who are not personally impacted, we remain up against a hard cold place.
Most black people know what lies beneath the surface because we have to deal with it every day. But the mainstream society seems mostly unaware of the everyday indignities that are served people of color, resulting in bursts of surprise and outrage every time the tip of the iceberg reveals itself again.
However, the tip of the iceberg is able to remain because nothing has changed beneath the surface. Perhaps it is time to plunge in and look under the surface, even if you are not personally impacted, and seek ways to act to change the shape of these hidden experiences. A recent episode struck me deeply, and I offer it here as an example of the ugliness of racism and the hope that is possible when more of us act.
My husband works in an office that has heavy customer service traffic. He is the only black man on the team. One day last week a woman came in to get some advice on her concerns. The receptionist directed her to an office where my husband was waiting to assist her.
When the woman saw my husband standing there, she whispered to the receptionist, “Will I be safe in there with him?” The only reading of this reaction is that the woman has a racist lens through which she sees the world. It was not the well-ironed shirt my husband was wearing (he is obsessive about ironing his clothes), or the pair of glasses on his handsome face that raised a spontaneous reaction of fear in her. It was simply and completely the color of his skin. This is a textbook definition of racism.
When he recounted the story that evening, my heart went out to him because this was just another example of what black folks contend with every day. Often people call in and ask to speak to someone else because they are uncomfortable with his accent. But as I processed this latest episode, I began to realize that there were three heroes (patriots?) in this story.
The first, of course, is my husband who noticed the woman’s hostility even before he heard about her comment, and yet still managed to treat her like any other client. The two other heroes were the receptionist who chose to tell my husband what the woman had whispered and the manager who heard about the encounter and called the woman to let her know that her behavior was unacceptable.
Neither of these white women were directly impacted by the racism, but someone they cared about — a colleague, a human being — had been attacked. They could have turned away, told him that he was overreacting, that the perpetrator was just a cranky lady. Instead they listened to him, absorbed part of his pain, believed him and acted to confront the source of racism. They looked beneath the surface to see a seemingly small racist act that had the potential to wound deeply.
My husband went to work the next day, still wary of the customers, but reassured that his colleagues had his back. We should never underestimate this feeling. It is now two years since a white colleague was fired ostensibly for her reaction to the events of 2015. But we know that what lay behind her reaction was that she deeply empathized and was affected by the pain of our black students.
I keep wondering how this incident and others like it have affected the ways that white bystanders react and respond to social justice issues that affect black students. This trend can be dangerous for our campus, for our community and ultimately for our democracy.
But what we need now are more people to be affected by the chill of racism, to speak up when they see something that goes against our values as a just society. We need to understand that many of the athletes and protesters in St. Louis have had experiences like this all their lives, that there is a level of exhaustion when only the affected folks chip away at the massive oppression by themselves. And, of course, we all must be intentional and adamant as we urge the wider society to rethink and reclaim the definition of “American patriot.”
Stephanie Shonekan is chair of the department of black studies and an associate professor of ethnomusicology and black studies at MU.