Last night, thanks to my sister and the Chicago Humanities Festival, I went to a reading by Roxane Gay. It was great. She’s just as sharp and interesting in person as she is in carefully drafted written work.
After she read, she took questions from the audience. One woman asked for expansion on a comment Ms. Gay had made about allies and allyship (in another context–I don’t recall the context, but here is apiece at Elle which makes a similar point. I believe) and Ms. Gay asked all of us how many of us had had a conversation yesterday about Charleena Lyles. Or Nabra Hassanen.
I have had a conversation this week about Charleena Lyles. But it was a conversation among people who all agree, first about the unvarnished tragedy of her death. A pregnant woman who had called the police for help, asked for assurances that she would not be harmed, and then was shot to death in her home with three children at home. Nothing here is justified.
It was a conversation, second, about the absolute failure of police training, of police procedure, of police recruitment & hiring, of individual police officers in the United States. Among people who all believe these failures to be true.
It was a conversation, third, about the examined and unacknowledged racism that still pervades American institutions. Among people who try to learn about and see the unalloyed racism at the root of our structures.
I am certain that’s not the conversation Ms. Gay was talking about.
She was talking about me having that conversation with a person who would defend two police officers shooting a small women who called the officers to her home for help because they thought she was concealing a knife. Or with someone who does not think it was inappropriate to respond to a call for help prepared to shoot the woman who called. Or with someone who thinks de-escalation was not the proper choice in the situation.
Or with someone who thinks police are under siege. Or with someone who believes police not subject to bias, whether conscious or not. Or someone who does not believe there is a pattern of police violence against people of color.
Or with someone who is offended at the suggestion racism permeates all our official structures.
I know those people. I know who some of those people that I know are. But I know I do not know who some of those people are. I find myself wondering: which is the more useful conversation? I’ll admit straight up that I avoid the first one. I know I’ll be angry and I worry that, especially now, I won’t be able to temper myself.
Nearly ten years ago, I pushed back in a conversation with a woman roughly my mother’s age. I had said something offhand about the exorbitant phone rates for calls to and from inmates in Illinois prisons (Chicago Reporter story) (Recent legislation on the issue). She had reflexively said something about not feeling sorry for them and prison not being about fun and who cares. I tried to gently point out that people in prison very rarely stay there their whole lives. That the come back to the cities and towns they left. And isn’t it better that they be able to stay in touch with their families while they’re gone? So that the relationships remain intact so they have something to go home to? Somewhere they can be while they readjust? And isn’t it better to not further burden the finances of the families who are trying to get by without whatever income or household support the prisoner once provided? I don’t know how successful I was, but I remember I remained calm. I remember I did not embarrass myself. I remember I did not make anyone visibly angry.
I really don’t think those things would happen if I tried to confront the unexamined racism of the people I know. In fact, only a few short years later, I was inarticulate and angry at someone who made a disrespectful comment about Eric Garner. And I was ashamed at their callousness and ashamed at my inability to speak calmly and persuasively about their error. And I have not tried to engage since. Either with the people I know are not working on their personal relationship with America’s racism or the people I don’t know are not working on it.
Which may have been part of Ms. Gay’s point. How useless my own work toward understanding is if I only share it with people who are already undertaking that work themselves. And so she’s right.
I don’t recall the comment about allyship Ms. Gay had been asked about. A short internet search pulled up this essay at Marie Claire which seems about right.