The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. — Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thank god for my sister. She who knows me so well, she who is the best person I know. She has the uncanny ability of calling me out without me even knowing it. Because she knows when I need it, she knows when I am burying my head in the sand out of fear.
Though I consider myself an educated individual, I rarely watch the news. I avoid my Facebook feed when yet another tragedy has befallen the human race. I flip past magazine articles or eschew the front page of the newspaper in favor of less despairing reading. But who does that serve? Though I do this out of faulty self-preservation tactics, it does not even serve me. I look to protect myself from the weight of the world, from it all being too much, but then before I know it all I see is sand. I am an ostrich.
I was forced to pull my head out of the sand and take a look at myself after a conversation with my sister on the phone this morning. I had to take a hard look at the person I am in relation to the person I want to be. As a woman of color, as a citizen of the world, as an American, as someone who believes in justice and equality and beauty. If I am a person who is all of these things, then how is it that I did not know very much about what is going on right now in the world? That I had willfully avoided the news and therefore knew next to nothing about the Black Lives Matter movement, about the recent shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile?
I was forced to take a look at myself when my sister asked if I had heard about what was going on. I was forced to admit that I knew just the bare bones of the two most current stories. The stories of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Two Black men who were shot by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively. I knew enough to know that I didn’t want to know anymore. I knew enough to know that my heart hurt, that I was frightened, that racism is, as I already knew, an institution in my country.
This country, home of the American dream, of riches and bounty, of possibility and wonder; this country was also built on the backs of Black men and women. Which, as so many of us are often quick to say, is in the past. But the past has tentacles which reach far into the future. Tentacles that taint the very fabric of our society. In a country where African Americans constitute 30% of the population yet 50% of prisoners are African American, how can anyone say otherwise? The ostrich can say otherwise, with her head buried in the sand. The ostrich, fearful of reality, can say we are all doing the best that we can.
Which I know many of us are. We are all doing the best that we can, with the tools that we have been given, in the environments where we dwell. But our best isn’t good enough if our heads are buried. Our best is pretty damn weak if we deem ourselves too fragile to face the atrocities of the world. Our best isn’t good enough if we know we live in a bubble and decide to never leave it. Which I came to realize after my phone conversation with my sister. I live in a bubble and I take its cozy environs for granted.
I live in a bubble in beautiful Sonoma County, where self-care and yoga are mainstream, where finding healthful, organic food is almost easier than finding cigarettes. I live where I am surrounded by beauty, where art and culture are valued (even though there isn’t much in the way of nightlife). I live in West County, where everyone is mostly white and many are wealthy and make wine. And I do not begrudge anyone of anything, but I do see that the urgency and the direness of our situation as a country is muted and faded in the bubble I call home.
Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself lucky to live where I do. Though I wish there was more diversity (it’s getting better), I am grateful that I do not have to worry about violence happening in my backyard. I am grateful that I wake up in the morning to the sound birds chirping and not guns firing. But just because it is not happening in my own backyard does not mean that violence and oppression do not exist. Just because I am fortunate it does not give me the right to bury my head, to turn a blind eye. I must remove my head from the sand, and not just because I am a Black woman, but because I am a human being.
There is suffering in this world, suffering at every turn, much of it that is senseless and not easily explained. But the shootings of Black men in this country, though senseless, can be explained. These shootings occur because racism is still ingrained in the practices of our government, our economy, our society, our police forces. Racism is not simply a bygone affliction. It is a lingering evil that is perpetuated by our institutions of power.
Oppression is a reality for people of color, where the color of our skin often dictates our lot in life. Even if we do manage to succeed, even if we are fortunate to live somewhere that affords more opportunity or we are able to go to school, just by being alive we run the risk of being murdered in the street or in our car. Just by being Black we run the risk of dying. Dying a senseless death, dying before it our time, dying at the hands of those who are meant to protect us.
So, at my sister’s urging, I watched the videos of Sterling and Castile’s murders. When she told me to watch them I said I didn’t think I could handle it. She made me think again when she spoke of being a mother to her son, of being a wife. Castile and Sterling could be my nephew, my brother-in-law. Sterling and Castile could be me. So I watched the videos. I watched them to remove my head from the sand, to educate myself. I watched them so I can attempt to do something in an informed way. I watched them because it serves no one to “protect” myself from the horrors of the world.
I took the first step when I watched the videos today, when I learned the names of the men who were gunned down for no reason other than they were Black. I took the second step when I reached out to the Black Lives Matter movement, asking how I can help. I may not know what to do, but I have to do something. We all have to do something. Because these killings, this violence, this ignorance and oppression, has to stop. No matter what color we are, we are all in this together. We have to be, or it will never end. And for those who don’t know, the Black Lives Matter movement strives for the equality of all ethnicities, sexual orientations, creeds. The movement gives voice to the voiceless, it works to lift up the disenfranchised, to create the world we wish to see. Which is the duty of all of us as human beings who share this world. Will you join me?
I wish you a wild, free life. (And if you do live wild and free, please don’t take that freedom for granted. Use it.)